As billionaires fantasise about moving to Mars, it's time to embrace nature-friendly farming to save Earth from 'Age of Loneliness' – Philip Lymbery

With the festive season soon upon us during a winter of financial crisis, the world outside our window can feel distant. Especially where the cost of taking action to save the planet is concerned.

If Mars is 'Planet B', then the future for humanity looks bleak (Picture: Nasa/Getty Images)
If Mars is 'Planet B', then the future for humanity looks bleak (Picture: Nasa/Getty Images)

But rather like getting treatment for a life-threatening disease, putting off doing the right thing will only cost us dear in the future. In fact, it could cost the future itself. Which is why the climate talks hosted in Glasgow a year ago and more recently in Sharm El-Sheikh were so important.

In the past days, world leaders have been meeting in Montreal, Canada, for allied crisis talks aimed at hammering out a plan to stop the decline in nature. Climate and nature are two sides of the same environmental coin: humanity’s life-support system.

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The fact that nearly 200 countries have been trying to agree a pathway to restore nature is a profoundly good thing, particularly as the stakes are so high. Failing to stop the collapse of nature will make addressing climate change harder still. A peace pact with nature is now immensely urgent, but will negotiators succeed? I doubt it.

Why can I be so confident in my assessment? Because there is a huge elephant in the room at these talks: food. Food rarely gets seriously addressed. Certainly not in the transformational terms needed.

‘A war on ourselves’

I have no doubt about the sincerity of the person at the helm of the conference: United Nations director-general, António Guterres. He opened this 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity by pulling no punches: “We are waging a war on nature. Ecosystems have become playthings of profit… Humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction.”

But what has nature ever done for us; some might ask? Well, again, Guterres was quick to explain what would happen if we don’t turn things around: “All of this destruction comes at a huge price. Lost jobs, economic devastation, rising hunger, higher costs for food, water and energy, diseases, and a degraded planet.” His conclusion: “Humanity’s war on nature is ultimately a war on ourselves.”

Yet, getting governments to do the right thing on food and farming is another matter.

Farming to extinction

The link between food and the future for our children is crystal clear. Agriculture covers nearly half the world’s usable land and more than two-thirds of freshwater. Food is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions. As food production becomes more intensive, with cages, crates, chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers, so the natural world is pushed out and erased.

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I’ve observed farmland in many countries on my travels. And I can honestly say that I’ve seen more wildlife in the Sahara desert than many of the intensively managed fields of Britain, Europe and America.

Scientists believe we’re now on the cusp of the sixth mass extinction. It is expected to be the most devastating since the asteroid impact thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs. This time, the cause is much closer to home: us.

All-encompassing decline of nature

Legendary American biologist and Harvard professor, EO Wilson has suggested that we are now entering the Earth’s Eremozoic period: the Age of Loneliness, where much of life may soon be gone forever. It’s a theme explored in Eremozoic by Jim Naughten, a book whose publication coincided with these latest global talks on the nature crisis. And in this new era, it’s not just wildlife affected; we too face an existential threat.

In the last 50 years, since the widespread adoption of intensive agriculture, the world has lost 69 per cent of its monitored wildlife. That decline has been all-encompassing. As well as iconic creatures big and small, as I explored in depth recently, it also plays a big part in the decline of soils. The UN warns that, if we continue as we are, treating soil like dirt, then we could have just 60 years left in the world’s soils. Where will our food come from then?

Rocket ship life-raft?

It’s time to wake up and get serious. Thankfully, that message was put across in Montreal forcibly, again by the UN Secretary-General: “Forget the dreams of some billionaires. There is no planet B,” he said.

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Guterres was referring to billionaire fantasies of fleeing Earth on some life-raft of a rocket ship. The idea that we can leave the Earth and make a new home on Mars or elsewhere is both elitist and dangerous. Most likely, only a few could go, leaving billions of us to face the consequences on a dying planet.

Far better then to roll up our sleeves now and make the changes necessary to bring about a better world for people and the animals around us on whom we depend. Better to rejoice in the rich landscapes that the Earth has to offer. And to save the planet by seeing ourselves as part of a vast orchestra of life.

How do we do this? – well, in the words of Keep Scotland Beautiful, “we can start by understanding how vital every single component of our living world is, and reminding ourselves of our position in the orchestra of life: we are not the conductors, but musicians playing alongside equally special and unique musicians”.

For food and farming, that means moving away from planet-damaging intensification and instead adopting nature-friendly farming. Animals farmed as part of the environment and in regenerative ways, more in keeping with the boundaries of the planet. In this way, we can stave off the Age of Loneliness and look to a future filled with the joy of life in all its glory. The world could wish for no better festive present.

Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former UN Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat; Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were; and his latest, Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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