Are we headed for dustbowl Britain – and what could that mean for our wildlife and our food?

New figures show Britain has lost a third of its most threatened wildlife in recent years – harming both our natural heritage and our ability to produce food. This is the most pressing political issue of our time.

Darren Baxter
31 July 2018

Image: It's not just hedgehogs who are hit by hotter, drier summers. Credit: Denis Bourez/Flickr, CC 2.0

This summer’s heatwave is a sign of the new normal. Scientists have long predicted that a warmer climate will lead to an increased frequency of hotter weather. As the global death toll rises and forests burn in the Arctic Circle, it should be clear that we have irrevocably changed our planet.

But in the intensity of the coverage focussed on the heatwave, we must recognise that the damage we are doing to our planet is threatening the preconditions on which humans thrive.

It is in this context that government released its 2018 UK Biodiversity Indicators this month. These figures show that human impacts on the planet through intensive agriculture, urbanisation and climate change, led to the loss of a third of our most threatened wildlife, half of our woodland birds and nearly half of our butterflies since 1970, and nearly a quarter of our pollinating insects since 1987.

It is findings such as these which led Scientists to warn that we are currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, the last being that which wiped out the dinosaurs. Spring Watch presenter Chris Packham has warned of an ‘ecological apocalypse’ in the UK.

Underneath these figures, we are seeing a significant change in our natural environment. The natural flora and fauna we associate most with the British countryside is under threat. Hedgehogs, skylarks and birds of prey are all facing terminal declineThis summer’s heatwave is making it hard for birds, such as robins, blue tits and blackbirds, to find water and at the same time evaporating the habitat of frogs, toads and newts.  

It is easy for many people, particularly those living in urban areas, to see the crisis unfolding in the countryside as remote and disconnected from their lives – a regrettable but seemingly inevitable reality. In fact, the release of these figures by government garnered little interest. But environmental collapse is already having significant impacts on human life.

Our natural environment is essential for human existence. The loss of bio-diversity exposes crops to a greater threat of pests and disease and harms soil fertility, whilst the loss of pollinators specifically threatens the ability of plants to reproduce, undermining the whole food chain and wider eco-system. All of this hits the agricultural system to provide sufficient food.

These impacts cannot be underestimated. Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned that we are only 30 to 40 years away from a radical depletion of soil fertility, and with it our ability to produce food in the UK.

At the same time, the Governments research programme on food security argued that if intensive methods of farming continue alongside our warming climate we could experience events which will fundamentally alter our ability to produce food. For example, drought conditions in 2012 meant that East Anglia came close to experiencing a dustbowl, like that in US in the 1930s.

Were this to happen, it would destroy a large proportion of the country’s ability to produce high value agricultural crops such as potatoes, and with it bring major economic and social consequences. This threat has not dissipated and should be of particularly concern as we look out on our currently parched countryside.

These pressures occur at a time when globally, if diets continue as they are now, we will need to produce as much food over the next 50 years as we have produced in all of human history, placing even greater pressure on our agricultural system.

These are all signs of an unfolding crisis. While Brexit dominates political thinking at present, political leaders over the next few decades will need to rapidly get to grips with a world that humans have fundamentally altered and an environment in which risk is non-linear and compounding, adversely impacting on the economy, human health and our social and political systems. This is most pressing for the millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1997, who will both inherit and act as first responders to the coming environmental collapse.

At IPPR we are working on a project that aims to develop an understanding of how to respond to this crisis. Our central argument is that environmental collapse will be the defining challenge of the coming decades and politicians will need to address it through two major efforts.

Firstly, we need to recognise that our economic system and the degradation of our environment are inextricably linked. As analysis from the University of Leeds shows, no country has been able to meet the basic social needs of its population without going beyond its environment’s limits. Any response will require ensuring that future economic activity can deliver what is needed socially but is also safe environmentally. To achieve this, we must reimagine our economic norms and institutions so that they are able to deliver environmental restraint alongside greater equity.

Secondly, we need to ensure that our society and economy are resilient to the damage that humans have already done. This will mean us investing in infrastructure, both social and physical, as well as technologies and systems that allow us to live within an environment that we have fundamentally changed.

On both fronts, politics is currently failing to deliver. The governments national adaptation plan (which sets out what it, the private sector and civil society are doing to ensure our resilience to climate change) has been criticised for failing to fully live up to scale of the challenge we face as a society. Of the 56 climate risks facing the UK that have been identified by the government’s Committee on Climate Change, only 19 are addressed.

In the context of this heatwave, of wild fires and bio-diversity loss, it is clear that future generations will need to take bolder action. The decline of butterflies in the English countryside is easy to dismiss now, but the full consequence of environmental breakdown will be harder to ignore. It is imperative that both the current and upcoming political generations understand the scale of the coming crisis and seek to develop the tools to address it.

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