I don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.
I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.
“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.
I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”
There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of CB.com readers.
There are plenty of examples where ecological degradation has definitive and negative economic and social consequences. Haiti and China are certainly some that come to mind. But these confirmations of the prediction can be easily countered by the exceptions. For example, why isn’t most of Europe a socio-economic disaster? While some might argue that countries like Spain and Greece are well on their way, most countries in Europe are doing reasonably well, at least relative to many nations in Central and South America, Africa and Asia. It is therefore important to examine the differences between these countries.
- Most importantly, the bulk of the ecological damage in Europe was done centuries, if not millennia, ago. It’s easy to forget that Europe had its fair share of famines, plagues and wars over the last few thousand years, and many of these are likely related to environmental stresses. In much of the rest of the world, including North, Central and South America, Asia and a good part of Africa, the environmental devastation has been relatively recent. This is perhaps why our previous ranking of environmental degradation among countries likely penalised those whose ecological disturbance was relatively more recent.
- As such, much of the direct effects of ecological damage have already happened, and a sort of equilibrium has been reached. This equilibrium is aided by another important aspect that is one reason why European carrying capacity is so high – most of the region is incredibly productive. Why? Well, much of it was under several kilometres of ice only a few tens of thousands of years ago, making the soils deep and rich following the glacial retreat. All other things being equal, you can support a lot more people per hectare of land in Europe than you can in Australia, for example.
- Related to this, many European countries – of which France is the star – have invested heavily in nuclear power. The cheap, low-emissions energy produced has likely increased their carrying capacities for less degradation than would have otherwise been achieved had they relied more on fossil fuels.
- The great industrialisation of Europe during the 18th and 19th Centuries was not only famous for its increasing productivity and prosperity, it was infamous for its incredible pollution. Of course, Europe remains an industrialised region, but much of its pollution has been exported to developing nations (a concept known as ‘leakage’). It is a well-known phenomenon that industrial leakage allows the developed world to live in relative cleanliness while the nations that manufacture the shit we don’t need wallow in our ‘leaked’ filth.
- With specific reference to disease (which was the heart of the question being discussed), Europe is a temperate region. One of the major findings of the paper discussed in the previous post was that higher overall biodiversity (typical of tropical countries) is correlated with higher overall pathogen diversity. This is expected, so by virtue of having fewer pathogens in temperate Europe, there are likely to be fewer disease outbreaks.
- Finally and as mentioned earlier, it is plausible that the economic problems Europe is facing today are the tip of an iceberg that will soon be more and more evident across the region. Recent evidence from Europe also shows that there is a considerable lag between the demise of species and the events that are their ultimate causes.
It therefore stands to reason that the economic honeymoon Europe enjoyed for much of the last century is possibly nearing an end, and that the high productivity of the region merely lengthened the lag between ecological degradation and its negative consequences on its human population. I’m not predicting a ‘collapse’ as such, but I’d wager that unless we get a handle on valuing our ecosystems, out standards of living are likely to decline. Australia and America are probably the next cabs off that rank.