On a quiet day in June 2020, a stranger on a distant shore contacted me and blew my mind. He asked me to keep a secret until this day.
The stranger was US-based artist Nathan Langston. He told me he had press-ganged some of my words into the service of an international art project called TELEPHONE. Nathan said that, at that moment, artists and poets and musicians all around the world were creating new work as a consequence.
As I said, he blew my mind. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what came next.
Today, Nathan unveiled the final exhibition (here). With work by more than 900 artists in 72 countries, it is one of the largest collections of interconnected original art works in history.
TELEPHONE operated like the children’s game in which a message is whispered from person to person, changing as it goes, until the final version is often unrecognisable from the original.
The TELEPHONE team whispered a message from art form to art form. A sculpture could become a painting, then music, then poetry, then dance. TELEPHONE whispered each finished work of art to multiple artists so the game branched out exponentially.
Halfway through the game, the process reversed. The team started assigning multiple artworks to a single artist. So, TELEPHONE began with one message, passed that message through more than 900 artists and then concluded with a single artwork.
The secret that I’ve been keeping for a year is that the message Nathan chose to start telephone was a four-sentence paragraph from my book about how fig trees have shaped our species and the world about us.
Nathan sent my paragraph to six artists. They created two sculptures, a song, a piece of writing, a painting, a film. Those six works inspired a further 16, and so on. By the time the message had passed through 950 artists it had travelled 7.7 million kilometres around the world.
This project is beautiful in many ways. It took place during a year of lockdown and isolation, yet it connected people all around the world. As the coronavirus spread around the world, so did the whispered message.
The text Nathan used to start TELEPHONE was about a kind of fig tree called a banyan that Alexander the Great encountered when he arrived in India in 326 BCE. These strangler figs send roots down from their branches that thicken into stout pillars that resemble tree trunks. A banyan can have thousands of them, so can look like a forest of trees.
TELEPHONE is like a banyan. It is at once a collection of hundreds of artworks, and also a single gigantic creation. The exhibition is now open for you to explore. Have a wander in that forest of art. There are many paths to follow.
I am so honoured to have played an unwitting part in this amazing project and I am in awe of the wave of creativity it has unleashed.
Year after year, report after report shows that life on Earth is dwindling under humanity’s pressure and that, if we don’t address this, we can expect dire consequences. Last week, for example, the WWF Living Planet Report showed that wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years.
We talked first about last year’s IPBES Global Assessment, upon whose findings the GBO-5 draws. It said a million species were at some threat of extinction and that the ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss threatened human wellbeing.
“The message to policymakers, to the public at large, to governments, to the private sector is: We are threatening a significant percentage of living species,” said Watson. “Twenty-five percent of animal and plant species are at some threat of extinction. We are also degrading loads of ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, mangroves. We’ve lost large percentage of populations of species. And we are losing essential ecosystem services, or what we call nature’s contributions to people.”
“I’m hoping we can get across to people that these are not just species or ecosystems,” he said. “We rely on nature for food, water, energy, et cetera. We need nature. And we are undermining the long-term sustainability upon which we depend. We are destroying nature. We are destroying natural assets.”
Watson highlighted the failure of governments to rise to the challenge despite making international commitments. “Unfortunately, we failed to meet all of the Aichi targets and we are not on course to meet the Paris climate goal — we are currently on a pathway to a 3C, or more, warmer world, not a 1.5-2C warmer world. We haven’t really decreased the drivers of change.”
“The underlying driver is that we’ve got more and more people and they’re becoming on average wealthier,” he said. “They demand more resources, quite naturally — more food, more water, more energy, et cetera.”
“So how do we meet those demands? Well, we cut more and more of our forests or our grasslands down for agriculture. We overexploit the land. We overexploit the oceans. We’ve got more air and water pollution — air pollution again from using energy; water pollution for a dozen-and-one reasons, including fertilisers, pesticides, et cetera. Climate change itself is a big threat. And we’re moving species, purposefully and accidently, from one part of the world to another part of the world. So, we’ve got invasive alien species.”
“These pressures are all going in one direction — up,” he said. “So, yes, we’ve got more awareness of biodiversity. We’re more aware that it has got value. We’re aware that we’re destroying it. But we have not got to grips with either the indirect or direct drivers that are causing the loss. I think that’s where governmentshave a real challenge.”
To bridge the gap between words and action, Watson recommends that governments focus on finance and economics, to stimulate sustainability and undo policies with perverse outcomes. As GBO-5 points out, for example, governments pay out US$ 500 billion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and other sectors that damage our living environment.
“We have to get rid or significantly reduce these environmentally harmful subsidies in energy, agriculture and transportation,” said Watson. “We should incorporate the value of natural capital into decision-making. We should internalise our social and environmental costs in the market price of a substance. We should create a more circular economy where we look at sustainable production. And, with subsidies, we could actually stimulate more sustainable practices in the way many governments have subsidised renewable energy to get it to break into the market and to scale it up.”
These are some elements of what IPBES and others call ‘transformative change’, and Watson acknowledges that it will not be easy to overcome resistance to them. “There are a lot of vested interests that like the status quo, that like those subsidies,” he said. “They don’t care about the long term. They are looking for a short-term profit.”
Another shift Watson wants to see is greater coordination among government departments responsible for sectors that affect or are affected by nature. “They’ve got to work together,” he said. “No single one of these government departments can solve this alone.” He said the same applies to the Rio Conventions — the three international agreements on biodiversity, climate change and land degradation — and to UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
“We really need to look at how climate change and biodiversity impact on each other, how they impact on agriculture, energy, water and human health — and how these all impact back on biodiversity and climate,” he said. “There is not a hope in hell of achieving any of the Sustainable Development Goals unless we simultaneously attack climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and air and water pollution.”
Nature actually matters
“I think we need polycentric governance structures where all of the key stakeholders are really involved,” Watson told me. “What that will require is a huge amount of trust. Government have to trust each other. Governments have to trust the private sector, and vice versa. Then of course you have to consider the role of us, as individuals. We can choose what we eat. We can choose what sort of energy we use. How we use our energy. How we use our water.
“We as individuals need to let government and the private sector know we care about these environmental issues,” he said. “Because while biodiversity loss and climate change are obviously environmental issues, they are also development issues, economic issues, security issues, social, moral and ethical issues. They threaten food security, water security, human health. They come at an economic cost.”
Ultimately, said Watson, much depends on people and businesses understanding that protecting nature is in their own interests.
“For year and years, we were all saying, ‘You shouldn’t destroy nature. We’re losing species’, but it didn’t have much effect in my opinion,” he said. “I’m not saying people don’t care about nature. I think they do, but in an abstract way. We have to convince people that nature actually matters. We’ve destroyed it in the past. We’ve now got to conserve and restore some of it for our own human wellbeing.”
Biodiversity scientists are being urged to “fight the creeping rise of extinction denial” which has spread from fringe blogs to influential media outlets and even into a US Congressional hearing. The call-to-arms came in a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution last month by Alexander Lees, senior lecturer in conservation biology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and colleagues.
“Many of the same individuals that routinely seek to downplay the impacts of climate change have written articles understating the biodiversity loss crisis,” says Lees. “Denialists have sought to obfuscate the magnitude of both extinctions and loss of bio-abundance.”
The paper describes and debunks three types of extinction denial. The first, ‘literal denial’, argues that extinction is largely a historical problem. Arguments like this, such as contained in this article claiming that “the onset of further wildlife extinctions seems far-fetched”, ignore the conservatism of biologists in declaring extinctions, as well as actual evidence of recent extinctions and of the widespread population declines that suggest many more future losses are on the way, the authors write.
They point out, for example, that denialists have long stated that the Atlantic Forest in Brazil has suffered no extinctions despite having shrunk in area by 90%. Yet two bird species were declared extinct there in 2019, and seven more are down to their last few individuals or have not been seen for a decade or longer.
“The problem is most of the losses are not the big ‘exciting’ species but smaller and less charismatic ones in areas that lost the big exciting things years ago,” says Lees. “We are now reaching critical loss of habitat for many species in the tropics in places like the Philippines and eastern Brazil. It is in these places that the next wave of extinctions is taking place.”
Lees and colleagues also discuss ‘interpretive denial’, which acknowledges the loss of biodiversity but argues that economic growth alone will fix it. One example is a 2019 Washington Examiner article ‘How capitalism will save endangered species.’
The third form of denial is ‘implicatory’, arguing for example that technological fixes and targeted conservation interventions — rather than comprehensive changes to socio-economic systems — will overcome extinction. The authors write that these two forms of denial may use evidence from temperate ecosystems to make inappropriate claims about reduced impacts in the tropics, where habitat loss is accelerating and species are far more sensitive to change.
“The land sparing and abandonment we have seen in the temperate zone has come about because we have outsourced environmental harm elsewhere,” says Lees. “These include countries lauded for their domestic environmental success. For example, Japan is still heavily forested but has plundered rainforests elsewhere for timber. Norway fuels forest loss in Amazonia for soybean to feed fish and cattle. Most people remain ignorant of these global teleconnections and their impacts on biodiversity.”
Dawn of denial
Extinction denial came to the fore in May last year, when the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its Global Assessment. The report said a million species were at risk of extinction, and it outlined steps for ‘transformative change’ to secure nature’s contributions to human wellbeing.
Commentators such as Toby Young in TheSpectator disputed the findings or attacked the reputations and methods of the report’s authors, leading one of them, Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London, to write a lengthy rebuttal.
More attacks came at the U.S. Congress in a hearing called by the House Natural Resources Committee to discuss the IPBES findings. Republican representatives and their invited witnesses — both climate change skeptics — were vitriolic in their scorn for the report and its authors.
Anne Larigauderie, executive secretary of IPBES, says the attacks did not come as a surprise, adding that the Global Assessment had itself stated that ‘transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo.’
In an email interview, she told me, “Anyone who has followed the history of major science-policy issues, such as the smoking/tobacco/public health debates, and the more recent issues around human-induced climate change, is critically aware of the often well-funded and coordinated opposition to expert evidence that arises, especially from those who perceive that they stand to lose the most should policy be changed on the basis of such evidence.”
More denial likely
“Any attempts to take the global economy in a more sustainable direction will be undermined by some stakeholders seeking to maintain the status quo,” says Lees. “So, I would be surprised if we do not see attempts to undermine the work of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).”
On 15 September, the CBD will launch its Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5). The report is set to feed into intergovernmental negotiations towards a global biodiversity framework, to be agreed next year in China, reinforcing calls for transformative change.
Larigauderie says denialism in relation to the GBO-5 “seems likely”, as the report draws heavily on the IPBES findings. But she doubts denialists will derail ambition in the CBD negotiations towards a new global agreement.
“The actual traction of such denialism remains limited,” she says. “A much greater threat to ambition for the post-2020 biodiversity framework would be a failure to connect the loss of biodiversity to the other major global development challenges such as food security, human health, production and consumption patterns.”
Dealing with denial
Lees and his colleagues Simon Attwood, Jos Barlow and Ben Phalan say biodiversity scientists should be ready to rebut high-profile denialists. “Many scientists already respond to science denial when it appears in print or on social media from prominent individuals, and this should be encouraged,” says Lees. “We provide a roadmap in the paper that is underpinned by courteous engagement, the deconstruction of specious arguments and pseudoscience, and the presentation of cold hard scientific facts.”
“We thought the paper was an important contribution, and we agree with the concern regarding denialism,” says Thomas Brooks, chief scientist at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Responding to denialism — for any applied science — requires skills not just in the science, but also in science communication, stakeholder engagement, etc., which are perhaps less widely-taught through university courses. The paper’s recommendations on countering denialism will be particularly useful in this light.”
Sir Robert Watson, former chair of IPBES, is confident that the biodiversity community is up to the task. “While not all climate or biodiversity experts are politically savvy or able to deal with the skeptics, politicians or the media, there are more than enough who understand the science-policy interface and can counter unfounded accusations and the misuse of evidence,” he says.
“Overall, I am not worried by the deniers,” he says. “But I am worried that governments may not be able to deliver the actions that are required to conserve and restore biodiversity in a timely manner, in order for biodiversity to play its role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Unless climate change, land degradation and biodiversity are addressed together, we will fail.”
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