What’s the biggest threat to life on Earth today? It depends on the value you place on the quality of life. If we assume quality of life includes meeting the everyday requirements of clean water, clean air, productive soils, and access to food, building materials, it should also extend to having the freedom to experience a rich and varied life. These are all fundamentally based on the assets and services that nature provides us with. Yet so many of us are today are insulated against the forces that bring these assets to our doorsteps that we forget they are there.
Such is the threat today to nature. In the hustle of everyday life, we forget that nature plods along providing us with clean water and nutritionally valuable food every day, while we career on with today’s preoccupations. It is this dislocation between what is valuable and what is not that is starkly reflected in headlines. One day, the gap between what we take for granted and what we value is going to get so wide, we’re going to fall in.
So it is that while we continue to take nature for granted and what’s been termed the 6th extinction continues apace, we will, inevitably, reach a stage where nature no longer functions and can no longer provide us with everyday requirements we have. Studies have shown, for example that in a grassland habitat, 80% of plant species play some sort of role. What that role is and how important it is we don’t necessarily know. But what we do know is that the 80% of species all work together somehow to enable the grassland ecosystem to function. There is, as we also know, an ongoing simplification of our habitats, where we’re continuing to lose species richness and habitats are composed of fewer species. Once we get below this 80% in grasslands, the system will collapse. We may not notice for a while, but at some point, some service we took for granted will no longer be there. But by that point it will be too late.
This is why the ‘precautionary principle’ is so enlightened and brilliant. It takes account of the fact that we don’t understand how our ecosystems work and it puts in place an insurance policy to make sure we don’t squander the riches we have by accident. Despite the brilliance of the concept, the precautionary principle comes under attack on a regular basis for being incompatible with the need to continue to grow. Rather instead of being perceived as against sustainable development, it is rather the underpinning force of sustainable development. How ironic is that?