In September 2008, the sprawling global bank, Lehman Brothers, collapsed. As it toppled, it struck dominoes all about, triggering a fission that rippled along Wall St then mushroomed over the world’s financial system. Around the globe, Governments announced rescue spending in the tens of billions. Here in New Zealand, the newly-elected National Government spent around $7 billion on tax cuts, infrastructure sprees and retail and wholesale deposit guarantees.
Sufficiently panicked, capitalists will readily take a hammer to the piggy bank if it means resuscitating markets. Or propping up failed finance companies. Or topping up the tank where commodity prices once bobbed buoyantly. That’s because they understand that their empires stand or fall on the fortunes of the banks and the investors, whose daily dealings keep blood pumping through the heart of the markets.
Yet there’s another global crisis, of much graver consequence — not just for business but perhaps the very survival of society — which is blithely, wilfully, ignored. In fact, with the close of each trading day, prevailing economic policy only makes it worse. It is the worldwide collapse of biodiversity. The failure of Nature herself. Species have been going extinct since the first cell divided, but since humans turned up, asserts one study, they’ve been disappearing 1,000 times faster. But just like the financial markets, there is so much contingency at play in the natural world that we have only a feeble grasp, not just on the number of species lost, but the number we started out with in the first place. Taxonomists can’t agree on the number of living creatures there might be — estimates run between two and 100 million — so many disappearances happen off the books. Some researchers have postulated losses of 150 species a day. Others, one every hour.
For the purposes of national prosperity, it doesn’t matter. Where natural systems are concerned, what really matters is the degree of their intactness, because they do all the work – for free – that enables business profits and human survival. It’s not the markets that recycle energy. Trade deals don’t purify your water. Supply chains don’t deliver your oxygen. Business think tanks don’t regulate the climate (actually, they do, but not the way they should).
Nature does all the heavy lifting. Imagine a kiwifruit industry without bees (and we may have to, before long). A fishing industry with no fish (ditto). If it weren’t for fungi, microbes and necrophilic invertebrates, we’d have been overwhelmed by our own shit long ago. Agricultural pollution – of the waterways, of the atmosphere, of the soils – is bad enough as it is, but try to envisage the New Zealand biosphere if wetlands hadn’t been filtering pollutants and absorbing excess nutrients all this time. If forests hadn’t been ameliorating its excesses in the atmosphere. Think of the flooding, the slips, the desertification that would happen without plants.
Now consider the cost if we had to pay for all that ourselves. In 2014, a study published in Global Environmental Change calculated that Nature subsidises global enterprise to the tune of US$125 trillion each year, by effectively stumping up the costs of doing business. And that’s just ecosystem services: the value of global nature tourism in 2015 was estimated at another US$600 billion.
That same year, the IMF had around $160 billion worth of loans out for global development. The World Bank, around US$15 billion. Nature, then, is the majority shareholder in our every venture, but she doesn’t even get a seat at the boardroom table. Fresh water adds around NZ$1.8 billion to New Zealand GDP every year. You’d think we would cosset our rivers and lakes like the Golden Goose they are, but water quality – and management – remains a national disgrace.
Each year, New Zealand seafood exports hover about the NZ$1.5 billion mark, yet the news this year has all been about the excesses of unreported and illegal fishing, industry opposition to marine reserves and allegations of ministry and industry collusion to cover up the deaths of endangered marine mammals.
In the space of 750 years, fully half of New Zealand’s vertebrate fauna has vanished. At least 48 birds, three frogs, three lizards, a bat, one fish. Those are the ones we know about. No-one dare guess the casualties among invertebrates, fungi and plants. Every one of them performed some vital function. Food or habitat, maybe, or microclimates so that others could thrive. Many supported other species, so that those creatures went down with it. All did their bit to recycle nutrients, carbon and energy, manage water, regulate climate. They helped the earth keep working. In 2015 the newly-formed Endangered Species Foundation announced that some 4000 New Zealand creatures and plants were in some way threatened — one of the highest proportions of doomed biodiversity anywhere on Earth. Eight hundred of those species are considered to face a high risk of extinction, yet in 2015, barely 160 were getting management at more than one site.
The response from the National Government – as it has been across the rest of the neoliberal west – has been to inexorably choke the Department of Conservation of funding. Accountants real and assumed have argued the figures, but whichever way you want to spin it, DOC has suffered a string of budget cuts over the last eight years that total around NZ$28 million. This is because fundamental capitalism cannot bring itself to regard Nature as anything more than an unfaltering, inexhaustible source of raw materials. National Parks are simply attractions; wildlife is tourist bait. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve bludged countless trillions of dollars’ worth of services from Nature. She continues to underwrite all of human endeavour, even as we drain and hew at her.
But it’s becoming clear that the Golden Goose may be coming to the end of her productive life: in January 2015, researchers at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre produced two reports, warning that humans are “eating away at our own life support systems.” With unprecedented voracity, we’re now stressing land and freshwater systems beyond their limits, overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and flooding the environment with agricultural chemicals. Analysing nine natural processes critical to life on Earth, they found that four – climate change, weakening of the biosphere, land system change and the tide of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans from farming – were out of control.
Since 1950, says lead author Professor Will Steffen, urban populations have exploded seven-fold, primary energy use by a factor of five, and fertiliser use, now eight times heavier, is sending a stream of nitrogen into the oceans at a quadrupled rate. “When economic systems went into overdrive,” he says, “there was a massive increase in resource use and pollution. It used to be confined to local and regional areas, but we’re now seeing this occurring on a global scale.” The report concluded that Earth was being bludgeoned into a greatly weakened “new state” – one much less able to support life. “People say the world is robust, and that’s true; there will be life on Earth, but the Earth won’t be robust for us.”
Now a study has appeared in the journal Science, concluding that enough biodiversity has now been lost across some 65 per cent of the world’s surface to compromise the ability of many ecosystems to support societies. We are consuming this planet to death. The acolytes of the Chicago School, the neoliberal mandarins, have never flinched from splurging to rescue their own; now we urgently need a global bailout for the institution upon which everything – our next meal, our next breath – literally depends.