n every conflict over the living world, something is being protected. And most of the time, it’s the wrong thing.
The world’s most destructive industries are fiercely protected by governments. The three sectors that appear to be most responsible for the collapse of ecosystems and erasure of wildlife are fossil fuels, fisheries and farming. In 2021, governments directly subsidised oil and gas production to the tune of $64bn (£53bn), and spent a further $531bn (£443bn) on keeping fossil fuel prices low. The latest figures for fisheries, from 2018, suggest that global subsidies for the sector amount to $35bn a year, over 80% of which go to large-scale industrial fishing. Most are paid to “enhance capacity”: in other words to help the industry, as marine ecosystems collapse, catch more fish.
Every year, governments spend $500bn on farm subsidies, the great majority of which pay no regard to environmental protection. Even the payments that claim to do so often inflict more harm than good. For example, many of the European Union’s pillar two “green” subsidies sustain livestock farming on land that would be better used for ecological restoration. Over half the European farm budget is spent on propping up animal farming, which is arguably the world’s most ecologically destructive industry.
Pasture-fed meat production destroys five times as much forest as palm oil does. It now threatens some of the richest habitats on Earth, among which are forests in Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Myanmar. Meat production could swallow 3m square kilometres of the world’s most biodiverse places in 35 years. That’s almost the size of India. In Australia, 94% of the deforestation in the catchment area of the Great Barrier Reef – a major cause of coral loss – is associated with beef production. Yet most of these catastrophes are delivered with the help of public money.
The more destructive the business, the more likely it is to enjoy political protection. A study published this month claims that chicken factories being built in Herefordshire and Shropshire are likely to destroy far more jobs than they create, wrecking tourism through the river pollution, air pollution, smell and scenic blight they cause. But none of the planning applications for these factories has been obliged to provide an economic impact analysis. Planning officers, the paper found, are highly dismissive of the hospitality industry, treating it as “non-serious and trivial”. By comparison, the paper found, “attitudes to farming were very different; described as serious, ‘proper’ (male) work”. The “tough”, “masculine” industries driving Earth systems towards collapse are pampered and protected by governments, while less destructive sectors must fend for themselves.
While there is no shortage of public money for the destruction of life on Earth, budgets for its protection always fall short. According to the UN, $536bn a year will be needed to protect the living world – far less than the amount being paid to destroy it – yet almost all this funding is missing. Some has been promised, scarcely any has materialised. So much for public money for public goods.
The political protection of destructive industries is woven into the fabric of politics, not least because of the pollution paradox (“the more damaging the commercial enterprise, the more money it must spend on politics to ensure it’s not regulated out of existence. As a result, politics comes to be dominated by the most damaging commercial enterprises.”) Earth systems, by contrast, are treated as an afterthought, an ornament: nice to have, but dispensable when their protection conflicts with the necessity of extraction. In reality, the irreducible essential is a habitable planet.
In 2010, at a biodiversity summit in Nagoya, Japan, governments set themselves 20 goals, to be met by 2020. None has been achieved. As they prepare for the biodiversity Cop15 summit in Montreal next week, governments are investing not in the defence of the living world but in greenwash.
The headline objective is to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. But what governments mean by protection often bears little resemblance to what ecologists mean.
Take the UK, for example. On paper, it has one of the highest proportions of protected land in the rich world, at 28%. It could easily raise this proportion to 30% and claim to have fulfilled its obligations. But it is also one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth. How can this be? Because most of our “protected” areas are nothing of the kind.
One analysis suggests that only 5% of our land meets the international definition of a protected area. Even these scraps are at risk, as scarcely anyone is left to enforce the law: the regulators have been stripped to the bone and beyond. At sea, most of our marine protected areas are nothing but lines on the map: trawlers still rip them apart.
All this is likely to become much worse. If the retained EU law bill goes ahead, the entire basis of legal protection in the UK could be torn down. Even by the standards of this government, the mindless vandalism involved is gobsmacking. To prove that Brexit means Brexit, 570 environmental laws must be deleted or replaced by the end of next year. There will be no public consultation, no scope for presenting evidence and, in all likelihood, no opportunity for parliamentary debate. It is logistically impossible to replace so much legislation in such a short period, so the most likely outcome is deletion. If so, it’s game over for rivers, soil, air quality, groundwater, wildlife and habitats in the UK, and game on for cheats and con artists. The whole country will, in effect, become a freeport.
Never underestimate the destructive instincts of the Conservative party, prepared to ruin everything for the sake of an idea. Never underestimate its appetite for chaos and dysfunction.
The protected industries driving us towards destruction will take everything if they are not checked. We face a brutal contest for control over land and sea: between those who seek to convert our life support systems into profit, and those who seek to defend, restore and, where possible, return them to the indigenous people dispossessed by capitalism’s fire front. These are never just technical or scientific issues. They cannot be resolved by management alone. They are deeply political. We can protect the living world or we can protect the companies destroying it. We cannot do both.
By George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist – theguardian.com