Conservation – of wildlife and of the fabric of the Earth – should be at the heart of human affairs; a principal concern of governments and the bedrock of the economy. We need to move beyond our more-or-less absolute anthropocentrism, which sees wild nature as a resource, towards a worldview that is biocentric, in which we truly see other species as our fellow creatures. We need to do this for reasons of morality and of metaphysics: the current mass extinction of our fellow species should offend us to the core. But also – back in anthropocentric vein — we need wild creatures for our own sakes. Our survival depends on ecological stability, and on inputs provided by creatures of which we are hardly aware (soluble nitrogen from soil bacteria, oxygen from oceanic diatoms, phosphorus re-cycled by seabirds). Stability in the end depends on diversity. The more we destroy, the more precarious our lives become.
In all this, agriculture is the principal player. It occupies most of the world’s most fertile land, where most wild creatures used to live. Wildlife in general is sidelined — the national parks of Britain are mostly in the mountains, where industrial farming is more or less impossible. Worldwide, wild places are still being trashed to make room for even more. Clearly it is vital to conserve what little is left of wilderness. But at least equally to the point, we need again to develop productive systems of farming that are wildlife-friendly. The odd precarious patch of SSI justwill not do.
In addition, of course, industrial farming is horribly polluting. The frank pollution of rivers with ordure and chemical spills is obvious. Less obvious but at least as sinister is the run-off of silt and nutrients that kills coral reefs and mangroves, which are among the world’s richest ecosystems, and the nurseries of many ocean fish. The role of industrial farming in global warming is only now being acknowledged. Worldwide, even in the deepest oceans and remotest continents, it’s almost impossible to find anywhere that does not feel its effects.
Again, there’s a great deal of thinking to be done – and again, much of it is not being done. Subtle science is vital, especially the science of ecology, which is the most intricate of all. Excellent husbandry is needed. Above all, as always, we have to give a damn.