Nervous youths waited for the cue to throw themselves headlong into the ocean. In those next few moments, they would risk drowning, shark attacks, or falling to their deaths.
Before them were small, near-inaccessible islets teeming with seabirds returning to nest. Somewhere out there, more than a mile across treacherous seas, was the prize – the first sooty tern egg of the year.
On Easter Island, the most isolated island in the world, winning this 18th century egg race would bring great kudos to the victorious youth. His sponsoring chief would be treated like a deity; on his death, a huge stone statue would be carved in his memory.
This extraordinary culture flourished for centuries before going bust. They ate plenty of fish, which they caught using canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks. As the population grew, however, so they felled the forests that once covered the island to make way for fields. They grew crops to boost their diet, but when the last of the trees disappeared, so too did their means of fishing. They were left marooned and impoverished.
A new and dangerous type of farming
Nonetheless their population continued to grow, until it outstripped the land’s capacity to provide enough food. By 1774, when Captain Cook arrived, the islanders were poverty-stricken, at each other’s throats, and down to a fraction of their peak number.
This historical decline has become known as the “Warning of Easter Island”. The challenges now faced by us as a global society are strikingly similar. Life on Earth has thrived for billions of years, yet in the blink of an evolutionary eye, one species has come to dominate the planet: us. If we carry on as we are, scientists warn of a mass extinction event not seen since an asteroid-strike wiped out the dinosaurs.
And the primary reason? Just like on Easter Island: our approach to food.
After 10,000 years of growing food in harmony with nature, recent decades have seen the rise of a new and dangerous form of agriculture: industrial agriculture; fixated on producing more at any cost.
Crops are now routinely sprayed with a battery of chemical pesticides. Artificial fertilisers have replaced land rotation and grazing animals as the chosen way to replenish soil. And so has dawned an industrial approach to growing food in the countryside.
The true costs of industrial agriculture are now becoming evident – a reason behind the escalating impact is the growing population of livestock.
Of the 80 billion farmed animals raised for food every year, two-thirds are incarcerated in darkened sheds or feedlots; caged, crammed, and confined on factory farms. Meanwhile millions of acres of chemical-soaked cropland are dedicated to growing their feed.
For a long time, the environment seemed capable of absorbing the heavy knocks associated with this type of agriculture.
Devouring our habitat
However, we are now reaching a tipping point: the Earth’s ability to absorb pollution, greenhouse-gas emissions, or demands on natural resources like land, water, and soil, is now being exceeded.
Humanity has always been part of the ecosystem, living in a natural environment it cannot completely control. We can forecast the weather, but we have yet to find a way to stop it raining, or to make the sun shine on a particular day. We can predict earthquakes but, so far, we cannot prevent them from happening, any more than we can stop the wind blowing, or to turn the tide.
It is hard to imagine this changing, but we continue to subjugate the natural world to what we see as our needs, however and wherever we can. In so doing, we devour our own habitat.
Flora and fauna are falling extinct 1,000 times faster than the rate viewed by scientists as the expected ‘background’ rate.
Billions more humans
In July each year, the United Nations marks World Population Day. Our global population is about to reach eight billion. By the middle of the century, it is expected to rise to nine or ten billion.
Derek Joubert, a conservationist and explorer with National Geographic, noted that 50 years ago, there were nearly half a million lions left in the world, and that every time the human population rises by one billion, the population of lions falls by half.
“Today we’re at 20,000 to 30,000 lions and the same is true for leopards, for cheetahs, for snow leopards,” he wrote.
To me, the link is obvious: an extra billion people come with ten billion extra farmed animals, together with all that means for more pressure on land, water and soil. As land is carved up and pared down, so species start to teeter on the edge.
This isn’t about people versus animals. Far from it. I am not arguing for Draconian population control; the real sting in the tail is the population explosion in farmed animals.
That is so often what does the real damage, for nature and for humanity.
As consumers, we have the power to reduce an awful lot of farm animal suffering and to save wildlife three times a day through our food choices: by choosing to eat more plants, and to eat less and better meat and dairy from animals kept in higher welfare conditions such as pasture-fed, free range, or organic.
In this way, we can take the pressure off hard-pressed landscapes, leaving forests to give us oxygen, helping rivers to run clean, and restoring soils for future harvests. All of this, whilst freeing animals from factory farms and saving amazing wildlife like jaguars, elephants, and penguins.
In this way, we can ensure that the future is less like that warning of Easter Island and much more a celebration of life.
Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf