Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
In every conflict over the living world, something is protected. And most of the time it’s the wrong thing.
The world’s most destructive industries are fiercely protected by governments. The three sectors that appear to be most responsible for the collapse of ecosystems and the erasure of wildlife are fossil fuels, fishing and agriculture. In 2021, governments directly subsidized oil and gas production to the tune of $64bn (£53bn) and spent another $531bn (£443bn) to keep fossil fuel prices low . The latest fisheries data, from 2018, suggests global subsidies to the sector total $35 billion annually, of which more than 80% goes to large-scale industrial fisheries. Most are paid to “increase capacity”: in other words to help industry, as marine ecosystems collapse, catch more fish.
Governments spend $500 billion on agricultural subsidies every year, most of which ignores environmental protection. Even payments that claim to do so often do more harm than good. For example, many of the EU’s second pillar ‘green’ subsidies support raising livestock on land that would be better used for ecological restoration. Over half of Europe’s agricultural budget is spent on supporting animal farming, which is probably the most environmentally destructive industry in the world.
Pastured meat production destroys five times more forests than palm oil. It now threatens some of the richest habitats on Earth, including the forests of Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Myanmar. Meat production could absorb 3 million square kilometers of the world’s most biodiverse places in 35 years. It’s almost the size of India. In Australia, 94% of deforestation in the Great Barrier Reef watershed – a major cause of coral loss – is associated with beef production. However, most of these disasters are accomplished with the help of public money.
The more destructive the business, the more likely it is to enjoy political protection. Chicken factories being built in Herefordshire and Shropshire are at risk of destroying far more jobs than they create, destroying tourism through river pollution, air pollution, smell, a study released this month says and the landscape degradation they cause. But none of the planning applications for these factories were required to provide an economic impact analysis. Planning managers, the document found, are very dismissive of the hospitality sector, treating it as “non-serious and banal”. In comparison, the paper found that “attitudes towards agriculture were very different; described as serious, ‘proper’ (masculine) work”. The “hard”, “masculine” industries driving Earth’s systems towards collapse are pampered and protected by governments, while the less destructive sectors have to fend for themselves.
While there is no shortage of public money for the destruction of life on Earth, the budgets for its protection are always insufficient. According to the United Nations, $536 billion will be needed annually to protect the living world – far less than the amount paid to destroy it – yet nearly all of this funding is lacking. Some were promised, almost none materialised. So much for public money for public goods.
Political protection of destructive industries is woven into the fabric of politics, not least because of the pollution paradox (“the more harmful the commercial enterprise, the more money it has to spend on politics to ensure it is unregulated and does not exist. Of as a result, politics comes to be dominated by the more harmful commercial enterprises.”) Terrestrial systems, by contrast, are treated as an afterthought, an ornament: nice to have, but superfluous when their protection conflicts with the need for In reality, the irreducible essential is a habitable planet.
In 2010, at a biodiversity summit in Nagoya, Japan, governments set themselves 20 goals, to be achieved by 2020. None have been achieved. As they prepare for the COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal next week, governments are investing not in defending the living world but in greenwashing.
The main goal is to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. But what governments mean by protection often bears little resemblance to what ecologists mean.
Take the UK, for example. On paper, it has one of the highest percentages of protected land in the rich world, at 28%. He could easily increase this percentage to 30% and claim that he has fulfilled his obligations. But it is also one of the poorest in nature countries on Earth. How can it be? Because most of our “safe” areas are nothing like that.
One analysis suggests that only 5% of our territory meets the international definition of a protected area. Even these scraps are at risk, as hardly anyone is left to enforce the law: regulators have been cut to the bone and beyond. At sea, most of our marine protected areas are nothing more than lines on the map: fishing boats still tear them apart.
All of this is likely to get much worse. If the withheld EU bill goes ahead, the entire basis of legal protection in the UK could be brought down. Even by the standards of this government, the senseless vandalism involved is staggering. To prove that Brexit means Brexit, 570 environmental laws must be canceled or replaced by the end of next year. There will be no public consultation, no opportunity to present evidence and, in all likelihood, no opportunity for parliamentary debate. It is logistically impossible to replace so much legislation in such a short period, so elimination is the most likely outcome. If so, it’s over for rivers, soil, air quality, groundwater, wildlife and habitats in the UK, and game for cheaters and scammers. The whole country will, in effect, become a free port.
Never underestimate the destructive instincts of the Conservative Party, ready to screw everything up for the sake of an idea. Never underestimate his appetite for chaos and dysfunction.
The protected industries that push us towards destruction will take everything if left unchecked. We face a brutal competition for control of land and sea: between those seeking to convert our life support systems for profit and those seeking to defend, restore and, where possible, return them to indigenous peoples dispossessed by the firefront of the capitalism. It is never just about technical or scientific issues. They cannot be resolved by management alone. They are deeply political. We can protect the living world or we can protect the corporations that destroy it. We cannot do both.