A Worcester gardener laments the cost of globalisation on his local wildlife.
Globalisation is a many-headed beast. It is a trend that has only just started moving into the public consciousness: Chinese steel being dumped around the world cheaper than local economies can produce it, the free movement of capital that allows corporations to move production from one country to another to take advantage of the best labour market rates and tax incentives, and the free movement of labour to allow talent and effort to thrive where there is the demand.
It has also worked very well, so far. The world’s population living in absolute poverty has massively decreased in the last two decades. Trade, rather than aid, has worked. Consumers get lower prices as the corporations benefit from leaner supply chains, and the world market offers them more choice as more cultures are able to sell their goods to one another.
But the wheels of the trend have slowed. There are even signs that the axel could be about to fracture. Nations burdened by huge debts are having to make severe cuts. Extreme parties are on the rise as those left behind fear for their future. Nationalism once more is becoming the counter argument to globalisation – a false solution that appeals to the intense human need for security. Who knows where this fractious tension will take us?
From my point of view, in the gardens of Worcestershire and seen on a cool September afternoon, I often wonder what the consequences of global trade has been on my local wildlife. Of course, as a nature lover, I am aware of how our habits as consumers impact on some of the key areas of the world: of how our thirst for palm oil has led to massive deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia and threatens species with extinction in the wild (such as the Orangutang or the Sumatran Tiger), or how the rising prices of avocados are leading to illegal deforestation in Mexico.
And tragic as these high-profile things are, how does globalisation impact the wildlife in my back garden.
The history of globalisation is one that mirrors human activity over the last several centuries, augmented by our increased technological capabilities to move around the world. And we have been as much victims of it ourselves as any other species: in 1348 the Black Death came to England, spread from Europe which had imported it from a Genoa merchant from the Crimea. It killed nearly a third of the population and brought about a social revolution. Two centuries later, Spanish adventurers ventured to the New World, taking with them the small pox virus of which the native Americans had no immunity. It is estimated that 90-95% of the local population perished in the decades following first contact.
Currently, the lax import controls of ash trees from the continent has led to the spread of Ash Dieback in Britain. Some experts have even prophesied that the tree might die out entirely in the UK, as the threat of the fungal disease and the ever-closer presence of the Emerald Borer Beetle (currently marching across eastern Europe from Asia, and will almost inevitably arrive in the UK) combine to reek havoc on the species. Ash Dieback alone has accounted for a 95% loss of ash trees in Denmark, so it is likely that the Worcestershire countryside will look substantially different within the next decade. (Indeed, any keen walkers on the Malvern Hills might note how the ash trees have been cut back in great numbers after an initial sighting there of the disease in 2012)
And it isn’t just our trees that are under threat. The Guardian recently ran an article about the spread of Ranavirus that is thought to have arrived in the UK in the 1980s from North America. The disease is lethal to our native frog and toad populations (and all our amphibians), and has been reported from as far afield as Cornwall to Newcastle. But the way in which it has spread is what has raised alarm bells, and is a perfect illustration of how our push to globalisation affects our native population on a local level. Scientists from Queen Mary University in London believe that the speed of the spread is due to well-intentioned gardeners and nature lovers buying in stocks of tadpoles or amphibians to fill a new pond that are already infected with the virus, as well as the supply of aquatic materials used for ornamental purposes.
But this is far from the first time that unintentional human activity has endangered a species. That most emblematic representation of extinction that every child knows, the dodo, was made extinct because of the animals that came off the ships with the human settlers of Mauritius in the 17th century, and against which the dodo, a flightless bird, had no natural defence. In Australia, introduced rabbits have bred out of control, and cane toads, initially introduced to control the beetle population, have now gone on to become a nuisance in themselves (and, as if to add insult to injury, barely affects the beetle population!)
There are hundreds and probably thousands of different species that we have helped spread across the world in humanity’s globalised journey, and only now are we really beginning to perceive the dangers this poses to native ecosystems. Trees in England such as the noble oak and the supple ash, written into poetry and culture for centuries, are now in jeopardy. It just goes to illustrate the law of unintended consequences.
And it certainly doesn’t help when the main stream media and the youth of today, addicted to You Tube, praise the likes of Johnny Depp and his then wife, Amber Heard, for striking a ‘rebellious’ tone in the face of the authorities in Australia who chastised the ignorant couple for not declaring the dogs they had brought into the continent on a visit. Indeed, such an example seems to illustrate how globalisation seems to work for this ‘1%’ at the expense of everyone, and perhaps everything, else.