Living Planet

Last year we mentioned Ian Roberts’ theory, as reported in New Scientist, that fat people are responsible for more than their fair share of global warming, and, in order to get a snappy headline out of it, we tied it into another New Scientist article, which was critical of research by Willie Soon, who had suggested that polar bears aren’t as vulnerable as is widely claimed. Both NS articles were, in our view, rather shoddy, reflecting the magazine’s partiality in the climate debate. Who could not form the impression that fat people were more responsible than the rest of us for the demise of the polar bear, if they took the magazine at face value? Excuses for snappy headlines aside, our post – ‘Fat People Are Killing the Polar Bears - was intended to demonstrate the confusion between the science and morality of climate change.

True to the eco-warrior’s demands that we ‘Reduce! Re-use! Recycle!’, Roberts’ argument – which deserves to go to landfill – has been recycled, in an article entitled Fat is an environmental issue in, yes, New Scientist magazine, who, on the same day, also reports uncritically more recycled ‘news’ from uber-eco-warriors, the WWF, that human activities are devastating the world’s wildlife. What have these fatsos got against polar bears, for goodness sake?

According to Roberts and his London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine colleague Phil Edwards, the fatties have to take the blame for not only climate change but also for panic-du jour, the global food crisis. Writing in the Lancet they argue that:

Petrol tanks and stomachs were competing well before biofuels were proposed to tackle climate change. Motorised transport is more than 95% oil-dependent and accounts for almost half of world oil use. Because oil is a key agricultural input, demand for transportation fuel affects food prices. Increased car use also contributes to rising food prices by promoting obesity which, for the reasons outlined below, increases the global demand for food.

Roberts and Edwards want the government to address the obesity ‘epidemic’, climate change and the food crisis in one fell swoop by making it more difficult for people to get around:

Urban transport policies that promote walking and cycling would reduce food prices by reducing the global demand for oil, and promotion of a normal distribution of BMI would reduce the global demand for, and thus the price of, food. Decreased car use would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus the need for bio-fuels, and increased physical activity levels, would reduce injury risk and air pollution, improving population health.

Of course, the government is already making it more difficult for people to get around. Increasingly, making it more difficult for people to get around is what governments are for, hence our point that local and national governments use ‘saving the planet’ to justify the reduction of public services, in favour of authoritarian, restrictive, and punishing policies, and in doing so, turn the notion of public service on its head.

But why pick on fat people? If calorie intake is the problem, what about those irritating, self-righteous athletic types? Or if resource use is what troubles them, how about, let’s say, academics, whose airmile quotient between conferences and (mis)use of precious paper outstrips by orders of magnitude what your average gluttonous member of the general public gets through? Or what about overweight academics? Or, overweight, denialist academics?

But calorie intake is not the only problem, apparently. Fat people are also lazy people, inclined to use cars more than the rest of us. And using cars makes you fatter. And then there’s all the extra fuel needed to transport all that extra lipid from A to B.

Recycling old research is, of course, necessary to keep the climate issue high up on the news agenda. But it has little to do with science. Nor, for that matter, news. It is political. And Roberts isn’t the only one doing it. Enter the WWF

The latest data on the global biodiversity of vertebrates shows that it has fallen by almost one-third in the last 35 years. But experts say it may still underestimate the effect humans have had on global species counts.

The Living Planet Index (LPI) follows trends in nearly 4,000 populations of 1,477 vertebrate species and is said to reflect the impact humans have on the planet…

New figures show that between 1970 and 2005, the global LPI has fallen by 27%. This suggests that the world will fail to meet the target of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss set by the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity.

Just as Ian Roberts grabs the headlines whenever – like some sort of bulimic ex-deputy prime minister – he regurgitates his antisocial theories, WWF can rely on the world’s media to tell it how the WWF like to think it is every time they publish the latest version of their Living Planet report. And they’ve been publishing it every couple of years or so for ten years now:

Year of Report Living Planet Index Years Covered Species Sampled URL Hysteria
1998 30 1970-1995 70 freshwater, 87 marine, terrestrial based on declines in natural forest cover link  
1999 30 1970-1995 102 freshwater, 102 marine, terrestrial based on declines in natural forest cover link Planet Earth under pressure
2000 33 1970-1999 319 forest, 194 freshwater, 217 marine link  
2002 35 1970-2000 282 terrestrial, 195 freshwater, 217 marine link Living standard seen slumping as resources run out
Earth ‘will expire by 2050′
2004 40 1970-2000 555 terrestrial, 323 freshwater, 267 marine link World Living Beyond Its Environmental Means – WWF
Consumption of Resources Is Outstripping Planet’s Ability to Cope, Says WWF
2006 30 1970-2003 695 terrestrial, 344 freshwater, 274 marine link Global ecosystems ‘face collapse’
Humans using resources of two planets, WWF warns
The state we’re in
Humans Living Far Beyond Planet’s Means – WWF
2006 27 1970-2005 813 terrestrial, 344 freshwater, 320 marine link Wildlife populations ‘plummeting’
Humans blamed for sharp drop in wildlife

World wildlife numbers down 25% in three decades
An epidemic of extinctions: Decimation of life on earth
World wildlife numbers down 25% in three decades
World species dying out like flies says WWF
Wildlife is down by one-third, says WWF
Wildlife numbers plummet globally: WWF

Year after year, the WWF and newspaper headlines tell us that wildlife is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. And yet the latest report, which surveys a larger number of species than previous ones and incorporates the expertise of scientists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), finds that the decline is not as bad as previous estimates have suggested. In the ten years that have passed since the first report, the Index has remained fairly constant. In fact, the 2008 Living Planet Index is the lowest since records began, despite the extra decade available for further declines. Carry on at this rate and, at some point, extinct species will start rising from the ashes. Of course, this apparent decline in species declines might be the result of many factors – increased sample sizes, involvement of the ZSL (for the 2006 and 2008 reports only), better controls for biased samples (earlier reports did not even attempt to control for the fact that species for which long-term population data are available tend to be species for which we have good reason to believe might be declining – rare or commercially important species, for example), etc. But the fact remains that species declines have been significantly overestimated in the past – by about a third, according to this latest estimate. It’s just that ‘Wildlife declines not as bad as previously thought’ doesn’t quite pack the same punch headline-wise. And one can only imagine the eco-pocalyptic headlines had previous estimates been found to be too low.

We remain unconvinced that the sample merits extrapolation to vertebrate species as a whole. The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal (although, according to co-author Dr Ben Collen of the ZSL, it has been accepted for publication by Conservation Biology), so all we have to go on is the WWF report (which isn’t much help) and an interview with Collen. He told us that, while all species were weighted equally in the index, they did check for bias towards declining species by looking at the rationale behind the collection of population data for each species in the first place. This way they were able to show that species declines did not become a more important factor in choosing which species to monitor over time. This, in turn, relies on the argument that conservation biology is a relatively modern sub-discipline, emerging in the 1980s. Prior to that, he said, the emphasis was on ‘natural resource management’. But, by the same token, natural resource management could be expected to be more concerned with monitoring scarce natural resources than plentiful ones. With regard to commercially important species, which might also be expected to be declining by definition, Collen told us:

That would be true if our index had a lot of commercially exploited species. But it doesn’t. We have 241 fish species in comparison to, say, 800 birds [a taxon that is less important commercially]. In an ideal world, we’d be able to pull out all this meta-data on all these individual species, but that’s not possible.

As we keep stressing, an environmentalist conspiracy this is not. It’s just convenient. It’s convenient for the WWF (obviously); it’s convenient for journalists and newspapers, in that they can keep on publishing big scary numbers devoid of sobering context; it’s convenient for the scientists at the Zoological Society of London who, like all scientists, increasingly have to justify themselves in terms of media coverage and social impact; and it’s convenient for directionless politicians. A sure sign of just how convenient big numbers are for everybody concerned is that, following the 2002 edition of the Living Planet report, Reuters reported erroneously, in a story picked up by many other outlets (including Yahoo, ENN, Planet Ark), that more than a third of all species had gone extinct since 1970:

The study found that human economic activity had reduced the number of surviving animal, bird and fish species by 35 percent over the past 30 years.

Freshwater fish had been especially badly hit, losing over half the species in existence in 1970, while key marine species – most of which provide food for the burgeoning popu
lation of humans – were down by just under 40 percent.

A simple mistake, perhaps. And yet nobody raised a sceptical eyebrow. Except us. As we said at the time:

News of environmental catastrophe tends to be accepted without question. The idea of plummeting biodiversity has become so ingrained in our mindset that the actual number of species reported to be disappearing per unit time doesn’t matter – just as long as it’s a very big number. Society, it seems, is content only when it can be confident that Mother Nature is drawing her final, wheezing breath.

The Living Planet Index comprises but one half of the Living Planet report. The rest consists of the Ecological Footprint – the index of how many planets-worth of resources we are using up with our decadent modern lifestyles. We might revisit this in the near future. Because you can bet your internal organs that the footprint is as silly as the LPI is hyped. Suffice it to say for now that we suspect that humankind has been using the Earth’s resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished throughout the entire course of our history. Because the WWF’s calculations take absolutely no account whatsoever of the possibilities for technological development. How many planets-worth were we using prior to the Green Revolution, for example? How many planets-full of North American buffalo would have been required to make the Native American lifestyle ‘sustainable’? We like to think that someone somewhere has actually done the calculations. But then again, that sort of research isn’t quite so convenient for anyone.

It is also worth noting that the ZSL scientists involved in the Living Planet report are commissioned by WWF. At Climate Resistance, we don’t really give a monkey’s (endangered, fat or otherwise) who funds what research by whom. Many do care, however, including, as we have seen, New Scientist, who chose to make Willie Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry the focal point of its coverage of his polar bear research last year. Strange, then, that the mag doesn’t even mention the ZSL’s financial links to a dodgy pressure group in its coverage.

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