If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI 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.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

CJA Bradshaw



11 responses

6 04 2014


Also, I feel we need to consider the population(more precisely population density) of european countries with the Asian countries. That would give some insights into how much pressure we are putting on our natural resources and hence, amount of impact it has on the well-being people living there.
P.Basu being from India (So am I), which is or has mostly been dependent on agriculture (both export and for its own use) faces a far more obvious threat from bio-diversity loss than other industrialized countries, added to this is the ever increasing population and greater demands for resources. “Consumerism” mindset which has been pretty much penetrated into most parts of Indian lives is also a big threat to bio-diversity losses (More real estate -> more natural habitats destroyed, more to eat –> more land for agriculture, more to travel –> more fuel, more comfort —> more fuel, more people —> more of everything above). Its high time the government policies are regulated to sustain the ever diminishing natural resources around us.


23 03 2014

I’m from Peru. One of the 5 megadiverse countries of the world, And one aspect that perhaps should be considered is that, even though most of European countries have lost their biodiversity, its been decades (maybe centuries) since they no longer depend on their own natural resources; they have a high dependence on the the biodiversity of countries like mine, most of them located in the tropical zones of the planet, with high poverty levels that have a direct influence in biodiversity loss.. The big question is, what would happen if this last source of biodiversity degrades beyond recovery?


21 03 2014

[…] la biodiversità è così importante, perché noi europei non abbiamo grossi problemi? Perché li abbiamo già […]


20 03 2014
Dale Nimmo

If biodiversity contributed nothing to human prosperity, would you still feel compelled to protect it?


18 03 2014
P. Basu

Dear CJAB: Thanks for appreciating my question. And also for not thinking of me as one of those who you have rightly termed as “completely selfish arse$#**. In fact, this question has been haunting me for decades now. More because I, as a nature lover, have always been dreading being confronted with such a question by the hostile “development crazy” folks. I do not have the requisite knowledge of ecolgical sciences to counter such questions. Now, I am happy that you (and others) have come up with some answers. But, I must also admit that somewhere in the back of my head I still have that niggling fear that the “development crusaders” [= selfish and destructive industries, hand-in-glove governments and “consume as much as possible” kind of people] will destroy everything that is beautiful to people like us. To save nature (and ourselves) from the clutches of this ruthless lobby, the mindset of billions of people all over the world has to be changed. Is that at all possible?

Liked by 1 person

18 03 2014
Graeme McLeay

Immunisation,sanitation, safer childbirth. It’s easy to forget that 150 years ago Europe was a pretty dangerous place (not to mention wars) and that in Roman times making it to thirty was a fifty- fifty proposition. Malaria was an ever present threat. I think the loss of biodiversity will have some subtle effects on human health. Different pathogens, perhaps more dangerous, could arise. There may be effects on human immune function. Suicide,depression, it could be argued, will increase as the natural environment diminishes. It would seem prudent to hang on to what is left. Thanks Corey for raising this important topic.


18 03 2014

I thought economic unification staved off some of Europe’s issues competing with the US and Asia, although the system didn’t work perfectly, at least not for Greece. America has it’s economically depressed areas, too, after all, that do not keep up productively with the rest of the country. Also, the aging of Europe’s nuclear facilities may be an issue down the road…


18 03 2014
18 03 2014
Annette Ostling

Yes, this issue of exploitation of resources/biodiversity elsewhere seems key for explaining why Europe is not experiencing famine or other hardship if we are to argue that loss of biodiversity will lead to those things. I also didn’t see it in your list–didn’t realize you meant to include when talking about “leakage”. But do we really want to argue that loss of biodiversity is what would lead to famine or hardship, or is it rather overexploitation of available resources, with loss of biodiversity being another side effect of the overexploitation, rather than a cause of the famine?

Also, it seems this outsourcing could not be used to explain why Europe is not be experiencing a larger number of infectious diseases, the specific question one is lead to by extrapolating from the paper that was the subject of your prior blog post.

So what is the explanation for the lack of disease in Europe specifically? You mention two arguments directly relevant to disease that I am going to try to paraphrase to make sure I understand them: 1) The high incidence of infectious diseases is a non-equilibrium effect–that once one is in a state of low biodiversity for a while, by which I guess you mean that the risks of high incidence of infectious disease go down. 2) The results of the paper may in part be driven by a correlation between biodiversity and pathogen diversity, and hence also the magnitude of the associated biodiversity loss and pathogen diversity–so that risk of disease is not so much about biodiversity loss as it is about biodiversity.

Did I get those correct? I’m not sure I buy into the first one. It seems that the high disease incidence of the past may have been more an issue of people’s behavior and lack of good public health measures, which we are now aware of the importance of, as they began industrialization. Put another way, if the disease risk is a non-equilibrium phenomenon, perhaps it is caused more by public health issues than by the biodiversity loss? As for the second argument, this seems to suggest biodiversity is more the root of the problem for disease risk than biodiversity loss, and hence that biodiversity is a bad thing when it comes to disease risk.

I find all this very interesting, because I do think it is very important that we as ecologists be rigorous in talking about the values of biodiversity, so that the really valid reasons we provide get listened to. I really appreciate this blog in general and in particular this post trying to reason through a difficult question.


17 03 2014
Philip Thomas

The issue should not be taken in isolation – some part at least of the high living standards in western europe is due to the exploitation of resources in other countries, especially since the industrialisation of much of northern europe. Thta exploitation is likely to have contributed to some extent to the ‘languishing’ of those exploited countries. This is in additon to the leakage mentioned in point four.


17 03 2014

True. I did mean all forms of leakage, but perhaps I wasn’t explicit enough.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: