The global triple crisis: is humanity fueling its downfall?


Climate change, species extinction and deadly viruses form a dangerous triad. One that man has to ascribe to himself. One for which he needs a solution. Otherwise, smelly forests and human pollination will soon be the order of the day.

“Corona is nothing compared to what is still waiting,” wrote Josef Settele in a guest post on last December. “The next pandemic will come,” predicts the biologist and nature conservation researcher at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research. “If mankind is unlucky, it will be far more deadly than the corona wave.”

Because climate change, species extinction and deadly diseases fuel each other, as he writes in his book “The Triple Crisis”. We cut down forests and thereby remove the natural barrier to animals that carry dangerous viruses. But why does the risk of pandemics increase when species become extinct? If millions of animals disappear from the surface of the earth, shouldn’t the dangers – viewed cynically – decrease?

Yes and no, says the biologist. “Yes, there are fewer species left, but the idea behind this assumption is that we get rid of the ones we don’t want. Most of the time, the opposite is true. We’re not particularly successful at eradicating certain species. We always eradicate those that are not at stake and aggravate the problem. “

Insects are systemically important

Man is the architect of his own downfall. The horror scenario that Josef Settele describes in his book looks like this: In almost 20 years, many forests will be closed to visitors because branches fall from dead trees and there are animals that carry dangerous viruses. And the few forests that you are still allowed to enter are disturbingly quiet, because you can no longer hear birds. They have left the forest in search of food if they are not already extinct. On the other hand, it has recently smelled terrifyingly unpleasant, because the forest has become a collecting basin for excrement and dead carcasses.

The cause is the same in all cases. For around one million animal and plant species, the end could come in the next two to five decades. Almost half of them are insects, which wrongly have a notoriously bad image due to mosquitoes and flies. Because they not only pollinate plants, but also destroy excrement and carcasses and serve the birds as fodder. Unfortunately, they are not as cute as pandas, which is why they are “seriously underestimated in their importance,” as entomologist Settele puts it. They are the animal equivalent of the systemically important workforce.

“About half of the species are lost”

Insects are the species-richest class of animals. One million species are known worldwide, around 30,000 live in Germany. Not only mosquitoes and flies, but also ants, bees, grasshoppers, beetles, cockroaches, butterflies and wasps. But the populations of flying insects are falling, even if no one can say in absolute numbers how many are affected. There are far too many for that.

“The average person can tell whether a butterfly is bluish, but not whether it belongs to this or that of the 50 bluish butterfly species,” is how the entomologist describes the problem. “There are 300 to 400 different species of wild bees in Germany. 40 to 50 percent of them are on the red list and are approaching extinction. It is similar with butterflies. In many groups, around half of the species are lost.”

Josef Settele is a biologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ), co-chairman of the world report on the ecological state of the earth and “environmental guide” of the federal government.

(Foto: A. Kuenzelmann)

We know that insects are becoming extinct from years of observation. Over the years, through the hard work of voluntary insect friends, it has become apparent that certain species no longer exist today that were still to be found in local forests and meadows five decades ago. The publication of the “Krefeld Study” four years ago was groundbreaking. The Entomological Association in Krefeld recorded the number of flying insects in its region over a period of 27 years. The development is devastating: From 1989 to 2016, a decrease of 76 percent in biomass could be demonstrated. Which species were affected was not investigated.

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The study is not free from criticism. An industrial location like North Rhine-Westphalia is not a model region for animal and species protection. In some places, the Krefeld Association only set up insect traps once or twice over a period of almost three decades in order to count. But as imprecise as the numbers are, they are the best we have, the trend cannot be denied. And that is particularly fatal with flying insects. Our natural farmers collect pollen and nectar and use them to pollinate almost 90 percent of all flowering plants worldwide, including three quarters of all important crops.

“Flying insects are indirectly responsible for around a third of global food production,” says Josef Settele. “They also play a major role in the manufacture of fibers, medicines, biofuels and building materials.” Or not, as an example from Sichuan Province shows, the largest fruit-growing region in China.

“In certain valleys there are no longer any pollinators,” says the biologist. “Since then, people have been asked: If we want to grow fruit, we have to do it by hand to compensate for the loss of insects. But people are not experts in the field, they are bogus.”

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In China, a thoughtless instruction from Great Chairman Mao Tse-tung was responsible for the insect deaths. In 1958, Mao was actually targeting the ubiquitous sparrows because they made use of the grain harvest. A few years later, the little bird was successfully exterminated, but with it also the natural predator of voracious insects, who instead took care of the harvest. There was widespread use of insecticides, which drove the bees to flight. A fatal decision made cultivation in China’s largest fruit-growing area almost impossible.

A costly mistake. But it can go wrong even if you try to get it right. As in New Zealand, a global nature conservation model in which, despite all efforts, 4,000 native species are currently threatened. The reason is people, their urban expansion, their tendency to clearing and, above all, their monotonous, industrial agriculture.

The dairy industry in particular is flourishing in New Zealand. Since 1994 the number of dairy cows has doubled to almost seven million. Business is booming; more than 130 countries get their milk from the nation of five million people. 95 percent of the products go abroad and stimulate the domestic economy. Climate, soil and water are perfect for this, writes the New Zealand Dairy Industry Association on its website. How much longer?

More cows, more money, more environmental damage

Cows produce huge amounts of manure, manure and methane. Their monopoly on husbandry makes the soil sterile. In order for anything to grow in New Zealand’s meadows to consume and nourish the milk machines, the farmers use synthetic fertilizers over a large area and gradually poison their once fertile soil, first destroying the plants and then the fauna. Step by step the wonderful New Zealand nature gives way and with it the insects give way. Humans are doing “ecological madness”, as Josef Settele calls it, and in doing so take their own livelihood.

There are easier questions than how to stop this development. “At the end of the day, profitable beef has to become less profitable,” states the biologist. “This means that the follow-up costs that the state normally bears must be reflected in the product so that the general public doesn’t get stuck on it.”

But despite all the horror scenarios, Josef Settele has the impression that things are going in the right direction. He himself considers his own scenario, which he has designed for the year 2040, to be improbable. He would currently distribute a three on a scale from one to ten to humanity. That gives hope, but it means that there is still room for improvement.

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