When I was young, I was fascinated by a black and white video of what was thought to be the last Tasmanian Tiger, that died in 1936. To me as a child, the idea that this animal became extinct under human watch seemed incomprehensible. In two generations from now, children will only know two-thirds of today’s animal species from postcards, stories and documentaries.
According to the WWF, global wildlife populations have dropped by 60% in just four decades alone. Scientists predict that three-quarters of species, many of which are vital to our own survival, will disappear in the next couple of centuries. Extinction is hundreds, if not thousands, of times faster than natural rate because of human activities. Some call it the sixth mass extinction, mainly caused by our generation. It’s quite something to be remembered for.
Wolves – endangered due to habitat loss, and hunting. Greenacres Animal Park
Image credits: Sane Seven
This has long been predicted but we were never very good at acting on predictions. We will certainly be less effective once we reach a point of no return. Yet even now we don’t seem to care enough to do something about it while it’s still happening. Perhaps we are too scared to open our eyes, blindly hoping that ‘others’ will do something about, or we feel powerless against it. After all, how can we solve global issues like habitat loss, climate change, pollution or wildlife trafficking with our little hands and feet? Or perhaps we don’t think that it concerns us. However, there are some very selfish reasons to become an active part of the debate.
It is not about growing conscience, getting upset about orangutans in Christmas ads, or preserving the diversity of kakadus and kookaburras in the faraway land that we did not know existed. If you are like me and you want to cling to the careless lifestyle of the latest iPhones, Dr. Beats, nights out, social safety, and freedom of choice, then instead of surviving the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of humanity, it is time to get really selfish and protect this lifestyle using any means available to us while we still can.
It is estimated that around three billion people rely on wildlife for food and work, directly or indirectly, and we are in the process of pulling that from under their feet with nothing to replace it. We may think it’s someone else’s problem but the resulting food shortages and poverty will displace hundreds of millions, creating mass migration that will dwarf any refugee crisis we have ever witnessed. Growing scarcity will increasingly raise living costs everywhere, sending more and more people below the poverty line and into homelessness. Crime rates and violence will skyrocket over basic food and space. International conflicts will erupt over the remaining resources like fisheries and fertile land. People will take it to the streets to protest about their living conditions, but nobody will have the solution anymore. It will be the survival of the fittest – or the richest. It will not be about going back to our previous lifestyle, it will be about adjusting to the new reality that nobody wanted.
Ferrets – endangered due to habitat loss, disease and hunting for their fur. Greenacres Animal Park.
Image credits: Sane Seven
We know what our lifestyles have done to wildlife in the past four decades, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to know what will happen in the next four if our efforts to demand accountability, and actions from businesses and governments, remain the same. While we could take the loss of 60% of the species without much impact on our lives, we would not be able to take the loss of the rest without the whole system collapsing on us. We are standing on a beautiful mountain admiring the landscape of our culture in a deadly avalanche zone. The avalanche does not look apparent until just one more grain of ice melts, sending the whole mountain down at the unstoppable rate. When it happens some of us will be under it, some will go down with it, and only a few will be left standing at the top of the mountain watching it all. It’s not likely to be us, the average people; and the aftermath of it will probably make the rest miss the better times in history like the Great Depression, if not the bubonic plague.
We may feel there is still time or that it can’t be that bad because, frankly, we have never lived better, despite the warnings and predictions. The truth is, we have ingested an overdose of sleeping pills. While the drug is working its way into the vital organs without immediate consequences, we are debating whether the deadly side effects listed on the information leaflet are just a prank created by the funniest scientists in the world for their entertainment.
Like most traditional articles this should end with a statement – ‘unless we do something about it’, ‘unless the scientists, the governments or politicians do something about it’, ‘unless the 1% of the rich do something about it’. However, I would like to go further and ask how we got into this mess in the first place and how we, the 99%, could change the course of this impending avalanche in the way the governments, international organisations, academic papers, lobbyists, protests and numerous polite pleas have been unable to do in the past 40 years.
Owls – endangered due to habitat loss, hunting and diseases. Greenacres Animal Park
Image credits: Sane Seven
Who’s To Blame?
It is not difficult to agree that the problem has been caused by our insatiable need for convenience and an abundance of goods provided by nature in the form of food, construction materials, land, clothes, and other finite resources. However, the true culprits of the problem are the businesses that share an even greater addiction to profit from it. They make money by finding ways to increase the speed and efficiency with which they get supplies, or by finding ways to reduce the cost of the materials and ingredients they use in the products that are then sold to customers at the maximum competitive price. Constant competition and a never-ending cycle of ‘more, faster and cheaper’ eventually fixes financial success and structure of any business around the cheapest supply chains that, in many cases, can afford to be cheap because they disregard restraint, regulations and common sense, causing irreparable damage to wildlife.
For example, as a business I could buy my supplies from a fisherman who uses big nets to catch large quantities of fish or I could buy the same fish from fishermen who use lines to catch a specific variety. The first option is likely to cost less because it takes less effort to catch large amounts of fish, but the problem is that this option would also result in a lot of by-catch, leading to the unnecessary decline in all kinds of sea life. However, I know that if I don’t buy my supplies from them my competitors will, and I will lose my competitive price edge on the shelves.
Such speed, efficiency and price-driven culture is prevalent in almost all existing businesses. For instance, to offer crops at a lower price, companies rely on large-scale agricultural practices that destroy vegetation or use pesticides to fend off pests, both of which have led to a dramatic decline in insect populations that are critical to the pollination of crops and, in turn, our own survival. Other businesses may use in their products cheap palm oil from unregulated sources that cause deforestation, removing habitats for many species and driving global warming that puts further strain on wildlife. Some depend on the use of cheap non-recyclable single-use plastics that end up in landfill, and the sea and food chain of animals. Yet others rely on cheap suppliers from the industries that dump pollutants in nature or use chemicals that kill animal habitats in their products. This list is endless.
We may wonder why businesses wouldn’t simply change their practices but that would lead to the rise of business costs and, in turn, loss of profit. No business will do that voluntarily, unless the customers are willing to compensate their loss by paying a higher price for the product, or the company transitions to a completely new business model to deliver goods to the market. Since neither option is very easy nor likely, the third option is for stakeholders to accept the new reality and come to terms with the fact that a large proportion of what they have always treated as profit was, in fact, a loan they took from wildlife with everyone’s future as collateral. It was always supposed to be the case that any finite resources taken from nature had to be replaced with resources of equal or greater value, and that any existing or potential damage from doing business had to be offset by providing a fix of the same or greater value. This is not an ethical business, this is common sense that we, the consumers, failed to demand from businesses in the past and which we must learn to do now.
It will not be easy. The sentiment across businesses will be to maintain the status quo, while they can, for as long as they legally can. Even worse, some businesses will actively seek to derail any national and international initiatives, anticipating an investment opportunity as scarce resources become a precious commodity. As with the response to climate change over past decades, businesses will stall for time waiting for legislation, exploring loopholes, using long years of transition and implementation periods, any possible PR tools to make various pledges or adding a square metre of wildlife-friendly aisles to their shops. They will deflect blame and divert conversations until all fingers point at them.
They will do so not because business leaders are evil people, but because self-interest and short-sighted desire for immediate gratification is a natural part of human nature. We may not admit it but most of us would do the same in their position. The problem is that there is no easy way to constrain such behaviours, just like warnings about obesity or smoking do not stop us from puffing our lives away, with a cigarette in one hand and a hearty kebab in the other hand dripping on an NHS leaflet about premature death. Time is running out and businesses that are a part of the problem must be a part of the solution whether they want it or not.
Python – endangered due to habitat loss. Greenacres Animal Park
Image credits: Sane Seven
What Can We Do?
To force cultural change in the business industry there are only two options. One is for governments to introduce strict regulations on business practices. This is the most logical, reasonable and formal approach but it’s also the one that will never happen or that will happen post-factum. Firstly, there is no solution that would not require businesses to curb their financial ambitions and no government would impose rules that would reflect negatively on economic metrics during their term. Rather oppositely, the scale is likely to swing the other way, as this was brilliantly demonstrated by US President Donald Trump who revoked environmental agreements undoing even symbolic pressures on businesses, setting them free to finish off the environment for his political stance.
We may also think this issue is waiting in line to be solved by the elected leaders who will know what to do at the critical moment, but we should consider the following. The brightest politicians in Britain have been debating Brexit deal for two years, completely paralysed by economic prospects, unable to make a decision even when hanging from the edge of the cliff. Brexit is not even a problem compared with the scale of the environmental problem we’re facing. The issue is not the lack of solutions or understanding that there is a problem, the issue is that political apparatus is a telegraph in the age of quantum problems with a fast-ticking timer. The greatest mistake we can make is thinking they will probably have a sudden solution if they debate the issue just a little longer, adding another decade or two to the problem.
A second option is to create a financial incentive for businesses to worry about the consequences of a finger pointing at them more than they fear the revolt of stakeholders over voluntary lower-profit eco-friendly change. In theory, the solution is available to us today. The profit of any business is in the hands of the consumers and their mood can sway those profits to and away from companies in the way that no amount of business influence can control. This is especially relevant in the age of social media where influencer networks can mobilise people to take collective action that could quickly pierce the heart of any major brand. It can offer businesses a choice between voluntary manageable change and complete uncontrollable downfall, raising the stakes of gambling with the future in order to create more value for the stakeholders for just a little bit longer.
A mini simulation of this was provided by a recent campaign against the use of non-recyclable metalised film in Walkers crisp packages in the UK in 2018. Using social media, the campaign harnessed a mass of people who showed their dissatisfaction by sending empty crisp packets back to the crisp manufacturer, urging the company to create an eco-friendly alternative. The company was forced to respond although, on this occasion, it was let off with the so-called pledge to change in the future and an addition of a recycling scheme that will turn occasionally returned packets into ‘badly needed’ outdoor furniture and trays. Importantly, however, the campaign showed that a group of common-minded people could trigger a small change that decades of pleas and international debates could not.
Another important feature that sets this campaign apart is that it did not require people to take time off work, skip schools, print posters, or make an effort to travel to protests. It didn’t rely on petitions or politicians, symbolic international agreements, lengthy legislative processes, the right place or the right time. It was beautifully integrated into people’s busy lives and daily routines, making the campaign accessible to all concerned with their future. If increased in scale and intensity, the network of such people could provide the most powerful watchdog that businesses cannot reason or bargain with, sue, pay off, or use pressure against because the outcome would only be worse.
Such amazing power of collective action has been demonstrated by the world community responding to the introduction of the law allowing the stoning of gay people to death in Brunei. The sultan of Brunei soon reversed his decision after celebrity-led campaign to boycott the businesses associated with the sultan. It was probably the first time that a group of private citizens across the world was able to affect the internal laws of an independent country. People have more power in their hands that they realise.
A real next step would be to make this issue a pressing topic at the board meetings of all major businesses whose bottom lines are linked to wildlife by the end of 2020. In order to achieve real lasting change we need new, systematic and consistent campaigns that are so immediate, unpredictable and expensive to the brands that deliberately ignore their impact on wildlife that they would understand a pointed finger no longer means that it’s their turn to pledge a change, but that it’s too late to change. Campaigns like that surrounding Walkers have unlimited levels of creativity and intensity and any business leader realistically assessing the risk associated with attracting such attention would know that its possible impact could be at the top of the risk scale, right next to the consequences of a stadium-sized meteor striking the head-office.
For example, consider a campaign spearheaded by a network of environment-conscious celebrities and influencers and their hundreds of millions of followers. In a similarly playful, legal and non-violent manner they could create unbearably persistent and disruptive nuisance at the places of sale until supermarkets refuse to stock the targeted product to protect their own relationship with the customers. Imagine if pledges and transition periods were no longer accepted because they were supposed to be made and implemented years ago. Such instant loss of revenue would send immediate panic throughout the whole supply chain, quickly identifying and removing the problem if businesses care about their survival.
To help other businesses evaluate the viability of their business plans in the light of such risks, brand names for the next campaign would be drawn from a website of objectively researched products, practices and services linked to wildlife decline that would be regularly changed and updated with the odds of businesses, services, or products becoming a target of the next campaign. This way, the website would also help traders and distributors assess whether they wanted to be associated with those products and face potential disruption to their own business because of it. Eventually, it could become informative to the stock markets, helping people assess the risk associated with certain businesses, which would directly affect their value. Such effect has recently been demonstrated by the drop in Peloton stock value by $1 billion after the social media’s outcry over what was perceived as their sexist Christmas ad. If implemented consistently and with full seriousness, such people-led campaigns could systematically deter businesses from practices linked to wildlife decline.
Iguanas – endangered due to habitat loss. Greenacres Animal Park
Image credits: Sane Seven
The question of change comes down to us and whether businesses believe the risk is real or perceived, whether we’re bluffing or not. If businesses dreaded to even think about their links that could exploit wildlife for their bottom line by the end of this year, would that not be something that our generation would like to be remembered for? If this idea alone doesn’t send shivers down the spine of any business owners, then we may as well cancel environment summits now and sit down with a box of popcorn waiting for the inevitable. Some studies predict that there will be no seafood left by 2050. Others estimate that insects that are vital to our survival will die off in the next 50-100 years. At the rate, the popcorn should still be fresh by the time our lives begin sliding irreversibly sideways.
Something will inevitably have to become extinct. The question is what it will be: toxic business culture, consumers, poorest people, or the whole world? Am I hopeful that we will make the right choice? I am. But in the meantime, we might as well start creating postcards to show how we once had a connection with animals before everything was lost because of our inability to act collectively.
Dr. Marius Janciauskas & Andy White (2019)
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