Biodiversity is on the decline – welcome to the Anthropocene

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The human population continues to grow. At the same time the standard of living in many emerging countries is improving and consumption habits are becoming identical to those in developed countries, with new technologies introduced at breakneck speed, a dominance of disposable products and feeble rates of waste recycling. These simultaneous phenomena are leading to increasing deforestation, more intensified farming practices, worsening pollution and an acceleration in global warming.

The Anthropocene thesis, introduced about fifteen years ago, argues that humans are transforming the global environment at an unprecedented scale. Here’s how the digital website hosted by the Rachel Carson Center introduces the concept:

“Crumbling skyscrapers, crushed soda cans, and worn-out car tires: concrete, aluminum, and plastic are the physical traces of our time. It is a time in which humans intervene in nature, and thus change and shape it. A world has developed in which humans and their needs play a dominant role in the ecological system. The human influence is so great that man-made changes are becoming visible in the geological record and there is talk that a new geological era has arrived: welcome to the Anthropocene.”

Certainly mankind’s ecological footprint in natural areas has never been so large. In one year, mankind consumes more than one-and-a-half times what the Earth can produce without depleting its resources; in other words, we are using up its reserves. Similarly, we throw away more than the planet can absorb without suffering harm. All of these activities are leading to brutal, insidious pressures on many animal species and, as a result, are often profoundly disrupting the local communities that live off these species. Biodiversity is on the decline!

Judge for yourself: Over the past 40 years, more than half of all vertebrate species have disappeared. Freshwater species in particular have been severely affected, with a 76% decrease in population, and this is a resource that accounts for 660 million jobs worldwide. Similarly, marine species have declined by 39%. In coral reef areas, marine species provide 100 million people with their livelihood and generate more than USD 30 billion a year in wealth. Their decline is mainly due to the ingestion of toxic products that people have disposed of in the oceans.

Pollinating insect populations are also at risk. The disappearance of bees is worrisome because 33% of the food we consume depends directly or indirectly on plant pollination by bees. The global economic value of pollination has been estimated at EUR 153 billion, or slightly more than 7% of France’s GDP (EUR 2 132 billion in 2014, according to the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. The original cause was the bees’ consumption of plant protection products, such as pesticides and fertiliser. As many as 170 different chemical products have been found in pollen and honey extracted from various hives.

This situation has raised concerns among certain prominent political and scientific figures, who are now sounding the alarm. For example, Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, recently said: “In the 21st century, humans have created the illusion that advanced technology would enable them to live independently of nature. But the bee situation brings us back to reality. With nearly seven billion people on Earth, we’ve actually become much more dependent on the services provided by nature.”

Remedial measures do exist, of course, but they are expensive, labour-intensive and not very effective. In China, for example, farmers in certain regions of Sichuan Province must now pollinate their fields by hand, flower by flower, due to the collapse of the bee population. Whether a sign of the excesses of our time or a natural development in mankind’s increasing control over nature – each is open to interpretation – engineers at Harvard University have developed intelligent robots called “robobees” that are designed to mimic the insects’ pollinating behaviour.

Should we hail this feat and swoon over man’s genius or instead consider devoting the money spent on technology to measures protecting nature and fighting global warming? Or we could view the problem from the perspective of a cynical and Machiavellian accountant, i.e. prohibiting bee-killing pesticides would lower GDP while producing robobees would boost it. History shows that any disaster – and the disappearance of bees certainly counts as one – tends to support business growth due to the ensuing need for reconstruction and adaptation.

Less aggressive production methods, such as organic fertilisers and insecticides, will likely provide the solutions to this head-on conflict between saving bees to ensure pollination and using pesticides to guarantee food safety for the greatest number of people. These products are already available on the market and should see strong growth in the coming years. BNP Paribas Asset Management’ environmental funds seek to invest in the companies in the food supply chain that are working on these types of solutions.

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Alexandre Jeanblanc

Investment Specialist, SRI

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