First they came for the whales

First they came for the whales

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 December 2019

701 words

While there has been an increasing public focus on climate change in the last few years, and a slow awakening to the threat it poses, we have yet to wake up fully to an even bigger problem. I noted in a September 2019 column that we face not only a climate emergency but an extinction emergency.

A 2018 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on this. It reported on a census of the biomass of the Earth – the weight (measured as carbon) of all living things. Just over 80 percent is plants, while another 12 percent or so is bacteria; fungi make up about 2 percent and the entire animal kingdom makes up less than 0.4 percent of the Earth’s biomass.

Within the miniscule fraction that is the animal kingdom, about half the biomass is marine arthropods, with most of that being crustacea (e.g. crabs, shrimps, lobsters and Antarctic krill) and another 35 percent is fish. Land vertebrates are only about 0.03 percent (three ten-thousandths) of the weight of all living things, with humans making up about one third of that (0.01 percent). We are outweighed by our livestock, and roughly matched by both Antarctic krill and termites. That should make us feel small and humble!

But while small, we are also mighty. The article notes it has been estimated that “the present-day biomass of wild land mammals is approximately sevenfold lower” than it was 50,000 years ago, before we started wiping out the large land mammals. As a result we now outweigh wild animals ten-fold. They also report that our hunting of whales and other marine mammals has led to a roughly five-fold decrease in their biomass, while we have roughly halved total fish biomass.

It’s not just animals that we have harmed; the authors point to evidence suggesting “the total plant biomass (and, by proxy, the total biomass on Earth) has declined approximately two-fold relative to its value before the start of human civilization”. Given that plants make up roughly 80 percent of the total biomass, that is an astonishing level of impact, one that is not compensated for by our crops, which, they report, account for only about 2 percent of total plant biomass.

Small wonder, then, that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports there are more than 28,000 species threatened with extinction, which is 27 percent of all the species they have assessed. This includes four in ten assessed amphibian species, one quarter of all mammals, almost a third of the sharks and rays and in the plant kingdom, a third of conifers and more than half Europe’s endemic trees.

Contemplating what amounts to a holocaust in the animal and plant kingdoms, the famous 1946 confession of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller came to mind: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In the face of this sixth Great Extinction of life that humanity has initiated, I think we need an updated version, a lament for the web of life:

“First they came for the whales and the sharks, the salmon and the cod and I did not speak out – because they were but sea creatures. Then they came for the elephants and the tigers, the rhinos and the bears, and I did not speak out – because they were only animals. Then they came for the birds and the insects, the reptiles and the frogs, and I did not speak out – because they were small and unimportant. Then they came for the trees and the grasslands, the ferns and mosses, and I did not speak out – because they are just plants. Then they came for me – because we had so damaged the great web of life that everything I depended upon for life was gone.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2019



Poverty and the Olympian fallacy

Poverty and the Olympian fallacy

Dr. Trevor Hancock

26 November 2019

699 words

I was not surprised to receive feedback from a couple of readers objecting to the conclusion of my column last week. In it I explained that economic growth was not the solution for poverty, partly because it does not work very well and partly because further growth of our existing economy is not possible in a finite world where ecosystems are already becoming overwhelmed. Instead, I wrote, we need redistribution of income – and, I should have added, power and resources – from rich countries to poor countries and within countries, from rich people to poor people.

Both readers wrote that they had worked hard and got a university education. One noted “People have to have the desire, focus, and strength to change. Changing social standing, from my experience, is a personal choice”, while the other wrote “I remember well talking to my parents when I was a kid growing up, it was made clear to me that if any wealth was going to be distributed it should be up to the individual, certainly not the state”.

Both of these responses have aspects of what I call the Olympian fallacy, something we sometimes hear from Olympic athletes and other high achievers: I worked hard and was very successful, so you can do the same. The implication, of course, is that we all have an equal chance and if you don’t succeed it’s your own fault.

But the argument is fallacious for two major reasons. First, we are not born equal because we differ genetically. Some people are bigger, faster or stronger than others because they got the right genes. Of course training helps, as does dedication to that training, but having the right genes also helps. And its not just genes for physical attributes but also for psychological traits, which are defined in the American Psychological Association’s dictionary as “an enduring personality characteristic that describes or determines an individual’s behavior across a range of situations”.

Thomas Bouchard, a psychologist, geneticist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, is known for his studies of twins who are separated and grow up in different environments, but with essentially the same genetic makeup. In a 2008 book chapter he noted that “genetic variation is an important feature of virtually every human psychological trait and must be taken into account in any comprehensive explanation (theory) of human behaviour”.

In a 2004 article he reported the genetic influence on personality – including such traits as extraversion, agreeableness or aggression, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, positive or negative emotionality and constraint – is about 40 to 50 percent, while it is about 36 percent for vocational or occupational interest. Genetic factors also play a significant role in mental ability and social attitudes. You can see how this might affect your ability to succeed.

Interestingly, he reports that the genetic influence on some traits vary with age, with genetic influences on mental ability and social attitudes such as conservatism and religiousness being low in young people, but increasing with age – meaning that socio-environmental influences on young people can counteract a genetic predisposition.

This points to a second major problem with the Olympian fallacy; it’s not just nature, it’s also nurture – our environment matters. We all experience different cultural, socio-economic and physical environments growing up, and these conditions influence the choices available to us.

Add to that mix factors such as colonisation, dispossession and racism, or on the other hand inherited wealth, and the scales are tipped further, one way or the other. Then add in slum housing, oppressive governments or employers, resource depletion and an economic system that, left to its own devices, leads to wealth moving up, and you can see why we don’t all have an equal chance.

This is not to deny the role of the individual who is determined and works hard – although remembering that there is a significant genetic influence on personality at work. But it depends also on where you start from and the opportunities you have, it’s not all down to the individual.

Which is why a fair, just and compassionate society will try to level the playing field by redistributing wealth, power and resources to those most in need.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019