What would you rather have: elephants or Beethoven’s Sixth symphony? Well, yes, it’s a ridiculous question I know, and of course we can have both, but it does throw up a number of issues facing us on the planet today as I hope to show.
There are 400,000 elephants in the world, but their numbers have decreased by a whopping 62% in the last 10 years and some people say that they could be extinct before we know it (1). In some places numbers have dropped even faster than that: 60% in five years in Tanzania, or a total of 85,181 dead elephants (2). That’s incredibly shocking. More so since we all know why it is happening, yet seem paralysed into stopping it.
There are more people alive today than ever before; 7, 400, 692, 687 when I last looked. Whilst more than 100 billion humans have lived and died in the past before we came along – never have there been so many of us at one time on the planet; and the more of us there are, the less room there is for other species.
Whether humans are a plague on the earth, as David Attenborough famously quipped (2), I’m not sure. It depends on how we behave ourselves. If we all lived sustainably and made a conscious effort to minimise our impact, then I think absolute numbers would be less important.
Unfortunately, we are not leaving a light footprint. We have stamped our feet down so heavily that the planet is complaining. We are in the middle of a Great Acceleration (3). All the dials on the dashboard (reading ‘planetary indicators’) of planet earth are flashing red because everything is going exponential. We are burning through the Earth’s resources much faster than the planet can replace them (4).
We are using more, much more, of the planet’s resources than we did just a few decades ago (5). Those of us who live in advanced Western countries are chomping through these resources much faster than anyone else. But the developing world are catching up fast, and – not surprisingly – they want all of the goodies we have been enjoying too. But the Earth cannot sustain 10 billion people living a Western, high consumption life style. There simply aren’t enough resources to go round; and even if there were, the way we are living is fouling the planet faster than we can imagine. Literally so. It is only becoming clear to us, as we look at pictures of dead albatrosses on a beach in the Pacific, with their stomachs burst open because they have ingested plastic, do we start to realise the costs involved of our disposable society. We produce 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, use about half of it only once, and a lot of it ends up in the oceans (6, 7). Going on dream holidays on far away tropical islands, now involves putting up with the sight of plastic bottles bobbing in the waves as we go snorkelling.
So what has this got to do with Beethoven? Well nothing really, but what I want to do is to use the concept of a remarkable piece of human creativity – Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (there are many other examples that would have sufficed) – against which to try to measure other creations. Nature’s or God’s creations – take your pick – which is to say the other extant species found on this planet.
We all enjoy the benefits of a modern society. Most people like shopping and hanging out in the artificial spaces we have created; the modern, safe and comfortable world of shopping malls for example. We also enjoy the fruits of our own creativity: music, arts, science and technology. But whilst we are happily living in our artificial world, the living world – or at least the places which support most of the biodiversity – are disappearing before our eyes. The studies have all been done; for example, showing that 12% of bird species, 23% of mammals, 32% of amphibians, 25% of conifers and so on are currently threatened with extinction (8).
The trouble is that most of us aren’t looking. I wouldn’t say that most people were not bothered, they are, and they are most concerned when such things are brought to their attention, but for the most part we are too busy doing all the things we love to do as human apes. Having fun, shopping, making babies, watching sports, flying on zip lines and interacting with our adopted species (dogs, cats and so on: lucky them, the chosen ones). But as the human population spreads out across the world, and as people get richer and want all the things that most everyone wants – more meat, motor bikes, cars, better clothes, TVs, computers, mobile phones and so on – and as land is co-opted into producing all of these goods, or for building, transport, energy and recreation, then the natural places which support such a rich and varied number of species, get eroded and pushed back. Fragmented and unconnected, these natural places start to degenerate; often unnoticed, the forests go quiet as species are killed, eaten or simple fade away – and eventually disappear.
I chose the Sixth symphony because we are said to be on the verge of the Sixth Extinction. Unlike previous extinction events in the history of the planet, this one is going to be caused by us. Directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, most people are starting to wake up to the scale of the impact we are having on our fellow travellers. But what is the value of all this wildlife (?), a cynic might ask. They might be cuddly, heart-warming and beautiful, but how concerned should we be if they disappear? I think most people would be horrified by such sentiments, we love and treasure nature and the living world, don’t we? If so, why are we, as a species, pushing so many other species into oblivion?!
Most people would probably agree, that if it ever came down to such a ridiculous choice, we probably would forgo the wonderful Pastoral symphony for the sake of having elephants on this planet in perpetuity. We might lose one masterpiece of human creativity, but for the sake of keeping, or saving such an iconic species for future generations to enjoy, it might be worth the sacrifice. After all, there is so much beautiful music left. Just simply for the sake of the elephants themselves to enjoy their own existence, it would be worth the sacrifice wouldn’t it?
But what about other, smaller, less iconic, unnoticed or even unloved species? Would it be worth losing a musical master piece for one of them? Maybe not you might say? Faced with the choice of losing just one of the hundreds of thousands of weevils say – they are the largest animal family with more than 50,000 species known to science (and many more unknown) – most people would I think sacrifice one of them for Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Just one of the 50,000. No contest! They mostly go unnoticed and unloved anyway! Some people might argue on the other hand, that all species are so precious, that it is not worth sacrificing even one, even for something as magnificent as the Sixth Symphony, because the latter is a product, an artefact, and more can be produced. Maybe not as good or as unique, but music is being produced all of the time by us humans. Species are not. It takes millions of years to produce new species. Yes, evolution can work over surprisingly short time scales, but on the basis of the rate of creation of new species after previous extinction events, it took a long time, a very long time indeed by human dimensions, to begin to replace the lost diversity.
The other argument in favour of saving every single species, is that however much we might have studied them, we won’t really know what contribution they make until they are gone. They may be doing something very subtle, and very vital, without us even knowing it. And since many species are disappearing without us even knowing that they existed (!) then such a scenario is not impossible. In the jargon of biology, one runs the risk of getting rid of some key element – a keystone species – of the ecosystem, and then whole thing crumbles like a Jenga tower of wooden blocks.
So how can we weigh up the existence of a sea slug, or a dung beetle, or even a microbe against such a work of human genius? Of course we can’t. How do we value some of the more obscure, unnoticed or even undesired inhabitants of the planet? Maybe we don’t need to value them. People don’t put a value on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, but economists could have a go! It gets played x times a year in y concert halls filled by z people. Or it sells x number of CDs, which get played y number of times and reduces stress in z number of people! The same with species. We can take a utilitarian argument and make the case for keeping them because of their contribution – known and unknown – to the environment. We can put a value on the work they do for us: ecosystem services. But why should that be the only reason in favour of their continued existence? Who are we to remove the ecosystem – coral reef, rain forest or savannah – which sustains them? Why should their value only be in terms of their value to us? What about their value to other species? We are just upstart apes – they have nearly all been here on the planet for much longer than us humans. Who are we to threaten their existence? Why are their rights less than ours? On the grounds of prior occupancy, their rights are greater than ours!
There is also a higher level value – to us – of ecosystems which support other species. Not just in terms of the ‘services’ they provide, e.g. in keeping the air clean, the water unpolluted and the ground pure. But in terms of the aesthetic, or spiritual dimension they provide us, and as an interconnected framework which sustains all of the species in that particular (eco)system. In a world increasing composed of shopping malls and parking lots, it is surely nourishing to our souls to have such places in which to wander, wonder and reconnect with nature. Although, sometimes when I wander round shopping malls, I sometimes wonder whether people do actually want real nature, in all it’s muddy, smelly, hot, cold, sticky, wet and uncomfortable reality. Would they not just prefer to sit back and watch it on telly? We may argue that we are poorer as a result, but that’s the choice that many people are making. Or am I being too pessimistic? Obviously, we need to educate people so that they can relate to nature and benefit from all that it has to offer us (as well as what it has to offer the planet’s other inhabitants).
As Cesar Millan – the Dog Whisperer – said about his late dog, Daddy: “he was better than me”. I think elephants are like that too; profoundly decent creatures with a love of family and a sense of fairness. Perhaps I would feel differently if they trampled the crop my family was relying on for food, but they were there first, and we are not being fair to them. Killing and traumatising them for generations. And for what? Just so one human ape can pretend to other human apes that he is of higher status (ivory symbols). It’s all so pathetic. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. Are we really ‘better’ than all of these other species? I don’t think so.
At the end of the day – no right now(!) – we have some difficult choices to make. Thankfully not between a Beethoven Symphony and a certain species, but between the way we live and the existence of the other species on this Earth. Every person has in effect to decide, how much of nature (how many species) which were here (existing) when he or she was born, will remain on the planet when they die. They may not be aware that there is a choice, but the way we all live, will determine which species will travel into the future (with or without us).
The choice we face is: do we want all of the wonderful things that Man produces? Well yes we do. Then we need to think about what the effects of all of this has on the environment (starting locally, but thinking globally), and more particularly on our fellow creatures. Otherwise, they will fade away, we will be diminished and perhaps there will be fewer, or no Beethoven’s.
I am an entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.