The essential, the useless and the harmful (part 3)

By Éloi Laurent

Is humanity a pest?
For the other beings of Nature who find it increasingly difficult to coexist
with humans on the planet, the answer is unambiguous: without a doubt.

Life on earth, 3.5
billion years old, can be estimated in different ways. One way is to assess the respective biomass of its components. It can then be seen that the total biomass on
Earth weighs around 550 Gt C (giga tonnes of carbon), of which 450 Gt C (or
80%) are plants, 70 Gt C (or 15%) are bacteria and only 0.3% are animals.
Within this last category, humans represent only 0.06 Gt C. And yet, the 7.6
billion people accounting for only 0.01% of life on the globe are on their own responsible
for the disappearance of more than 80% of all wild mammals and half of all plants.

This colossal crisis
in biodiversity caused by humanity, with premises dating back to the extermination of megafauna in the
prehistoric age

(Pleistocene), started with the entry into the regime of industrial growth in
the 1950s, with the onset of the “great acceleration“.

This is now well
documented: while nearly 2.5 million species (1.9 million animals and 400,000
plants) have been identified and named, convergent studies suggest that their
rate of extinction is currently 100 to 1000 times faster than the rhythms known
on Earth during the last 500 million years. This could mean that, due to human
expansion, biodiversity is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction. Whether we
observe these dynamics in section or longitudinally, at the level of certain key species in certain regions or by turning to more or less convincing
hypotheses on the total
potential biodiversity sheltered by the Biosphere
(which could amount to 8 million species), the conclusion
is obvious: while humans are thriving, the other species are withering away,
with the exception of those that are directly useful to people.

But this destruction
of biodiversity is of course also an existential problem for humans themselves.
According to a causal chain formalized two decades ago during an evaluation of ecosystems for the millennium, biodiversity underpins the proper functioning of
ecosystems, which provide humans with “ecosystem services” that support their
well-being (recent literature evokes in a broader and less instrumental way
“the contributions of Nature“). This logic naturally also holds in
reverse: when humans destroy biodiversity, as they are massively doing today
through their agricultural systems,
they degrade ecosystem services and, at the end of the chain, undermine their own
living conditions. The case of mangroves is one of the most telling: these
maritime ecosystems promote animal reproduction, store carbon and constitute
powerful natural barriers against tidal waves. By destroying them, human
communities are becoming poorer and weaker.

The start of the 2020
decade, the first three months of which were marked by huge fires in Australia
and the Covid-19 pandemic, is clearly showing that destroying Nature is beyond
our means. The most intuitive definition of the unsustainability of current
economic systems can therefore be summed up in just a few words: human
well-being destroys human well-being.

How do we get out of
this vicious spiral as quickly as possible? One common sense solution, known
since Malthus and constantly updated since then, is to suppress humanity, in
whole or in part. Some commentators are taking note of how much the Biosphere,
freed from the burden of humans, is doing better since they have been mostly
confined. If we turn off the source of human greenhouse gas emissions, it is of
course likely that they will fall sharply. Likewise, if the sources of local
pollution in urban spaces, for example in Paris, are turned off, the air there will be restored to a remarkable quality. It is also likely that we will see an improvement
in the lot of animal and plant species during this period, much as in areas like
the Chernobyl region that humans were forced to abandon. But what good is clean air when we are deprived
of the right to breathe it for more than a few moments a day?

In reality, even if
confinement has led to a constrained and temporary sobriety, its long-term
impact is working fully against the ecological transition. All the mechanisms
of social cooperation that are essential to transition policies are now at a
standstill, except for market transactions. To take simply the example of
climate policy, the very strategic COP 26 gathering has already been postponed
to 2021, the next IPCC Assessment Report has been slowed down, the full, comprehensive outcome of the efforts of
the Citizen climate convention has been compromised, and so on. And a heat wave under lockdown cannot be excluded!

The point is that it
is not a matter of neutralizing or even freezing social systems to
“save” natural systems, but of working over the long-term on their social-ecological articulation, which is still a blind spot in contemporary
economic analysis.

The fact remains that
the current social emergency is forcing governments around the world to work
here and now to protect their populations, particularly the most vulnerable,
from the colossal shock that is simultaneously hitting economic systems around
the world. The notion of essential well-being can rightly serve as a compass guiding
these efforts, which could focus on sectors vital to the whole population in
the months and years to come, subject to the imperative of not further
accelerating the ecological crisis. Essential well-being and non-harmful
well-being could converge to meet the present urgency and the needs of the
future. How, precisely?

Let us briefly return
to the different dimensions of essential well-being outlined in the first post
in this series. Public health and the care sector are clearly at the centre of
essential well-being, understood as human well-being which works for its
perpetuation rather than for its loss. The medical journal The Lancet
has highlighted in recent years the increasingly tangible links between health and
climate, health and various pollutants, health and biodiversity, and health and
ecosystems. Care for ecosystems and care for humanity are two sides of the same
coin. But the issue of environmental health must be fully integrated, including
here in France, with the new priority on health. Investing in public services
beyond the health system is also a guarantee that essential well-being is shared
most equitably.

This temporal coherence
is complicated by the necessary reinvestment in essential infrastructure. Food
supply systems in France and beyond, from agricultural production to retail
distribution, are today far too polluting and destructive to both human health
and ecosystems. Food systems already engaged in the ecological transition
should be given priority in order to promote their generalization. Likewise,
the energy required for infrastructure, particularly urban infrastructure
(water, electricity, waste, mobility, etc.) is still largely fossil-fuelled,
even though in just five years a global metropolis like Copenhagen has given
itself the means to obtain supplies from 100% renewable energy. We must
therefore accelerate the move for energy and carbon sobriety – we have all the means needed.
Finally, the issue of the growing ecological footprint of digital networks can
no longer be avoided, when essential infrastructures, such as heating networks and
waste collection, work very well in a “low-tech” mode.

The notion of
essential well-being can therefore be useful for the “end of the
crisis”, provided that we remain faithful to the motto of those to whom we
owe so much: first, do no harm.