The Ecology of Stupid

by | May 9, 2011

The Guardian has a revealing editorial today, which makes the claim that

Biodiversity: It’s the ecology, stupid
At every level, human civilisation is underwritten by the planet’s countless and still mostly unidentified wild things

As discussed in the previous post, the idea that civilisation is underwritten in this way is a secular revision of Divine Providence. Environmentalism’s politics is forged by this view of nature with an equally bleak conception of human nature — equally a contemporary, secular account of original sin. The logic of these conceptions of the natural world and humanity lead to environmentalism’s tendency to produce political ideas that resonate with the worst from the Dark Ages.

Says the Guardian,

The water we drink falls as rain, usually on higher ground, often designated as a catchment area. The terrain would ideally be covered in vegetation, because otherwise the runoff would be muddy, the reservoirs would silt up and the valleys would flood. But plants depend on billions of insects to pollinate them. Insects also devour foliage, so forests depend on birds by day and bats by night to keep insect populations under control. To prevent a population crash, there must also be raptors to keep the insectivores in order – and the taps running. At every level, human civilisation is underwritten by the planet’s countless and still mostly unidentified wild things – the jargon word is biodiversity – that pollinate our crops, cleanse, conserve and recycle our water, maintain oxygen levels, and deliver all the things on which human comfort, health, and security depend. Economists and conservationists have tried to put a value on the services of nature: if we had to buy what biodiversity provides for nothing, how much cash would we need? The answer runs into trillions, but the question is nonsensical. Without healthy ecosystems, there would be no cotton and linen to make banknotes and no bread or clean water for sale.

The author seems a little slow in the head. He or she wants to claim that the question of how much we’d pay to do the job that ecosystems seem to do is nonsensical, because if there were no ecosystems there would be no stuff. This obviously forgets that doing the job the ecosystems do — i.e. what we’d pay for — would create the stuff. Who writes these editorials, anyway?

The idea that we depend on ‘biodiversity’ in this way is a curious one. I could get my water for ‘free’, rather than pay the £300 or so a year I currently pay to have it on tap. I could put buckets in my garden, and store them. But in what sense is this ‘free’? I would have to buy the buckets, but let’s assume I made them. I would also have to process the water somehow to make sure it is clean, and to maintain the buckets and make sure I have enough storage space for rainless periods: I need an even bigger bucket. If we also assume that I earn £10 an hour, in order to say that I get my water ‘for free’, we’d have to say that I would be better off collecting my own water than paying for it with what takes me just 30 hours to earn. Add to this the fact that now I’ve cut myself off from the rest of society, collecting water is now a matter of life and death.

I think I’m better off forking out the £300 a year. Moreover, this figure includes the cost of removing the water I no longer need.

The author of the editorial might protest that natural processes were still involved in the movement of the water onto higher-ground, where it found its way to aquifers and rivers, which supply our water infrastructure. But what if I live near the sea, and my water is supplied from a desalination plant, powered by nuclear energy? To what extent, then, am I dependent on ‘biodiversity’?

It seems obvious that our dependence on ‘biodiversity’ is greatly diminished by our self-dependence as a society. The time I would have spent collecting and processing water is reduced by my dependence on somebody else to do the job on a larger scale more efficiently, leaving me to spend my time and money on better things. This much is explained by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The point the Guardian editorial misses is that we are made richer by our self-dependence, and we are accordingly less and less dependent on ‘biodiversity’. We don’t need to ‘buy’ ‘ecosystem services’, we make better alternatives.

The Guardian grumbles on…

Last week the European commission unveiled its 2020 biodiversity strategy, and introduced the notion of a “green infrastructure” from Orkney to the Black Sea. A continent-sized strategy is indeed necessary: swifts, swallows and swallowtail butterflies do not care about national boundaries. It focuses on the economic value of forest, grassland, heath, wetland, lake, river and farmland ecosystems. The auguries are not encouraging. One fourth of all Europe’s farmland birds flew away between 1990 and 2007; 40 or more of Europe’s 435 butterflies are now fluttering to extinction. Yes, extinctions are a normal part of evolutionary history, but not on such a scale and pace. And who knows which species an ecosystem can do without, and still function for human benefit?

But what scale, and what pace are ‘Europe’s 435 butterflies are now fluttering to extinction’? What is the scale and pace of butterfly extinction that we should expect? Why wouldn’t ‘One fourth of all Europe’s farmland birds’ fly ‘away between 1990 and 2007’? What would have kept them where they were, if we weren’t here? Should these numerical statements be take at face value?

And indeed, ‘who knows which species an ecosystem can do without’?

By definition, an ecosystem without a species is no longer the same ecosystem. The mistake the Guardian makes is to imagine that ecosystems are tangible, bounded entities, rather than fluid and dynamic. The myth that haunts this misconception is the mystical notion of ‘balance’. Just as the eddies formed by a butterfly’s wings are imagined to be capable of producing a storm elsewhere in the world, the Guardian seem to have this idea of ecosystems in such a perilous equilibrium that just the slightest horizontal force — the disappearance of just one tiny species — can begin a cascade of tipping points to oblivion. It is as if the disappearance of just one butterfly would cause rain to cease falling on the hill, for the sun to stop shining on the field, for the earth to become infertile. It is this mystical idea of ‘balance’ which, it seems, is supposed to keep the populations of butterflies and farmland birds in check. It doesn’t matter what the scale and pace are, anything could bring doom upon us.

I don’t wish to appear callous. I’m not arguing for the senseless destruction of all things bright and beautiful. I just think the Guardian talks a lot of crap. It continues…

The EU in 2006 vowed to halt species loss by 2010, but in 2008 admitted frankly that targets would not be met. Around 18% of Europe’s land area is protected, but governments and environment agencies need to think very hard about not just protecting but restoring habitats in much of the remaining 82%. Inevitably, those critics who do not condemn Brussels for the failure of its biodiversity policies so far will vilify it for fretting about dragonflies, toads and liverworts while economies stagnate and industries collapse. Both responses are wrong. Europe may propose, but the member states must implement. And although the cost of conserving biodiversity will be considerable, the price of not doing so could be truly terrible.

Given that, in spite of a whopping 18% of Europes 4.4 million sqKm being ‘protected’ the EU has nonetheless failed to meet this goal of ‘halting species loss’, it must be worth wondering if extending the protective cover to the remaining 82% would merely amplify the failure. Nature isn’t behaving as EU diktats have instructed! Might this failure be a fact owed less to environmental degradation and insufficient legislation than to the shortcomings of self-serving bureaucracy and mystical ideas about the natural world? Might it be the case that ‘the science’ has been prematurely turned into policy?

Sod the cost, says the Guardian, it could be doomsday. Fetch the buckets!

And isn’t that what they always say? With such a comprehensive inability to bring a sense of proportion to their analyses, any trivial issue becomes a matter of life and death. It’s the precautionary principle, all over again. It allows the likes of disoriented Guardian editors to speculate about some superficially plausible way by which we might all die horribly, thus giving momentum to their absurd agenda. Nebulous concepts like ‘biodiveristy’ and ‘ecosystem’, and bogus notions of connectedness and balance allow rank moral cowardice and intellectual vacuity to be concealed.

If these claims about biodiversity were not hidden behind the precautionary principle — if real numbers took the place of vapid speculation — Guardian editors would have nothing to hide behind. As the steam runs out of the climate change scare, so we can expect other ecological issues to dominate the ecological narrative: sustainability, population, and biodiversity. The same language and logic turns up in each attempt to tell the same story, passed off as new science, or new data.


  1. Jack Hughes

    The environment: a pain in the ass ever since it was invented in 1974.

  2. Yandoodan

    “Just as the eddies formed by a butterfly’s wings are imagined to be capable of producing a storm elsewhere in the world …”

    This is a beautiful expression of eco-millenniests’ distortion of a very real effect. The “Butterfly Effect” states that the level of measurement accuracy required for a 30 day weather model to work accurately is so high that the wind off the wings of a butterfly, falling on a thermometer, could significantly affect the model’s output.

    In other words, it is an argument — an unanswerable one — against long-term modeling of open-ended systems. This thought experiment, rooted solidly in mathematics, refutes the validity of all models of open-ended systems, including climate models. In a nutshell, it’s why AGW theory isn’t science.

    Using it as an argument in favor of ignorant intervention based on invalid models is just another example of the deep confusion in Greenist thinking.

    Please pardon the late comment; I am just now catching up with your excellent blog.



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