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Why humanity is good for the natural world

Long-read

Why humanity is good for the natural world

Greens are suppressing the plentiful good news about the environment.

Matt Ridley

Topics Long-reads Science & Tech World

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Over the past few years, we have been subject to endless media reports on the devastating impact humanity is having on the global bee population. ‘Climate change is presenting huge challenges to our bees’, claimed the Irish Times last year. ‘Where has all the honey gone?’, asked the Guardian earlier this year.

The news from last week may come as a shock to some, then. It turns out that America actually has more bees than ever before, having added a million hives in just five years. The Washington Post, which reported these facts, was certainly surprised given what it calls ‘two decades of relentless colony-collapse coverage’.

Some of us, however, have been pointing out for more than a decade that the mysterious affliction called ‘colony collapse disorder’, which caused a blip in honey-bee numbers in the mid-2000s, was always only a temporary phenomenon. Globally, bees are doing better than ever. The trouble is that bad news sticks around like honey, while good news dries up like water.

Honey bees are a domesticated species, so their success depends partly on human incentives. In the case of America, the Texas state government’s decision to reduce property taxes on plots containing bee hives has boosted the popularity of beekeeping. When bees were in trouble, they were seen as a measure of the health of the environment generally. So their recovery can be regarded as a sign of good environmental health.

Why do stories of environmental doom, like this one about collapsing bee colonies, linger in the public consciousness, despite being outdated and wrong? The media are partly to blame. For environmental reporters, bad news is always more enticing than good. It’s more likely to catch the attention of editors and more likely to get clicks from readers. Good news is no news.

So I have a simple rule of thumb to work out when an environmental problem is on the mend: it drops out of the news. (The same is true of countries, by the way. When I was young, Angola and Mozambique were often in the news because they were torn by war; not today, because they are at peace.)

Take whales. In the 1960s, they were the (literal) posterboys of environmental alarm. There were just 5,000 humpback whales in the whole world and they seemed headed for extinction. Today, there are 135,000 humpback whales, which represents a 27-fold increase. For the first time in centuries they sometimes gather in groups of over a hundred. I have even seen them several times myself, which I had assumed as a boy I never would.

Most other whale species are doing almost as well: blue, fin, right, bowhead, sperm, grey, minke – all are increasing steadily in numbers (though certain subpopulations, such as North Atlantic right whales, are still struggling). But the story of whales’ resurgence just doesn’t make the news.

Or take polar bears. Just a few years ago, greens were constantly claiming that they were facing imminent extinction. In 2017, National Geographic published a video of a starving polar bear, with the tagline, ‘This is what climate change looks like’. It was viewed 2.5 billion times. No climate conference or Greenpeace telly advert was complete without a picture of a sad polar bear on an ice floe. Today, that’s a less common sight, because it is harder and harder to deny that polar bears are less and less rare. Despite heroic efforts by environmentalists to claim otherwise, there is now no hiding the fact that polar-bear numbers have not declined and have probably increased, with some populations having doubled over the past few decades. So much so that some environmentalists and researchers no longer think that polar bears are suitable symbols of man’s threat to the planet.

The refusal of polar-bear numbers to conform to the eco-pessimists’ narrative should not be a surprise. In 2009, Al Gore claimed that the Arctic polar ice cap could disappear in as little as five years. A decade on, that is still nowhere near happening yet. Besides, polar bears have always taken refuge on land in late summer in regions where the ice does melt, such as Hudson Bay.

Another Arctic species, the walrus, is doing so well now that it sometimes turns up on beaches in Britain. It’s the same story for fur seals, elephant seals and king penguins. A few years ago, I visited South Georgia in the Antarctic and saw thousands upon thousands of all three species, when little over a century ago they would have been very rare there.

These whales, seals, penguins and bears are booming for a very simple reason: we stopped killing them. Their meat could not compete with beef. And, above all, their fur and blubber could not compete with petroleum products. Or to put it another way, fossil fuels saved the whale.

Mark McCoy works with his honey bees on 15 February 2007 in Loxahatchee, Florida.
Mark McCoy works with his honey bees on 15 February 2007 in Loxahatchee, Florida.

There are good-news stories on dry land, too. Take tigers. Their inexorable decline towards extinction was big news in the 1980s. But not now. Tiger numbers have mostly stopped falling and are inching upwards in some countries such as India. Wolves are doing even better, recolonising much of Europe and North America ever more rapidly. Lions, however, are still in decline.

Why are lions decreasing, wolves increasing and tigers holding their own? Because wolves live in rich countries, lions live in poor countries and tigers live in middle-income countries. Far from prosperity being a threat to the environment, as a generation of early greens used to argue, it is often the best hope: people stop depending on or competing with wildlife and start caring about it instead.

The same is true of forests. In much of Africa, people raid the woods for fuel, collecting bundles of sticks to carry back home to use for cooking. In Europe, the same was true 500 years ago, but today forests grow thick, expansive and unharvested – feeding beetles and fungi and birds.

In Europe, China, Russia and North America, forests are expanding at an unprecedented rate. Even many tropical countries have turned the corner and are rebuilding their forests. Indeed, forest cover is increasing in pretty much every country with an income per capita of over $5,000 a year.

Indeed, the world as a whole is now reforesting rather than deforesting, according to a satellite analysis from the University of Maryland: ‘We show that – contrary to the prevailing view that forest area has declined globally – tree cover has increased by 2.24million square kilometres [since 1982].’ And most of this increase is natural, not plantations. The environmental movement has kept a vow of Trappist silence about this wonderful statistic, I note, because it is convinced – wrongly, in my view – that despair is better than hope at motivating donors.

The biggest green good news of all is global greening. This is the increase in the quantity of green vegetation on the planet, in all ecosystems – rainforests, savannah, scrub, farmland, taiga, tundra. A series of studies of satellite images in the mid-2010s found a way to measure the ‘leaf area index’ of the Earth and found it had been going upwards rather rapidly, gaining around 15 per cent over 30 years. Recent work suggests the rate of greening has continued on its upward trend.

As the lead author of the most comprehensive study of this phenomenon, Zaichun Zhu of Beijing University, put it in a press release in 2016, ‘the greening over the past 33 years reported in this study is equivalent to adding a green continent about two-times the size of mainland US’. Amazingly, the very same press release singled me out by name for vilification for having drawn attention to his work and called it good news! Such is the dogma that optimism is sin.

What is causing global greening? This is where it gets really awkward for the pessimists. Scientists have found ways to analyse how much of the greening is caused by man-made fertiliser, how much by increased rainfall in a world with slightly warmer oceans and how much by a third factor – carbon dioxide itself. All these studies agree that carbon dioxide is the biggest cause. That’s right, CO2, the alleged source of our imminent demise, is fuelling the growth of plants and trees.

There’s a good reason for this. The increase over the past century of ambient carbon dioxide from under 0.03 per cent of the air to over 0.04 per cent has enabled plants to get access to this vital food while losing less water through their stomata. This means that the greening is especially marked in arid places hitherto largely lacking vegetation, like the African Sahel or Western Australia.

Global greening, in short, is a stronger signal of the impact of rising CO2 concentrations on the planet than global warming. But it gets almost no attention in the media. Search for the phrase ‘global greening’ on the BBC website, for example, and you will come up empty. When it is mentioned in the mainstream media, it is accompanied by warning labels. ‘”Global Greening” Sounds Good. In the Long Run, It’s Terrible’, wrote the New York Times in 2018.

Whenever I write an article about environmental good news, editors insist I put in a sentence, beginning ‘However…’, to point out that the environment is still deteriorating in other respects. They don’t make the same request to those who write pessimistic articles. The BBC’s embedded green reporters don’t have to mention global greening whenever they mention global warming (or ‘global heating’ as they are now told to call it).

A 16 foot high sculpture of a polar bear and cub, afloat on a small iceberg on the River Thames, passes in front of Tower Bridge on 26 January 2009 in London, England.
A 16 foot high sculpture of a polar bear and cub, afloat on a small iceberg on the River Thames, passes in front of Tower Bridge on 26 January 2009 in London, England.

So here’s my own ‘However…’. Not all environmental news is good today. Overfishing of the oceans continues, invasive species are causing extinction of unique subspecies, plastic pollution of the sea is a disgrace, sewage is spilling into rivers, habitats are fragmented by concrete sprawl and so on.

Yes, that is still all true, but I would argue that some of the worst problems are being neglected, or even made worse, precisely because of the obsession with climate change. The windmills being eagerly built to provide us with intermittent electricity are killing eagles. And poor Africans are still using wood for fuel, leading to deforestation, when they could be using a more efficient energy source like gas.

Still, there is plenty of good environmental news about. We often hear that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event comparable to those caused by meteorites or supervolcanoes in the past. It is true that human beings have caused a lot of species to go extinct. For instance, there was a big burst of extinctions on oceanic islands in the 19th and early-20th centuries. But a closer examination of the problem reveals that it is probably now getting better, not worse. This is at least partly because of the work of conservationists.

In a study published in 2011, Craig Loehle and Willis Eschenbach documented all the extinctions of bird and mammal species confirmed to that date by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Birds and mammals are better known than insects and fish, and being larger are generally more vulnerable to extinction.

Loehle and Eschenbach found that of the 3,725 full species of mammals and 9,672 birds that live on continents (not counting Australia), just nine – three mammals and six birds – have gone extinct in the past 500 years. That’s just 0.081 per cent of mammals and 0.062 per cent of birds. On islands (including Australia), however, the extinction rate was much higher, with 58 mammals and 122 birds dying out, or 7.4 per cent and 8.9 per cent. Island extinctions are almost all caused by invasive species, such as rats, cats or malarial mosquitoes.

Today, many species have been brought back from the brink of extinction through the work of dedicated conservationists: the bald ibis, the kakapo, the California condor, the Lord Howe stick insect, Spix’s macaw. In Britain, the return of the otter, the beaver, the osprey, the red kite and the sea eagle would have astonished conservationists of the 1960s.

Today’s conservationists should try selling hope as well as fear. A better future is possible.

Matt Ridley is a science writer and co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, with Alina Chan.

Pictures by: Wikimedia Commons and Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Science & Tech World

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