The State of Humanity

This week saw the release of the 2016 State of Nature UK report from the RSPB. The highly detailed report is designed to give an overall picture of how nature is faring in the UK using large data-sets and with consideration to both the long and short terms.

Overall the picture is far from good with many species having slipped off the radar (i.e. gone instinct) and many more endangered or critically endangered. However, some species have increased their numbers – perhaps this is to be expected in the economy of nature as others struggle and new opportunities arise – and some of the greatest threats to species well-being, like climate change, may actually have positive benefits for some species. Also encouraging is the acknowledgement of the vast number of engaged individuals and conservation organisations across the country.

But beyond the stats there are several narratives in the report that really stand out to me. The first is the obvious irony in the report’s title. Since it is clear that the greatest challenges facing the natural world are of human origin – in other words, environmental problems are the symptoms of human cultural problems – perhaps a more suitable title would be The State of Humanity UK report. After all, what does it say about our culture – western civilization in general – when we’ve allowed 25% of our species to go extinct or be threatened with extinction?

The report particularly points a finger at changing land management practices which have, in some cases, simply nudged nature out. Tellingly such changing practices have largely come about to address the food requirements of a burgeoning population. That seems fair enough until you consider that two-thirds of the UK population is overweight or clinically obese, and that we have a shocking record of food waste. In short, nature is being nudged out to provide food that we don’t even need!

This fact ultimately points to the general disconnect between human society and the natural world, and the hubris with which we attend to our relationship to nature. Even Sir David Attenborough, undoubtedly the most famous naturalist in the world and someone who has perhaps done more to bring the plight of the natural world to the general public’s attention than anyone else, cannot get away from the idea of a nature / culture divide in which humans are seemingly the masters of nature. In the foreword to the report Sir David refers to ‘’our wonderful nature’’ which ‘’needs our help as never before’’ – a statement which implies that we can perform a heroic act to save nature, somewhat obscuring the reality that it is people who have caused this situation in the first place.

Humans have a shocking record of natural destruction. The idea that in the recent past we lived peacefully with nature which has only changed recently due to modernity is a fantasy. Rather, we’ve brought a wave destruction wherever we’ve roamed all throughout history. It’s great that we care enough about the non-human world to write reports such as these but perhaps if we really want to change how nature is faring we should start by changing the language that we use to write about it. Nature is most certainly not ours, nor is it a thing waiting to be saved. Nature is the set of complex and dynamic relationships and dependencies which we are also entangled in.

If we want to sincerely address the state of nature we must start by addressing the state of ourselves.

RSPB – Download the report here

BBC – Nature loss linked to farming intensity, read here

The Guardian – Wildlife winners and losers, read here

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