Capitalism is killing the world’s wildlife populations, not ‘humanity’
As long as we fail to name capitalism as a key cause of mass extinction, we will remain powerless to break its tragic story.
The latest Living Planet report from the WWF makes for grim reading: a 60% decline in wild animal populations since 1970, collapsing ecosystems, and a distinct possibility that the human species will not be far behind. The report repeatedly stresses that humanity's consumption is to blame for this mass extinction, and journalists have been quick to amplify the message. The Guardian headline reads “Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations", while the BBC runs with “Mass wildlife loss caused by human consumption". No wonder: in the 148-page report, the word “humanity" appears 14 times, and “consumption" an impressive 54 times.
There is one word, however, that fails to make a single appearance: capitalism. It might seem, when 83% of the world's freshwater ecosystems are collapsing (another horrifying statistic from the report), that this is no time to quibble over semantics. And yet, as the ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has written, “finding the words is another step in learning to see".
Although the WWF report comes close to finding the words by identifying culture, economics, and unsustainable production models as the key problems, it fails to name capitalism as the crucial (and often causal) link between these things. It therefore prevents us from seeing the true nature of the problem. If we don't name it, we can't tackle it: it's like aiming at an invisible target.
The WWF report is right to highlight “exploding human consumption", not population growth, as the main cause of mass extinction, and it goes to great lengths to illustrate the link between levels of consumption and biodiversity loss. But it stops short of pointing out that capitalism is what compels such reckless consumption. Capitalism – particularly in its neoliberal form – is an ideology founded on a principle of endless economic growth driven by consumption, a proposition that is simply impossible.
Industrial agriculture, an activity that the report identifies as the biggest single contributor to species loss, is profoundly shaped by capitalism, not least because only a handful of “commodity" species are deemed to have any value, and because, in the sole pursuit of profit and growth, “externalities" such as pollution and biodiversity loss are ignored. And yet instead of calling the irrationality of capitalism out for the ways in which it renders most of life worthless, the WWF report actually extends a capitalist logic by using terms such as “natural assets" and “ecosystem services" to refer to the living world.
By obscuring capitalism with a term that is merely one of its symptoms – "consumption" – there is also a risk that blame and responsibility for species loss is disproportionately shifted onto individual lifestyle choices, while the larger and more powerful systems and institutions that are compelling individuals to consume are, worryingly, let off the hook.
Who is 'humanity', anyway?
The WWF report chooses "humanity" as its unit of analysis, and this totalising language is eagerly picked up by the press. The Guardian, for example, reports that "the global population is destroying the web of life". This is grossly misleading. The WWF report itself illustrates that it is far from all of humanity doing the consuming, but it does not go as far as revealing that only a small minority of the human population are causing the vast majority of the damage.
Global map of Ecological Footprint of consumption, 2014. Although the WWF report highlights disparity in consumption, it says nothing about the capitalism which produces this pattern.
From carbon emissions to ecological footprints, the richest 10% of people are having the greatest impact. Furthermore, there is no recognition that the effects of climate and biodiversity collapse are overwhelming felt by the poorest people first – the very people who are contributing least to the problem. Identifying these inequalities matters because it is this – not "humanity" per se – that is the problem, and because inequality is endemic to, you guessed it, capitalist systems (and particularly their racist and colonial legacies).
The catch-all word "humanity" papers over all of these cracks, preventing us from seeing the situation as it is. It also perpetuates a sense that humans are inherently "bad", and that it is somehow "in our nature" to consume until there is nothing left. One tweet, posted in response to the WWF publication, retorted that "we are a virus with shoes", an attitude that hints at growing public apathy.
But what would it mean to redirect such self-loathing towards capitalism? Not only would this be a more accurate target, but it might also empower us to see our humanity as a force for good.
Breaking the story
Words do so much more than simply assign blame to different causes. Words are makers and breakers of the deep stories that we construct about the world, and these stories are especially important for helping us to navigate environmental crises. Using generalised references to "humanity" and "consumption" as drivers of ecological loss is not only inaccurate, it also perpetuates a distorted view of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.
By naming capitalism as a root cause, on the other hand, we identify a particular set of practices and ideas that are by no means permanent nor inherent to the condition of being human. In doing so, we learn to see that things could be otherwise. There is a power to naming something in order to expose it. As the writer and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit puts it:
Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It's not all there is to changing the world, but it's a key step.
The WWF report urges that a "collective voice is crucial if we are to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss", but a collective voice is useless if it cannot find the right words. As long as we – and influential organisations such as the WWF, in particular – fail to name capitalism as a key cause of mass extinction, we will remain powerless to break its tragic story.
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.
Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.
- Researchers discover a method of extracting previously unavailable information from superconductors.
- The study builds on a 19th-century discovery by physicist Edward Hall.
- The research promises to lead to a new generation of semiconductor materials and devices.
Credit: Gunawan/Nature magazine
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The images and our best computer models don't agree.
A trio of intriguing galaxy clusters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNDA0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTkzNzUyOH0.0IRzkzvKsmPEHV-v1dqM1JIPhgE2W-UHx0COuB0qQnA/img.jpg?width=980" id="d69be" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2d2664d9174369e0a06540cb3a3a9079" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The three galaxy clusters imaged for the study
Mapping dark matter<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d904b585c806752f261e1215014691a6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fO0jO_a9uLA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The assumption has been that the greater the lensing effect, the higher the concentration of dark matter.</p><p>As scientists analyzed the clusters' large-scale lensing — the massive arc and elongation visual effects produced by dark matter — they noticed areas of smaller-scale lensing within that larger distortion. The scientists interpret these as concentrations of dark matter within individual galaxies inside the clusters.</p><p>The researchers used spectrographic data from the VLT to determine the mass of these smaller lenses. <a href="https://www.oas.inaf.it/en/user/pietro.bergamini/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Pietro Bergamini</a> of the INAF-Observatory of Astrophysics and Space Science in Bologna, Italy explains, "The speed of the stars gave us an estimate of each individual galaxy's mass, including the amount of dark matter." The leader of the spectrographic aspect of the study was <a href="http://docente.unife.it/docenti-en/piero.rosati1/curriculum?set_language=en" target="_blank">Piero Rosati</a> of the Università degli Studi di Ferrara, Italy who recalls, "the data from Hubble and the VLT provided excellent synergy. We were able to associate the galaxies with each cluster and estimate their distances." </p><p>This work allowed the team to develop a thoroughly calibrated, high-resolution map of dark matter concentrations throughout the three clusters.</p>
But the models say...<p>However, when the researchers compared their map to the concentrations of dark matter computer models predicted for galaxies bearing the same general characteristics, something was <em>way</em> off. Some small-scale areas of the map had 10 times the amount of lensing — and presumably 10 times the amount of dark matter — than the model predicted.</p><p>"The results of these analyses further demonstrate how observations and numerical simulations go hand in hand," notes one team member, <a href="https://nena12276.wixsite.com/elenarasia" target="_blank">Elena Rasia</a> of the INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, Italy. Another, <a href="http://adlibitum.oats.inaf.it/borgani/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Stefano Borgani</a> of the Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy, adds that "with advanced cosmological simulations, we can match the quality of observations analyzed in our paper, permitting detailed comparisons like never before."</p><p>"We have done a lot of testing of the data in this study," Meneghetti says, "and we are sure that this mismatch indicates that some physical ingredient is missing either from the simulations or from our understanding of the nature of dark matter." <a href="https://physics.yale.edu/people/priyamvada-natarajan" target="_blank">Priyamvada Natarajan</a> of Yale University in Connecticut agrees: "There's a feature of the real Universe that we are simply not capturing in our current theoretical models."</p><p>Given that any theory in science lasts only until a better one comes along, Natarajan views the discrepancy as an opportunity, saying, "this could signal a gap in our current understanding of the nature of dark matter and its properties, as these exquisite data have permitted us to probe the detailed distribution of dark matter on the smallest scales."</p><p>At this point, it's unclear exactly what the conflict signifies. Do these smaller areas have unexpectedly high concentrations of dark matter? Or can dark matter, under certain currently unknown conditions, produce a tenfold increase in lensing beyond what we've been expecting, breaking the assumption that more lensing means more dark matter?</p><p>Obviously, the scientific community has barely begun to understand this mystery.</p>
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