Citizen Action Monitor

The Big Picture – Hagens sees the rapid decline of the natural world as a crisis as big as climate change

“There’s no easy way to present this next topic,” warns Hagens, his students insisting he not candy-coat the story.

No 2560 Posted by fw, December 19, 2019 – (Set 3: The Big Picture – No. 5 of 8)

To access links to other posts by Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament, click on this linked Tab  Teachings of Dr. Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament – Links to Posts

Dr. Nate Hagens

“There’s no easy way to present this next topic, but I’ve been asked by many of my students to not candy-coat the non-human, nature situation. So, this short video is a kind of rip-the-band-aid-off summary of some of the trends of the natural world. In my experience, some of you will be shocked by the following statistics; some of you will shrug and not be overly bothered, and some of you will choose to devote some portion of your life working to change these trends. I can’t tell you how to feel after hearing these facts about human impacts on the natural world. I will say, though, that if you feel sad or upset or angry, I think that’s a good sign because it’s how a sane person should feel about these issues. I’d be worried if you were unmoved or unconcerned. Still, this is intense stuff, especially when presented all at once. So maybe watch this one with a friend.” –-Nate Hagens

Okay, let’s jump in at the deep end with a “no candy-coating” video clip trailer of a documentary that Hagens highly recommends as “great and worth-watching”, featuring the shocking story of large die-offs of albatross populations –

In a profound and deeply moving conclusion to his video, Nate Hagens shares with us the profound personal difference communing with nature has had on his life. He warns that while magic remains in the natural world, if our impacts on nature continue apace, today’s youth will not live long enough to experience that magic. If all we do is gather around us the material “trophies” of our success, we will continue to strip value from the real stock market – our place in the human ecosystem. “Being aware of who we are, [and] what we’re doing is the first step in changing this,” he declares.

My repost, below, of Hagens’ video 5 of 8 in Set 3 of The Big Picture videos, includes the embedded video, my added subheadings, text highlighting, selected images, minor editing changes, and my full transcript.

Alternatively, watch video 5, without my transcript, by clicking on the following linked title.

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Externalities Part 3: The Web of Life: The Big Picture: Set 3, No. 5 of 8 by Nate Hagens, Reality 101 – UMN Nexus One, March 25, 2019 (13:33 min)

TRANSCRIPT

There’s no easy way to present this next topic, but I’ve been asked by many of my students to not candy-coat the non-human, nature situation. So, this short video is a kind of rip-the-band-aid-off summary of some of the trends of the natural world. In my experience, some of you will be shocked by the following statistics; some of you will shrug and not be overly bothered, and some of you will choose to devote some portion of your life working to change these trends. I can’t tell you how to feel after hearing these facts about human impacts on the natural world. I will say, though, that if you feel sad or upset or angry, I think that’s a good sign because it’s how a sane person should feel about these issues. I’d be worried if you were unmoved or unconcerned. Still, this is intense stuff, especially when presented all at once. So maybe watch this one with a friend.

Okay. Here goes – a quick overview.

Just 20,000 years ago luge mammals roamed around North America

20,000 years ago, North America was a super Serengeti [District in Tanzania] containing more big megafauna [large mammals] than present-day Africa. We had lions and cheetahs and saber-toothed tigers, giant bears, giant beavers, giant armadillos bigger than a Volkswagen. Hardly anyone knows this fact [relevant to] 20,000 years ago. But somehow we’re all aware of T-Rex and Velociraptors from 70 million years ago.

Then, humans numbered in the few millions – Today, humans and their livestock are 98% of land mammals

20,000 years ago was before the agricultural revolution. Humans numbered in the few millions of individuals, and relative to wild animals we were a tiny rounding error. As you might guess, the situation today is strikingly different. If you take the weight of all the mammals on the planet, 96% of this total is now humans and our livestock, mostly cows and pigs. Wild mammals are now less than 4% of the total weight. And if you exclude ocean creatures, humans and our livestock make up 98% of terrestrial mammals.

Why doesn’t everyone know this fact? Have we been living in a kind of Twilight Zone?

How doesn’t everyone know this? This is a profound reshaping of the composition of living creatures. I’ve always known that humans numbered in the billions, but didn’t learn until a few years ago that we, and our livestock, outweigh wild mammals by a ratio of 50 to 1. This feels like a Twilight Zone sort of thing to say on a You Tube video. The first time I learned this I felt I had been punched.

Populations of vertebrates have declined by 52% since 1970 due to habitat loss, degradation and other factors

A recent report called the Living Planet Index found that populations of vertebrates – which are any animals with backbones – have declined by 52% since 1970. The highest area, shown in the map above in yellow and red, are either areas of high animal biodiversity or high human population density or both. The report attributes these declines primarily to habitat loss and degradation, hunting and fishing and climate change. But industrial farming – growing more food for more people – is also to blame for much of this loss of nature.

Human economies use one-third of all new chemical energy leaving the balance for millions of other species

These impacts tie to the scale of how much of Earth’s income we direct to human systems. Each year on Earth the sun combines with rain and soil to generate new chemical energy via plant growth. After accounting for their own respiration*, the total of this annual growth is referred to as “net primary productivity.” Human economies, by redirecting biomass and crops, appropriate approximately one-third of all this net primary productivity, leaving the other two-thirds for millions of other species.  [*A process in living organisms involving the production of energy, typically with the intake of oxygen and the release of carbon dioxide from the oxidation of complex organic substances].

There have been significant declines in global bird populations over the past 50 years

This relationship holds between domestic and wild birds as well. Around 70% of the birds alive today on this planet are chickens and turkeys, with only 30% being wild species. Yes, this is partially dues to more people eating more chicken, but additionally there have been significant declines in global bird populations over the past 50 years. Two groups of birds have been especially affected: grassland species, which have been hurt by conversion of their habitat into farmland, and insect eaters such as swallows and fly catchers whose decline is less well understood but may be a result of falling insect populations which are related to pesticide use and chemicals.

Intensive agriculture is the main driver of declines of insect species, now threatened with extinction

Speaking of insects, or invertebrates, they’ve decreased by 45% on average over the past 35 years. Over 40% of the insect species on this planet are now threatened with extinction. This rate of insect extinction is 8 times faster than that of mammals, birds, and reptiles. According to the best recent data, the total mass of insects on planet Earth is falling by 2.5% per year. If true, that’s a crazy thing to contemplate. The research  suggests intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines, particularly the heavy use of pesticides. Urbanization and climate change are also significant factors.

Could humans exist without the ecosystem services from insects? Time will surely tell

It’s unclear that humans could exist without the ecosystem services from insects, since we’ve never had to. Insects provide pollination, pest control, nutrient cycling, decomposition and food for other species. They’re trillions of tiny robots doing jobs for our ecosystem for which there are no replacements.

Phthalates, microscopic toxic pollutants from industrial chemicals, are also harmful to insects and to ocean organisms

Furthermore, brand new research on insect loss has suggested another possible contributing factor – the global presence of phthalates. Phthalates are petrochemicals in plastic products that break down and become airborne. Phthalates have been found in almost all ant populations studied in remote areas of the Amazon, suggesting that somehow atmospheric particles are being transported over long distances by wind. These toxic, persistent organic pollutants from industrial chemicals have also been found at extraordinary levels within organisms in the deepest place in the oceans – the Mariana Trench.

It’s hard to measure how many creatures will be harmed by these toxic pollutants

It seems our shifted [external] costs have a wide reach. We don’t know what impact this has or will have. There are pretty large error bands on much of this research and it’s hard to really accurately quantify such large numbers of creatures because it’s not like we have armies of scientists funded for such micro impacts, but the trends, regardless of the causes, are unmistakable.

Chemical pollutants are also suspected of decreasing sperm counts in male humans

Chemical pollutants are also impacting our own species. Sperm counts in Western males have dropped by more than 50% in the last 40 years. We don’t fully know why but the leading candidates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals from chemicals, from plastics, pesticides, and dietary exposures. Again, we don’t know the impact of decreasing sperm count and so far it has not led to a corresponding decrease in pregnancies. The scientists I’ve spoken to on this are much more worried about human sperm quality than quantity.  But, again, this is a worrisome trend that we don’t fully understand.

Equally dangerous are trillions of larger pieces of plastics impacting life in and near the world’s oceans

But it’s not just microscopic chemical pollutants, but bigger pieces as well. Over 5 trillion pieces of plastic are estimated to float in the world’s oceans today. At this pace there will be more plastic than fish before 2050. We don’t fully know the impact of plastics on the food webs of the ocean but we do know already that many seabirds and animals are attracted to their color and shape and mistake them for food. Large die-offs and, for example, albatross populations, due to plastic consumption, were the theme of a great and worth watching new movie called Albatross.

Doubly deadly — Indigestible materials from dead creatures are being re-ingested by living wildlife

Other species from turtles to seals to dolphins, whales and endangered large fish are becoming stuffed with indigestible materials which slowly starve them. Most sink from sight and are re-eaten continuing and worsening this cycle of physical bioaccumulation. This picture is from yesterday’s news – a whale had 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

The matter of food product sustainability is another externality not include in food pricing

So, another externality not included in the price of our food, is how sustainable a product is. As long as there’s plenty today the market price doesn’t reflect scarcity. But 6 of the 7 main fisheries in Earth’s oceans are either tapped to their maximum or in an overfished state. The good news is, if a still-healthy ocean fishery is largely left alone for 7 years it has the ability to completely recover.

Encouraging signs of increasing public awareness of these threats

There are also some encouraging signs that people are waking up to these problems. Unlike climate and ocean risk, which are direct impacts from how much energy we use, many of the impacts I just described in this video are the result of what we do with all this energy. So, to some degree they can be mitigated and changed. The entire European Union just banned single-use plastic items due to public awareness and pressure on this issue.

The bad news is that increasing public awareness may not be lasting

People are now becoming aware of the precious existence of our remaining megafauna and this could in principle make a difference. Former NBA basketball star Yao Ming has widespread campaigns in his native China that socially shame people against eating shark-fin soup or buying or owning ivory. Yet this strategy has been attempted for decades and the trend still remains scary.

A plea for awareness of the non-economic value of the creatures that share the Earth with us

09:20 — I’ll wrap up with a return to the armadillo example. Think for a moment how delightful it is that armadillos exist to share the planet with us. If you took a walk and encountered an armadillo, your day would be enriched. At the point we decide they have a value, apart from what we might do with their shells, we may find that, while not being for anything, these creatures make the world a more interesting and valuable place in which to live.

But increasingly many populations of creatures are at risk, creating cascading effects on ecosystems

We are related to every single creature living on Earth. Most of us share some general feeling that our world is teeming with wonderful species that exist in harmony as they have throughout human existence. This is unfortunately becoming less true as wild populations diminish to smaller and smaller remnants of what existed as recently as your parents and grandparents time. We are not yet at a mass extinction event, but what is happening, is many populations are at risk, which, in turn, has cascading effects on ecosystems.

No value is assigned to these creatures or to our economies, unless they are converted into consumer products. They’re externalities

Why is this a problem? Why does it matter if the seas’ whales are replaced with jellyfish, swordfish with bacteria, rainforests with dry savannas, songbirds with silence? This is a question we each have to ask, because no value is assigned to these creatures and [to] our economic systems, unless they’re converted into a product which can be sold.

Probing questions for us to contemplate

What is it worth to us to live in a world shared with ecosystems full of interesting, beautiful, and healthy wild species? Is it worthless, or priceless? Can we even know what we’ve lost once the world’s largest animal is the cow? And butterfly migrations can only be found on You Tube?

Everyone watching this video is alive at this inflection point, this brink beyond which biological systems may collapse in thousands of ways. Do we just watch it happen? Or do we engage with these issues in ways more effective than anyone so far has managed to?

Nate Hagens shares the profound personal difference communing with nature has had on his life

One of my greatest joys each morning is checking my wildlife camera to see what creatures came through in the night. Over the years there’s been quite a variety. This is a fisher cat. I was so excited to know this creature lives in the woods by my house. After learning about nature and experiencing it, I no longer think of just a badger, but the badger, or that badger.

Until we recognize or feel our kinship with nature, the horrendous trends will not change

I think that until we recognize or feel a kinship with nature, and this consciousness bubbles into our cultural value system, the trends described in this video will not change.

Two reasons why Hagens include this video in Set 3, The Big Picture

I did not have to include this video in this series. But I did, for two reasons:

1/ The rapid decline of the natural world is a crisis at least as big as climate change; and

2/ Connecting the dots that describe the human ecosystem is not meant to depress you, but to grow the numbers of pro-future humans that share an understanding of our predicament in order to steer cultural conversations and actions in the future towards a more balanced, sane, human interaction with and protection of the other species we share this planet with.

Magic remains in the natural world, but if human impacts on the natural world continue apace, today’s youth will not live long enough to experience the magic

It would be much more fun to be in college and not be aware of the stuff in this video. But as the humans who will live and make choices during this weird century, I think you have to be. There’s a huge amount of magic which is not yet lost, but which, as things are now proceeding, you will outlive. Is this acceptable to you? If it isn’t, what are you willing to do about it?

If all we do is gather around us material objects of our success, we will continue to strip value from the real stock market – our place in the human ecosystem

The main point of this video is that in order to keep growing our financial representations of our success, we’re simultaneously stripping value from the real stock market. Being aware of who we are, [and] what we’re doing is the first step in changing this.

Okay. As I guess is obvious, this subject is important to me. But let’s get back to the description of The Big Picture of the Human Ecosystem – Humans coexisted with nature for almost 300,000 years without destroying it. Why now? What is the mechanism? And what is the solution?

[Next] Let’s now tie everything together – Human Behavior – Energy and Economy and – The Environment.

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