Books

New ways to destroy the world

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

Despite the offer of joy proposed in the subtitle, this is a deeply troubling book by one of Britain’s foremost journalists on the politics of nature. Michael McCarthy was the Independent’s environmental editor for 15 years, and his new work is really a summation of a career spent pondering the impacts of humankind on the world’s ecosystems.

The case he lays bare with moving clarity in the opening chapters is compelling stuff. Essentially he argues that the world of wild creatures, plants, trees and whole habitats — you name it — is going to Hell in a handcart as a consequence of what he calls ‘the human project’.

The cultural response to the various well-documented losses inflicted over the 20th century by industrial capitalism and socialist command economies alike has been two basic environmental arguments. The first is sustainable development, which is an optimistic vision of growth but managed within the safe boundaries of the Earth’s natural systems.

More recently environmentalists have presented a harder-headed set of arguments under the heading ‘ecosystems services’. The argument runs that nature provides a suite of crucial benefits and functions. If we were to manufacture these artificially, they would cost us eye-watering sums of money. Pollination, for instance, is a prerequisite for the entire human diet, but is performed for us free of charge by hosts of insects. It is calculated that if we had to stump up for the work of the bumblebee or pollen beetle we’d have to find €153 billion annually. By placing monetary values on parts of nature we’ll come to appreciate what is at stake and, theoretically, work to sustain them.


McCarthy suggests that for many reasons, centred on the fundamental short-term selfishness of us all, both philosophies are doomed. In two case studies he maps out how we are eroding the very basis of life on Earth. His first took him to the shores of China and Korea’s Yellow Sea, which is host to one of the wonders of the avian world, known technically as the East Asia/Australia Flyway — a river of 50 million wading birds that crosses the Pacific twice annually during migration. This astonishing flow of life converges in a small area of the Yellow Sea shoreline for a vital stopover and one Korean spot called Saemangeum was at the epicentre.

Not any more, however. The Koreans out of almost wilful destructiveness built the world’s longest concrete barrage and obliterated the entire estuary. Eight years after its construction they still haven’t even used the reclaimed land.

Before there is time for any kind of smug recoil from the vanity of foreigners,
McCarthy outlines how the British too have fouled their nest. Building on statistics acquired over decades by bodies such as the British Trust for Ornithology, Plantlife and the Rothamsted Institute, he shows how we have lost half of all our wildlife in the last third of the 20th century.

His best illustration of this involves the moth snowstorm of the book’s title.
McCarthy asks those of us over 50 to recall our evening car journeys of the 1960s and earlier. During nocturnal drives one would frequently have to stop to remove the veritable blizzard of chitin as dead moths accumulated on the car’s windscreen and headlights. Not any more. That strangely wonderful indicator of abundance has been sprayed out of our lives by agricultural addiction to what the author calls ‘-cides’ — the herbicides, fungicides and insecticide that are applied on average 20 times to every conventional arable crop.

What is to be done? In the rest of the book McCarthy charts the transformative impact of his own encounters with nature. Sometimes the joys are simple, like the sight of snowdrops in late winter or the first brimstone butterfly of spring or the gorgeous marine haze of bluebells in April. Sometimes they are more private pleasures, such as fishing for brown trout in the gin-clear chalk streams of southern England.

At the heart of all these encounters is deep fulfilment, which McCarthy attempts to elevate to a kind of principle that should shape and govern our relations with nature. The author’s joy looks and sounds very similar to ‘biophilia’, a proposition made by the internationally celebrated naturalist E. O. Wilson that all humanity at its core is nourished and dependent upon contact with the other parts of life — wild plants, ancient trees, beautiful birds, delicate butterflies etc.

Alas, neither joy nor biophilia is making too much head way in altering our relations with nature. One wonders if shock and shame might be necessary for us to undergo a collective change of heart. Either way, McCarthy gives us both barrels in this powerful, heartfelt and compelling book.

Mark Cocker is a writer and naturalist. His books include Crow Country and Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • TrulyDisqusted

    Our Bluebells didn’t appear until late in May – they seem to be getting later each year.

    Perhaps Global Warming has skipped our neck of the woods since our central heating was still on 02 June 15 and we’re still turning it on in the evenings, and perhaps car windscreen wipers and wash systems are a lot more efficient than they were back in the sixties…

    I wonder how many copies of the above book will be block purchased by the BBCGuardian?

    • albert pike

      “Perhaps Global Warming has skipped our neck of the woods”

      Perhaps, it hasn’t skipped the polar caps, and many mountain glaciers are melting at a dangerous rate.

    • Gilbert White

      Amazing re reading Diary of an Edwardian Lady this book sold by the timber mill load! The climate notes and flowering notes seem to pre empt the modern concept of global warming propaganda.

  • global city

    Why, oh why do we have to suffer this continual portents of doom. Everything is slowly getting better, including the impact on the environment. There is more green, less pressure, less logging, more restoration, all the while we are producing more food, more wealth and enterprise, better housing better urban systems.

    What this is basically all about is to create the impression that socialism an be utlised to protect mankind and enhance the ecology of Earth!!!!!

    • Bonkim

      Live in hope – I suppose best to be an optimist and die laughing.

  • Bonkim

    The earth is grossly overpopulated and resources running out. Man has destroyed the earth’s recuperative systems – there is no return from the end game for mankind – give a century or two, if not decades –

    • albert pike

      ” there is no return from the end game for mankind – give a century or two, if not decades -”

      Given that by 2050, three earths will be needed to sustain the population and to allow the rich to continue getting richer, what do you believe the ‘end game’ to be?

      • Bonkim

        Just being cautious. Yes time is short and rich and poor will get the same justice. The end game – already started – look at the hordes of the dispossessed trying to cross the Mediterranean or the Andaman Sea, and governments setting up asylum detention centres and failing, slavery raising its head again after a century and half of its abolition, endemic diseases, and water and food shortages in many parts of the world, ISIS destroying what is left of the countries of the Middle East, previously settled conflicts re-emerging – if people want to see reality it is all round us – but most ignore or think it will not hit them.

        • albert pike

          ” time is short and rich and poor will get the same justice”

          Justice for what?

          Who will administer it? The antichrist?

          • Bonkim

            Fossil fuels running out by turn of century. Burn while you can.

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        Better cooperation.

        • albert pike

          “Better cooperation”

          Sounds good. How would it manifest itself?

          • Bonkim

            Eliminate the polluters.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Not overpopulated, just over consuming.

      • Bonkim

        You cannot interfere with mankind’s human right to consume.

    • Lorenzo

      Welcome back, Rev. Malthus. Haven’t seen you for quite a while, what’s up?

      • Bonkim

        Your allocated time is up!

        • Lorenzo

          Who allocates my time?

          • Bonkim

            Fossil fuels running out by turn of century.

          • Lorenzo

            But wait, we were supposed to be out of fossil fuels before the end of the last century. The Club of Rome used computers to predict that back in the 1970s. And yet we keep finding more, recently a very large oil field near Gatwick airport, of all places.

          • Bonkim

            Good luck!

  • LibLabCon Loyalist

    Strange how those who promote global warming, never suggest that birth control would be a good idea, not to stop global warming, which is not happening, but to stop the pollution of the planet, which is happening

    • Bonkim

      Pollution and resource depletion kill off mankind – don’t worry. Nature is a harsh task master.

    • Blindsideflanker

      Because the promotion of Global warming is a hobby horse of groups who couldn’t get legitimacy at the ballot box, mostly a rag bag of left wing causes who see GW as a means to exert state control by other means. It has very little to do with environment or sustainability for as you point out if it did , they would be seeking to control mass immigration driven population expansion rather than do all they can to obstruct and attempts to limit it, and globally seek to limit population expansion by directing most of our Aid to promoting birth control.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Global population is rapidly stabilising. What we need to stop is poorer countries becoming as developed as the West. Wealth pollutes and consumes resources.

      • Gilbert White

        How come two bit lefties are suddenly experts on global demographics? Simple simon reasoning perhaps. Look at the recent tosh coming out of the LSE about Chinese emissions! One day we will have truthful environmentalists in our midst before it is too late.

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    • greencoat

      Because the fast-breeding mega-multitudes are black and brown in colour and of course they can do no wrong.

  • jonkle

    Moths stuck to the windscreen ?
    Perhaps the improved drag coefficient of modern cars has reduced moth collisions i.e. they just get diverted over the roof in the smoother flow of air. But I would say that having been driving since 1965, the only problem I’ve ever encountered with moths has been inside my wardrobe, and they’re as prevalent as ever.

  • trace9

    “.. a river of 50 million wading birds ..” WHAT happened to them? Are they all dead & gone?

    Sadly, even the printing of this book – not to mention the Internet carrying the article – COST. Yet still they do it, & will never stop. It’s a bit like the Nazis robotically catalogueing all of those doomed prisoners, piles of shoes, bundles of clothes, cut hair, human-fat soap & finally skin lampshades. Yeah, Hitler knew a thing or two – because he was all of us – incl. me.. That was all because of German overpopulation – so’s this of the globe, being turned from living-space into a killing-room. Seig Heil!

  • Bob Harris

    The book sounds like a complete load of nonsense to me.

    I just asked my Dad, and he has no recollection of wiping moths off the wind shield in the 60’s (and he was there!).

    Nature is doing better than it has ever done before.

    • CouchSlob

      > Nature is doing better than it has ever done before.

      Really? Tell that to the black rhino:

      http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39319/0

      • Bob Harris

        Tell it to the woolly mammoth. Tell it to the terror bird. Tell it to the dinosaurs. etc.

        Extinction is an inevitable side effect of evolution.

        • CouchSlob

          You seem to be arguing that because species go extinct, we should not worry about deliberately wiping out black rhinos. Hey it’s just nature, right? How obscene.

          Besides which, your arguments are specious – the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor, nothing to do with evolution.

          • Bob Harris

            Damn those murderous meteors! Have they no care for the black rhino?!

        • John Morgan

          Except that evolution usually produces an increase in species richness, even while obsolete forms disappear. This latter needs to happen slowly if catastrophic changes are to be avoided. Just now a huge increase in extinction rate is apparently beginning.

    • Bonkim

      Windscreens used to be plastered by insects particularly on motorways going through the countryside.

    • John Morgan

      Your dad obviously never travelled the countryside very much. Or perhaps his senility is more advanced than mine 😉 A storm is rather too OTT, but certainly one spent the morning following a night drive cleaning up the front of the car in those distant days.

      Nature is but a shadow of what I saw as a boy.

      • explain that

        OTOH, we all could thank Bayer for that.

      • Rick Wright

        Just back from a 5,500-mile drive from New Jersey to British Columbia and back, a fair bit of it off the interstate highways and out on back roads through marshes and fields.
        Cleaned the windshield once.
        Once.

        • John Morgan

          I’m not sure whether to be seriously concerned, or just concerned 🙁

      • Bob Harris

        Ah, but there are more cars on the road. The bug population may have increased, but the splatter less noticeable thanks to bugs-to-windshield distribution.

  • Perseus Slade

    All of England is slowly being built up.
    The population continues to grow
    largely through immigration
    which for some reason appears to be unstoppable.
    If this continues, everywhere will be suburbanified.

    This is not sustainable.

    There is no long-term planning,
    the situation appears to be out of control.

    WTF

  • John Morgan

    Sir Winston Churchill told us:”Never, never give up” But I can see how
    it might appear to many that ‘giving up’ is the only sanity-preserving
    option. Denial of AGW and other on-going environmental disasters is a face-saving way of giving up.

  • WarriorPrincess111111

    Michael McCarthy has given the ecosystem new recognition in illustrating that human progress is destroying that which is the very basics of life. We have become so used to the criticism of building on flood plains creating severe flooding in parts of the UK – we have forgotten that the constructions themselves destroy natures evolution. We are more content in complaining about the high cost of produce without consideration of the destruction to wildlife caused by the pesticides that are used to produce perfect goods. As the physicist Newton said “To every action, there is a reaction”

    Moths for instance – annoying little moths who yes, did cover car windscreens with their splattered bodies and had to be cleaned from motorcycle visors, and also buzzed around the evening nightlight as one dined outside in the summer months – are very important to the ecosystem.

    Moths benefit plants by pollinating flowers while feeding on their nectar, and so help in seed production. This not only benefits wild plants but also many of our food crops, which depend on moths as well as other insects to ensure a good harvest.
    So while progress is concerned with maximising the output of food and crops – the ecosystem should also be considered very seriously.

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