Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 minute or less read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning.
This is a two-part look at our life-support safety net — Nature. It’s not doing too well, and hasn’t been for some time. So let’s look into how we stop poking holes in our safety net. But first, let’s meet my friend George. (Yes, those are pix of George I took)
Lonesome George was horny
Although pushing 100 years of age, the rarest creature in the world was looking for action. Or so it seemed watching Lonesome George, a Galápagos giant tortoise, chase two much smaller females around his pen at Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos.
It was a slow-motion giant tortoise courtship and it looked like a lot effort. George had to haul his bulky, thick-shelled body off the ground and semi-drag himself around as really big tortoises do. I’m not sure what he weighed at the time but Galápagos giant tortoises can reach 420 kilograms (920 pounds). They can also live 150 years.
Today giant tortoises are only found on the Galápagos Islands, 900 kilometers (km) west of Ecuador and the Seychelles Islands which are 1000 km off the Eastern African coast. There are several different species of Galápagos giant tortoises. Each evolved independently on various islands. George was the last of the Pinta Island species primarily because feral goats ate most of the vegetation. He was brought to the Darwin Center to protect him and hopefully mate with a closely-related female.
When I met George he’d been at the center for 35 years and produced no off-spring. All the reports I’d read concluded George simply wasn’t interested in sex. However, he looked plenty interested when I saw him. It was the females from Isabella Island who weren’t keen. Being smaller and more mobile, they evaded George for quite some time in a slow, stop and start chase punctuated by heavy shells thunking on rocks or concrete.
Finally he trapped one in a corner of their pen. She held still as he laboriously climbed on her back, their shells clunking and thunking. I thought George, at more than twice her size, would squash her flat but tortoise shells, and female tortoises are tough. He spent the next 15 or 20 minutes adjusting his position. Or maybe he was just resting, I couldn’t tell.
All this action had taken quite a long time, and I was beginning to feel a little voyeuristic. Finally, George slid off the female and she scrambled away. He lay still for a time and then dragged himself over to munch on a bit of cactus.
I left wondering if I’d just witnessed the restoration of the Pinta Island tortoise species. Sadly George never produced any offspring and died a few years later in 2012, the last of his species.
An information panel outside George’s pen said this:
“Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”
No extinction fix
This is the first time I’ve written about my brief meeting with George. The fishermen who put goats on Pinta Island long ago only wanted a source of fresh meat when they made the long journey to fish there. They weren’t thinking about the fate of tortoises and were probably happy the goats soon overran the island eating everything in sight. It took decades to get rid of the goats and vegetation has recovered but there are no more Pinta Island tortoises. Nor will there ever be again.
Since meeting George I have written lots of articles on how human activities are driving many species extinct or to the brink of extinction. Boatloads of scientific reports have documented widespread declines of life virtually everywhere. A few days ago, United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity released a major report revealing that every single government failed to meet any of their targets to put the brakes on what many call an extinction crisis. That’s today’s need-to-know.
I was in Nagoya, Japan when 193 nations set those targets ten years ago. I wasn’t optimistic and wrote:
“…the vast majority remain asleep, unaware of our utter dependence on the living things that are the one and only source of oxygen, water, food and fuel. And unaware that nature is our reality while the economy is simply a complicated game we created…
…countries of the North are like desperate bio-pirates, addicted to plundering the richer ecosystems of the South for food, raw materials and cheap labour. Increasingly, the South is resisting and seeking redress. Part of that redress, and the only way to end the escalating loss of species – an estimated 5,000 to 30,000 extinctions per year – is to transform the growth economy.
The only reason rich, high-consumption countries like the US and Canada haven’t collapsed or completely trashed their own environment is they’re rich enough to help themselves to nature’s ecological resources and services like food, timber, minerals and other materials from the rest of the world. Clap a glass lid on top and rich countries wouldn’t last long all on their own.
The notion of a no-growth economy was a non-starter in Nagoya despite acknowledgement that the growth economy leads to deforestation, agricultural expansion, overfishing and climate change, the major causes of species decline. Instead, many countries talked about creating a green economy that reduces carbon emissions, extracts and uses less natural resources, creates less waste and reduces social disparities.
Talking about a green economy doesn’t make an economy green
Sound familiar? Ten years on and we’re still talking about creating a green economy. That’s why countries didn’t meet their own targets. One of those targets — a no-brainer — was ending destructive subsidies by 2020. That the new UN report said governments are still paying about US$ 500 billion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel, fishing, agriculture, and transportation industries that damage our living environment. (If you earn $45,000 a year, it would take 22,000 years to amass a fortune of one billion dollars.)
When countries set that subsidy phase-out target in 2010, they added an escape clause insisting their local economic interests had priority.
Prioritizing local economic interests has resulted in the severe alteration of more than 75 percent of Earth’s land areas and impacted 66 percent of the oceans another major study found. It concluded that one million species may be pushed to extinction in the next few years.
The tremendous variety of living species that make up our “life-supporting safety net” provide our food, clean water, air, energy, and more said Sandra Díaz, an ecologist at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina.
“The evidence is crystal clear: Nature is in trouble. Therefore we are in trouble,” Díaz told me last year.
Ok, that’s the depressing bit. Part Two will look at the underlying causes, what can be done to really put the brakes on i.e., stop doing dumb things, and how you and I can help.
Until next time, stay safe.
Thanks Stephen. Good to see that you are still writing about the environment and the future of the planet. I will send something soon to support your work. I just edited a new collection about Hamilton, Reclaiming Hamilton, Essays from the New Ambitious City. My contribution is about the ruinous car culture in Hamilton.