The balance of nature in crisis

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

Nature in the Balance ?  Balance of Nature?  Balance in Nature?   Balance in teaching about Nature?

Writing in a recent Times, Jenni Russel said this:

"Nature is in crisis. Soils are being depleted faster than they can regenerate, wildlife populations have crashed by two thirds in 50 years, bird species are vanishing, a quarter of all plant and animal species are dying out and their rate of disappearance is accelerating. We are living through the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history. For the first time we are the cause.

It’s not a distant threat but an immediate one. We have had our free lunch building, poisoning, extracting, dredging, harvesting, rapaciously demanding all the natural world can offer us. We are treating the planet’s life as an infinitely exploitable, adaptable resource. It isn’t. We are killing the web of growing things on which our own survival depends.

If awe, wonder, respect and joy can’t drive us to do things differently, sheer selfishness should. The world we take for granted, of trees, flowers, birdsong and fertile soil, may look reassuringly unchanged to us. That’s an illusion. It is deadening underneath our feet.

Take insects, a life-form I have rarely thought of except as threat or irritation, best destroyed — mosquitoes, aphids, wood lice, flies. As a child in the country I loathed cycling through the unavoidable clouds of summer gnats, swallowing and choking on them. I wished savagely for them to disappear.

And now they all but have. Along with vast numbers of other tiny crawling, burrowing, airborne things. It is a phenomenon that scientists have only just begun to measure and understand, much less visible than the disappearance of rhinos or swifts, but a catastrophe because insects form two thirds of life on Earth and are the basis of it. They pollinate three quarters of all plants, consume dead creatures and vegetation, and are the prey on which so many birds, fish and animals depend.

Six years ago, shocked German entomologists reported that in 27 years the number of flying insects had fallen by three quarters. Now scientists conclude that insect numbers worldwide are tumbling by 2.5 per cent a year, disappearing eight times faster than vertebrates. If this continues, 40 per cent will be gone within decades. Experts such as those at the Royal Society and the Natural History Museum (NHM) fear they are ringing a warning bell that isn’t being heard. The Australian entomologist who surveyed the insect research concludes we are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth in 250 million years. Professor Dave Goulson, one of Britain’s leading biologists, describes this as “ecological Armageddon”. He has warned: “If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.”

I write this both because it’s new and profoundly alarming to me and because it frames the vital importance of how we should respond. Our green and pleasant land is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, in the bottom 10 per cent. This is largely a manmade crisis, of habitat loss, pesticides, pollution and climate. Humankind can start to redress it but only if we treat nature not as, variously, an idly pretty thing, a vexing obstacle or an infinite treasure chest but as a precious asset to be nurtured.

From now on, if we are to build and grow, we have simultaneously to prioritise how to replenish what we remove. This shift will have to be driven by governments if it is to take off, but all of us must start where we can, now. The NHM’s slogan is: small actions make a big difference.

Make space for nature wherever possible. Wildlife needs water and wild spaces, and Britain’s ponds have largely disappeared. Small patches of wildflowers double the numbers of bees and butterflies in two years. In schools and gardens, plant for pollinators. Thrill children with the glory of nature. Put in bird baths and mini ponds; they can be dish-sized and be effective. Lever up some paving stones to plant the soil below. Pile dead wood to rot for insects and hedgehogs. Even flat-dwellers can plant window boxes and add tiny water bowls.

Ban plastic grass everywhere but sports grounds, and then only with planning permission; it is a death carpet, polluting for ever. Ban all pesticides in private and public spaces, as France has done. Using them is unforgivable, knowing what we do now. Campaign to reform or minimise agricultural pesticides. They are killing life on land, river and sea.

Green everything. Hamburg in Germany aims to install green roofs on two thirds of suitable buildings. They cut pollution and noise, insulate and cool down. Insist all offices, and retailers in out-of-town stores such as Sainsbury’s, Ikea and B&Q, turn green rhetoric into reality, with plantable sedum roofs, climbers on walls, and hedges, trees, flowerbeds and water fountains in car parks.

Make the first question for all construction: how do we compensate nature? Not as an afterthought but a necessity. Add bee bricks and space for swifts and swallows in new buildings, plant hedges not fences, create green corridors for wildlife. Dig rain gardens in old and new sites to absorb water runoff. Ban the paving of gardens for parking. Make permeable paving the new norm. Create a pocket park in a parking space in every street. Plant trees.

Make Plantlife’s campaigns, No Mow May and Let it Bloom June, official policy. Mowing verges, lawns and parks in late spring kills wild flowering plants and the insects, birds, voles, lizards and shrews depending on them. This year far too many have been stupidly razed by bureaucrats blind to this crisis, from the Environment Agency on the river in Bridport to the Highways Agency, found by the gardener Joel Ashton to have destroyed some 20 miles of flowers along the A1. Treat Britain’s verges not as an extension of roads but as the phenomenal natural reserve they are, much richer in wildlife than the farmland around them, and totalling the size of the Lake District national park.

We can take up the beauty and excitement of this challenge. Or we can close our eyes and let life as we know it die."


Setting aside some small issues – eg, woodlice are not insects – I wonder if the DfE's curriculum team would regard this as balanced and within the law if it was presented at a school assembly.  Or would it say that the other side of the argument(s) need to be presented as well in order to ensure a balanced presentation?  Let's hear it for biodiversity loss, species extinction, and intensive agriculture, perhaps.

It would be good to think that the DfE were sufficiently interested to take a view.  And then there's school leaderships.  Would all school leaders be happy for something like this to happen?  I wonder ...

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • Russell's article is commendable in shedding light on potential solutions, yet still falls into the catastrophe narrative meant to scare us all in to compliance with draconian actions favored by the hierarchical systems that currently run our world. Thank you for stating the idea that balanced discussion might be useful - something sorely lacking at this time.