Economics and politics - comment and analysis

The demise of the great apes. Growth, GDP, capitalism, causes

Last week, it has been officially announced that the largest primate on Earth – the eastern gorilla – has been listed as “critically endangered,” after numbers have seen a staggering decline in their population in just 20 years. This decision by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), means that today four out of the six great apes – both types of gorilla and both types of orangutan – are feared to be on the brink of extinction. These creatures, which are our closest cousins, will die out if we take no immediate action (see here).


Picture 1: Eastern gorilla (Source: Google Images).

They are not alone. Of more than 82.000 species assessed by the IUCN, nearly 30 per cent are facing the threat of extinction. It is almost entirely because of the actions of humans. This number is so staggering that an increasing number of scientists are referring to the process as the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth (see here). If they are correct, the slaughter will be comparable to the disappearance of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, when a massive asteroid is thought to have hit what is now Mexico, sending a blanket of thick smoke around the Earth (this, anyway, is the main hypothesis) (see here).

The new critically endangered classification for the eastern lowland gorilla, also known as Grauer’s gorilla, was announced at the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress after researchers found its population had fallen by at least 77 per cent in just two decades. The other type of eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla, numbers only a few hundred. Mountain gorillas have been critically endangered for 20 years, with only about 300 mature individuals left, although recently wildlife tourism has been credited with helping their numbers start to recover (see here). Two decades ago, Grauer’s gorilla had a relatively healthy population of some 17.000, but the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s turned the area into one of the most violent places on Earth. Despite its formal end in 2003, armed gangs continue to control and terrorise parts of the forests where the gorillas live, because of the money that is to be made from mining for gold, diamonds and rare earth ‘conflict’ metals, such as coltan, which is used in mobile phones (see here and here and here for the situation in the DR of Congo).

The problem is, as Ian Johnson writes in the Independent, that these mines are often deep in the forests, where there are no farms to supply food – so the miners go out hunting. Gorillas have been shot in high numbers (see here). David Plumptre of the Wildlife Conservation Society estimates the total population of Grauer’s gorilla at just 3,800, a decline of 70%, although other methods put the decline at 94%. According to Plumptre, if the current situation persists, Grauer’s gorilla will be extinct in 10 to 15 years. Very recently, there has been an increase in the small number of mountain gorillas. Governments are eager to protect them, because they generate money from tourism. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to most eastern gorillas, wildlife tourism is not an option because of the presence of armed gangs (see here).

The two sub-species of western gorilla, the western lowland and cross-river, are also both critically endangered, as are the Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. Chimpanzees and bonobos, the remaining two great apes, are classed as endangered.

It is not only the hominids, the great apes, to which we also belong, that are in danger. The mapping of Earth’s biodiversity was not, as many assume, completed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Estimates on the number of Earth’s current species range from 10 million to 14 million of which about only 1.2 million have been documented and over 86 percent have never been described. Some scientists estimate that up to half of presently existing plant and animal species may become extinct by 2100. We know nothing or next to nothing about most of these creatures. E. O. Wilson estimates that if current rates of human destruction of the biosphere continue, one-half of all plant and animal species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years. More significantly, the current rate of global species extinctions is estimated as up to 100 to 1000 times ‘background’ rates (the average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale on Earth), while future rates are expected to be 10.000 times higher in some cases. And some groups are going extinct even much faster than that. One severe problem is called the extinction chain. The extinction of a certain percentage of keystone species within a specific habitat creates a chain of much more widespread extinction of groups as it alters the fitness landscape. There is a lot of debate about the correct percentage.

Habitat degradation is currently the main anthropogenic cause of species extinctions. There are many causes of habitat degradation: climate change and changing weather patterns, unsustainable agriculture, pollution, urban sprawl, habitat change because of invasive species or losses of keystone species, logging, mining, fishing and uncontrolled hunting, the physical destruction of niche habitats and the loss of essential vital resources such as water and food.


Picture 2: burning down tropical forest in Brazil (Source: Google Images). 

Wilson calls these creatures that we never see the magic well (see here). They are all around us, literally everywhere and in us as well, we cannot survive without them. Our attention, Wilson explains, remains focused on the physical environment — pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land and the great, wrathful demon that threatens all our lives, anthropocentric climate change. But Earth’s living environment receives little attention, which is a huge strategic mistake because the physical, non-living environment cannot be saved without the living environment of the Earth. Wilson refers to the millions of species of bacteria, fungi, algae and, most diverse of all, the insects. For the greater part, our knowledge of these creatures remains pathetically weak. At the present time, about two million species have been discovered, described and given a Latinised scientific name. But how many are there actually, known and unknown? Putting aside the bacteria and a distinctive group of microbes called the archaea, the best estimate we have of all the rest (the fungi, algae, plants and animals) is roughly 10 million, give or take a million. Except for the vertebrates (consisting of 63,000 described species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and the flowering plants (with approximately 270,000 species), relatively little is collectively known about millions of kinds of fungi, algae and most diverse of all, the insects and other invertebrate animals. We do, however, know that they are the foundations of the living world. Without them, no life as we know it is possible on this planet (see here).


Figure 1: Loss of population loss 1970-2000 (Source: WWF, UNED-WCMC). 

What is the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) saying about extinctions? In the 2007 summary report for policy-makers, the IPCC wrote that:

“There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5 °C (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5 °C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe” (see here; see here for the 2014 summary report).

Many other figures can be given. An old estimate, published in Nature in 2004, says that up to 37% of 1103 endemic or near-endemic known plant and animal species will be ‘committed to extinction’ by 2050, meaning that habitat degradation will put them outside their survival range. In the meantime, many other studies give higher or much higher estimates. And while it is true that there has in some cases been rapid progress in developing protecting areas, such efforts fail to protect biodiversity. It is, in some cases, possible to protect species and habitats, but it is a losing proposition as long as the causes of habitat degradation are not being dealt with. And this is not happening.

A momentarily lapse of ‘technical functioning’

Last week Brad DeLong, a very well-known American economist, wrote an article in which he admits that, although, unquestionably there are technical misalignments at the moment, the sun will shine again in the global economy. Capitalism is, by far, the most productive system ever and it will not fail (see here).

‘There is of course no possibility of disputing that growth since 2008 has been profoundly disappointing, but,’ writes DeLong ‘if we look at global economic growth not just five years out, but over the next 30-60 years, the picture looks much brighter. (…) The reason is simple: the large-scale trends that have fueled global growth since World War II have not stopped. More people are gaining access to new, productivity enhancing technologies, more people are engaging in mutually beneficial trade, and fewer people are being born, thus allaying any continued fears of a so-called population bomb’ (see here).

The evolution of average real (inflation-adjusted) per capita GDP shows that the world in 1980 was 80% better off than it was in 1950 and another 80% better off in 2010 than it was in 1980. DeLong writes, ‘In other words, our average material well-being is three times what it was in 1950’ (see here). So, it seems that everything is absolutely fine, the problem is just some short-term technical malfunction, there is progress even if there is no progress.

It isn’t true. I cited global inequality figures by Jason Hickel some time ago (see here). Michael Roberts, on his excellent blog, cites Nobel prize laureate Angus Deaton, an expert on world poverty, who emphasises that life expectancy has globally risen by 50% since 1900 and is still rising. The share of people living on less than $1 a day (in inflation-adjusted terms) has dropped to 14 percent from 42 percent as recently as 1981. According to Deaton, ‘Things are getting better, and hugely so’ (see here).

Let me comment on this, before coming back to the main point. First, as Roberts argues, Deaton’s progress in living conditions and quality of life comes, to an extraordinary amount, from the application of science and knowledge through state spending on education, on sewage, clean water, disease prevention and protection, hospitals and better child development. All of this genuine progress comes from a capitalism which was, in some form or another, restrained within a social democratic framework.

Second, as Michael Roberts also argues, the picture that Deaton paints is highly selective (see here). In 2013, the World Bank reported that there were roughly 1.2 billion people completely destitute (living on less than $1.25 a day), one-third of which are 400 million children. One of every three extremely poor people is a child under the age of 13.  So, Roberts says, there are over one billion people, one-third of them children, who are virtually starving in the 21st century. While extreme poverty rates have declined in all regions, the world’s 35 low-income countries (LICs) – 26 of which are in Africa — registered 103 million more extremely poor people today than three decades ago. Roberts quotes the 2013 World Bank Report: aside from China and India,individuals living in extreme poverty [in the developing world] today appear to be as poor as those living in extreme poverty 30 years ago’ (see here).

It is true that Deaton recognises this: “the number of those who live on less than $2 a day is rising according to the most recent estimates.”  In India, the average income of the poor rose to 96 cents in 2010, compared to 84 cents in 1981, and China’s average poor’s income rose to 95 cents, compared to 67 cents. This then evolves into a very pertinent discussion of China’s development, which is outside the scope of this article. But it is, of course, really interesting. As DeLong writes, in 1980, China’s real per capita GDP was 60% lower than the world average, while today it is 25% above it. If we take China out of the equation, global growth is of course much lower. In 1981, the ‘average’ poor person in a low-income country lived on 74 cents a day, in 2010 it was 78 cents (see here). Where is the progress for the poorest in the world of which the numbers grew?

As Heiner Flassbeck already said, China is really interesting, because it implemented radically different policies than the ‘reforms’ that the rest of the world adopts – it raised wages, there is state ownership of most of the banking system and government controls most investment, including foreign direct investment and industrial policy. One thing is clear, China may not be a model to follow, but our ‘reforms’ are most certainly not a model either.

Back to the apes

What has all of this got to do with the great apes and countless other species? We destroyed much of the natural world to have ‘growth.’ What we are doing makes absolutely no sense. When Nutella burns down tropical forests and destroys wildlife on a hallucinating scale in order to plant palm trees for palm oil (see here), we call this economic behaviour for no other reason that it is Nutella and other big corporations which rule the world, but not us or democratic governments. The biggest tropical rainforest on the planet, the Amazon, far from being the ‘green lung’ of the earth it once was, harbouring an incredible wealth of wildlife and indigenous tribes, has degenerated into a net producer of CO2 and methane. This truly historical and shattering fact does not show up in any of DeLong’s considerations. Things are getting better all the time if you ignore everything that is getting worse, really bad or outright disastrous.


Picture 3: Tropical wood, much of which ends up in the developed world in the form of toilet paper, vegetable oil and pulp (Source: Google Images). 

A quick Google search shows how much the world has changed. Search for GPD and externalities and many thousands results show up about negative externalities and market failures. Much of the literature of the 1990s and the early 200s has been discarded. The depth of a problem is most often measured by the inability to even discuss it. The simple question – whether GDP, as a measure of ‘what we are doing’ i.e. producing, would even be positive at all if it would be possible to somehow ‘quantify’ these negative “externalities” cannot longer be asked, although the answer to it has been given a long time ago. Researchers such as Wouter van Dieren, Roefie Hueting and the publications of Salah El Serafy and Ernst Lutz from the UN, the work of von Weiszacker or, in the generation before them, Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly have been warning that growth would be negative: we destroy ‘ecological functions’ and much of it cannot be substituted and is therefore irreversible, but what we destroy does not have a price and is therefore not reflected in our “accounts.”


Energy efficiency, product minimisation and ‘demateralisation’ etc. do not help. Cars have become much more efficient since the 1970s. In specific cases, gains of over 70 per cent of fuel efficiency were realised. Nonetheless, because of the worldwide growth of the number of cars, the net result is one of upward pressure on greenhouse gas emissions. While this example is trivial, it does show the problem. It is also that technological gains are being nullified by societal regression. According to Daniel Dorling, in the US, cars produced in 2005 were less fuel efficient than in 1995. The reason is that GM and others did not feel for innovation, they lobbied against legislation on climate change and ‘government’ in general, but when their business model ultimately failed, there was Washington to bail them out anyway, as they expected all along (see here).

The claim made by the proponents of the dematerialisation thesis is that, as processes become more efficient and gadgets and many products in general are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. It does not seem to be the case at all. Iron ore production has risen by 180 per cent in ten years. Global paper consumption is at a record high level. If, in the digital age, we will not reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there of any other commodities? Michael Rowan calculated the inevitabilities of compound growth: if the global growth rate for 2014, which was ca 3.0%, is sustained and even if, worldwide, we miraculously reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we delay societal collapse – the irreversible loss of essential ecological functions by a mere 75 years. We will, of course, not reduce our consumption of raw materials by 90 per cent. Everything points to a further increase of the consumption of raw materials. Consumption of semi-finished and finished products will also continue to grow. Global demand for energy is estimated to rise with 40 percent by 2040 (see here).

The Gross Domestic Problem

The shortcomings of GDP are well documented, the case is clear and nothing changes. The GDP number was never meant as an indicator of economic or any other progress. It is merely a gross tally of products and services bought and sold, with no distinctions between transactions that add to well-being and those that diminish it. The GDP assumes that every monetary transaction adds to well-being, by definition, although many doubt it in the meantime because from a certain point onwards, GPD and increases in happiness (well-being and welfare) no longer correlate (see, for example, the studies of Richard Wilkinson).

The ‘contributions’ of the natural habitat in providing resources go un-reckoned. Accounting systems used to estimate GD do not reflect depletion or degradation of the natural resources used to produce goods and services. As a result, in essence, the more a country depletes its natural resources, the more the GDP goes up.

It always makes me think of an anecdote that Hines told in one of his books. After having dinner in a restaurant in Chicago, he was in need of a toothpick (see here). The wrapper of the toothpick read ‘Made in Japan.’ This is strange, as Japan exports no wood. The only logical (so to speak) explanation is that somewhere in the Far East, perhaps Malaysia, the Philippines or else Indonesia, forests are being cut. The trees are then shipped to Japan and made into toothpicks. They are then shipped around the world. That’s how they end up in Chicago. Most mainstream economists fail to recognise the inherent insanity of this. It may well be yet another example of the ‘efficiency’ of globalization. Why cut a tree in Pennsylvania if we can do it Indonesia for less, even if it is 16.000 km away. All of this adds to the GDP of someone, somewhere, we are not sure where exactly and why, because the ‘domestic’ in GDP is a big conceptual misery too (see here).

The clean-ups of toxic sites are of course also being added to GDP. Since the activities that led to the waste in the first place are added to GDP, both waste and its clean-up are being counted as growth. Cleaning up the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (last week) will increase GDP. No wonder capitalism is the most ‘productive’ system ever. Some cynics hold the view that most of what is considered economic growth today consists of cleaning up, borrowing resources from the future, commodifying functions from the community and household realm, producing built-in obsolescence for all sorts of appliances or new version of soft- and hardware that are not compatible with earlier ones. Any acre of tropical forest, bog or wetland which disappears, including its non-renewable minerals, the habitat it constitutes for the natural world, the CO2 and methane sink it provides and the oxygen it creates, is counted as a gain to the GDP if the land is subsequently sold.

It is capitalist ‘development’ that causes the demise of the great apes. The land, which should belong to all of us as part of our inalienable heritage, is being destroyed for private gain. If subsequently the land becomes so lifeless that it creates erosion and dust bowls and loses all its fertility, we spend enormous sums of money on fertilisation and pesticides, all of which adds to GDP, although this poisons the natural world, including of course ourselves, even more. Every car that is sold adds to the GDP, while nothing is ever subtracted for the pollution it creates. If the great apes disappear, no GDP of any country will reflect this dramatic, historical and irreversible impoverishment of our planet.


Preservation is urgently needed. In its current form, however, the similarities with our heroic fight against climate change are too obvious to miss. If is true that we massacred 50% of all wildlife on this planet since 1950, it is perhaps time to admit that the model is not working and that mere preservation is insufficient. As we all know, every government solemnly pledged to fight climate change, this is why everyone eagerly accepted the voluntary measures in Paris 2015. In the meantime, everybody continues to subsidize fossil fuels and we all frack wherever it is profitable. We burn down tropical forests, although this is the main contribution of some developing countries to climate change. We increase the cause of the problem we promise to fight.

It is the same with preservation. Governments attempt to avoid habitat destruction, agricultural over-harvesting and pollution. In some cases, the loss of native species is seen as a loss to ecotourism. Laws provide severe punishment against trade in native and endangered species and there are many programs aiming to prevent extinction. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity has resulted in international Biodiversity Action Plan programs which attempt to provide comprehensive guidelines for government biodiversity conservation. Many groups, such as the Alliance for Zero Extinctions, are trying to educate the public and pressure governments.

But it is not enough and it does not deal with the essence of the problem. What does it all mean when there are no development strategies, when there is no help from the rich countries, when minerals fall into the hand of multinationals, leaving enormous trails of destruction behind for others to clean up, if they can be cleaned up, others who have no means, communities that live on the brink of self-preservation, governments that starve for income? As Suthcliffe said, the development of un-development is also the development of un-sustainability. Wilson gives an idea of the magnitude that is involved – and this estimation is by now severely outdated because it dates from 2004 and since then climate change proceeded at a much faster pace than almost everybody ever held possible. According to Wilson, the only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly increase the area of refuges, from their current 15% of the land and 3% of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. That amount can be put together from large and small fragments around the world to remain relatively natural, without removing people living there or changing property rights (see here).

This ‘plan’ strikes me as completely unrealistic. The challenge is not a practical one. The decision is not a moral one. It just cannot happen as long as the credo of the dominant economic system remains ‘Accumulate! Accumulate!’ The depth of a problem is most often measured by the inability to even discuss it. It has never been worse. That is why life on this planet is dying.