'Civilisation' is in a precarious place, yet humanity's quest for advancement continues unabated.
This article argues that unless we dramatically change our focus away from continued growth, we run the risk of an extinction crisis.
Forests in Scotland have had a long and arduous journey. They began to creep back following the end of the last ice-age some 11,000 years ago and we can suspect that for many thousands of years Scotland, and much of the United Kingdom, was a veritable blanket of green. At its peak, forest covered even the now barren Shetland and the Western Isles, and what a sight it must have been. Forest was the life-blood of organisms, supporting countless species, including Wolves, Bears and Beavers.
With such a rich resource it would have been nice if our ancient ancestors had kept it that way; indeed, they had for many thousands of years, leading a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that worked in harmony with their environment, but another human development was on the way – agriculture.
It was bound to happen, of course. I mean, if you had to spend the greater part of your day trudging the forest in search of roots and risking your life hunting wild boar and then someone turned up and told you how to grow your own, you’d be interested, right?
We have come a long way since our hunter-gatherer days, but at a huge cost to the environment - and perhaps to humanity.
Image Credit: Wix
That is essentially the history of agriculture in a small sentence, because somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago that is exactly what happened. Our Neolithic ancestors got very excited about this new idea and began enthusiastically chopping down their ancient forest to make way for crops and to graze animals. In terms of building a ‘civilisation’, farming is apparently essential, and it is difficult to imagine a world where large populations can flourish without it. Yet our apparent need to manage our environment is not only harming us and the species around us, but may also be hastening our own expiration date.
If you talk to just about anyone, you tend to get a sense that people believe they can manage their way out of anything. Any environmental problem, any pandemic, any hitch on the road to human development can be overcome by technology, invention and humanity’s never-ending ability to innovate, explore and achieve. After all, they would say, we have got where we are today, haven’t we? Yes, we have, but if I may, can I suggest a moment to step back from our ‘civilisation’ and take a good look at what it has cost?
You see, despite the fact that we live in a world of borders, of many cultures, languages and beliefs, we still live on only one world. Things that people do on one side of this relatively modest-sized planet affects people on the other side. Our rubbish clogs up their oceans, their need for income affects the decline of species and our collective thirst for timber, gold, minerals and oil affects everyone’s climate. This is the driver behind civilisation, or rather the effect of so-called ‘progress’.
Sir David Attenborough addresses world leaders in 2018.
Video Credit: Guardian World News
Even this could perhaps have once been manageable. After all, the planet Earth has a remarkable ability to self-heal the ravages inflicted upon it. Unfortunately, progress also brings with it a surge in the number of people, each one of us consuming, needing shelter, warmth, food and with these things a host of other objects, each one manufactured, many of them used once and then thrown away into a hole in the ground. Take toothbrushes, for instance. It has been estimated that humanity uses and then throws away 3.6 billion plastic ones every year, about 300 per person in an average lifetime. Trying to get a handle on how big these numbers are is difficult, but apparently if all the toothbrushes just in the United States that were used in one year were laid end-to-end, they would encircle the globe 4 times. And that is just a relatively small item of personal hygiene – what about the plethora of non-recyclable objects with which we fill our homes?
Pens, plastic pots, plastic utensils, parts of our appliances, even the seals around our doors and windows – these are but a small part of the legacy of rubbish that will at some point be buried or incinerated, if we are lucky, or most likely end up at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, out of sight yet continuing to harm.
As the plastic slowly and inexorably breaks up into tiny particles, at some point there is a good chance that you will ingest at least a few of them. Even for those yet to be born, some of those tiny pieces will enter their brains and hearts, passed via the maternal placenta to their unknowing offspring. What is the effect of that? I am concerned to say that we don’t know, but I suggest that it really can’t be very good for them.
This is just one of the problems created by humanity. The pollution of our land and oceans is only just beginning to be properly catalogued, yet the net effect of it is still poorly understood. I can quote horrifying figures about plastics (four billion plastic fibres per square kilometre of ocean floor; up to 12.7 million tons of extra waste joining it each year) but there are few scientists who can confidently predict what it is doing to the environment as a whole or human health in particular.
A short video about plastics in the oceans
Video credit: National Geographic
This is a view across part of Knapdale in Western Scotland. Very soon, some 8.5 square kilometres of this stunning place will become devoid of trees.
Image Credit: Wix
Since this article was meant to be about forests in Scotland, why am I apparently going off at a tangent about plastics? Well, in the same way that we unthinkingly toss our used toothbrushes and other detritus into a waste bin, we also mindlessly lay waste to our forests. Of course, we need wood though, don’t we? Yes, of course. And is not wood actually much better than plastic? Yes it is. It breaks down over time, at a much faster rate and its atoms will be re-absorbed and reused.
So, what’s the problem?
Forests are in decline, which is a polite way of saying that they are disappearing at a rate that is both alarming and has far-reaching implications for us as a viable species. Every time we remove a section of woodland, we are not just making use of a precious resource that has taken decades, if not centuries, to grow, we are damaging virtually every living thing that lives there. I don’t mean just the obvious loss of nesting and feeding places, but also the smaller insects, invertebrates as well as the micro-organisms that flourish there, each with a link to the other in a complex chain. Each time we do this those largely immobile species are not going to quietly pack their bags and move on – they are going to die in their millions. And this is what is soon going to happen in my own small part of the world in a place called Knapdale forest (Link to Google Map).
An area of 825 hectares in Knapdale forest, that is nearly eight and -a-half square kilometres, is due to be felled in what is already a very modestly forested area. This happens a lot in Scotland, especially where conifers are grown commercially, however, part of this particular operation, scheduled to start this year, includes parcels of land designated SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) so called because the harbour rare species of plant, animals or insects. This fact seems to have bypassed the authority responsible for ‘managing’ the bulk of Scotland’s forest and I have yet to receive a satisfactory explanation for tearing them down. I was confidently told that there were no Environmental Impact Assessments caried out because they ‘didn’t have to’. I find this rather unsettling and strange. If you or I wanted to start chopping down an ancient forest I rather hope to think someone would stop us. Forestry and Land Scotland, being essentially a branch of government, is above all this and appears to be able to do what it wants.
Before you ask, no I am not against forestry. I think it is a great and valuable resource, but the moment one ignores the damage that will be caused, fails to carry out a proper assessment and goes ahead anyway is the moment you have to start worrying.
We, that is humanity, are causing untold damage to the planet and we have yet to fully grasp the enormity of our actions. It has been predicted for some time now that the injury we wreak to our natural world will come back to bite us rather hard and we already seeing those effects in action with climate change, species lost and plastic pollution. The decline in insects, pollinators, is one particular issue that could become catastrophic to our food supply, yet we choose to ignore the warning signs, continue to increase the population and thus encourage yet more waste into the environment.
Dr Stephen Hawking once estimated that we had maybe a thousand years before humanity would be unable to live on planet Earth. I do believe he was being a tad optimistic.
We cannot go on like this. If we do, we run the risk of extinction, not just of even more species than we have already vanquished, but of ourselves.
We have to choose.
Nick MacIneskar 2021