Bird flu and the nature crisis

COP15 on Biodiversity (or in full the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity) begins in a week’s time. In this article ScotE3 activist Mike Downham looks at the impact that avian flu is having on the natural environment. This article was first published in Scottish Socialist Voice.

Whatever the risk of spread to humans, as yet thought to be low, the current outbreak of the H5N8 variant of avian influenza is a tragedy for wild birds, particularly sea birds. H5N8 both spreads more readily and causes more lethal disease in birds than previous variants. 

Every bird species is precious in itself. But some of the sea birds currently dying are already rare. For these this outbreak could result in extinction.

If anyone has any doubts about the extent of the tragedy they should watch this short RSPB video

What the RSPB doesn’t say, because large NGOs are restricted by the need to nurture their  relationships with governments, is that the disgusting methods which a largely deregulated poultry industry continues to get away with are the cause of this world-scale disaster. The H5N8 outbreak is one more example of the results of commodification of food for profit, and of the increasingly reckless sacrifice of nature by big business in the context of end-stage capitalism.

The severe variant of the avian flu virus is just the latest genie which capitalism has helped to escape from the bottle. And as we’ve learned from the Covid pandemic, once viruses have escaped there’s nothing a capitalist world is prepared to do to put them back. We’re told we just have to live (or die) with them, as if there was no alternative.

Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) Sign Image by Keith Evans CC BY SA 2.0

But governments have to say things which give the appearance that they care. Westminster’s Biosecurity Minister Lord Benyon said recently: “Our wild birds are facing exceptional pressures from avian flu this year and we have seen the tragic effect it has had – particularly on our seabird colonies. I very much share concerns about the impact avian influenza is likely to have on breeding populations of wild birds in the future, particularly those that nest in large numbers and represent some of our rarer species.” But his actions to save wild birds are restricted to limited culls of commercial poultry and instructions to the public about not touching dead birds. Nothing about regulation of the poultry industry – because regulation is prohibited by his government’s rule-book.

As many of these birds are only or at least primarily found in Scotland, regulation of the poultry industry is certainly something that the people of Scotland should be shouting about. Instead we go on obediently eating chicken because it’s cheap.

The Nature Crisis is often side-lined, especially at times like the present when human beings are facing multiple crises. Exploitation of nature by man goes back to the Garden of Eden. But for the roughly two hundred years since the crescendo of industrialisation in the West, we’ve become more and more conditioned to the arrogant idea that other species are here only for our benefit – note Lord Benyon’s “our wild birds” and “our rarer species”, implying that we have some sort of ownership rights over wild birds. It’s arguable that this arrogance in relation to other species is the most fundamental reason for the current mess humanity is in.

The Scottish Government’s Biodiversity Strategy Consultation closed a few weeks ago. I had the privilege of working with the Friends of St. Fittick’s Park, Aberdeen, to submit a contribution to the Consultation. Our submission told the remarkable story of the Park’s restoration and enhanced biodiversity over recent years, while now the Park is under threat of industrial development at the hands of the all-powerful North Sea Oil and Gas Industry.

The submission goes on to point out that the Scottish Government, led by the Scottish National Party for 15 years, has presided over a range of policies which have driven the Nature Crisis the Government is now consulting about. 

These policies have in common that they are designed to benefit wealthy people and are driven by profit. Some are entirely the Scottish Government’s responsibility, others are through collusion with the UK Government. Unless these policies are radically reformed any attempts to address the Nature Crisis will fail, sooner rather than later. The policies which have been most crippling for nature include:

1.         Land ownership

50% of Scotland’s private rural land is owned by 432 individuals, mostly large estate-owners and industrial-scale farmers. As historian James Hunter has said: “Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic landownership system in the entire developed world”. In addition nearly all public land is controlled by central or local government, not by local communities.

2.         The sacrifice of biodiverse land for development

Weak regulation enables biodiverse land to be paved over for industrial or unaffordable housing development. 

3.         Farm subsidies

Huge sums of money continue to be paid to farmers, particularly large livestock farmers, to boost their profitability. Further money is paid to mostly large farmers and estate owners to improve biodiversity, but most of these people are primarily concerned with increasing their wealth, both profits and land values.  Biodiversity is not often their primary motivation.

4.         Bioenergy with carbon capture (BECCS)

The Scottish Government remains wedded to the concept of planting up huge areas of land with monoculture fast-growing trees, even to felling diverse forests to make way for these new plantations. The plan is to burn the timber from these new forests in power stations and deal with the carbon emitted by “Carbon Capture” – a process yet to be developed and tested at scale. 

5.         North Sea oil and gas extraction

The Scottish Government is also wedded to extracting every last drop of oil and gas from the North Sea. This has a negative impact on marine species, as well as fuelling both the Climate and the Cost of Living Crises.

6.         A one-nation perspective

The Scottish Government’s current proposals for addressing the nature emergency are an example of its tendency to think in terms of only one nation. Biodiversity has to be considered internationally. We should be thinking in terms of what Scotland can do to contribute to the efforts of other nations.

Places like St. Fittick’s Park can help us shift our mind-set towards thinking in terms of every non-human species being important in its own right – not only those species which benefit humanity or those which are threatened by extinction. 

If the Nature Crisis was brought centre-stage two benefits beyond enhanced biodiversity could follow. First, at least some of the many people who care strongly about nature, given information which would help them to recognise that profit for the wealthy is what drives the Nature, the Climate, and the Cost of Living Crises in common, would join the fight to stop North Sea oil and gas extraction, which is fundamental to all three crises in the UK and Scotland.

Second, young people and children are in general more and more aware of the devastation to nature they see around them. These are the people who will sustain the fight for a better world long after our time is up.

Children in particular tend to be alert to the nature around them. The younger the children, the closer they are to the ground to make observations that we may not notice. A few months ago, at an Open Day for the Strathblane Wildlife Sanctuary it was my pleasant job to lead tours of the site. For the first tour of the day ten pre-school children and ten parents turned up at the gate. The tour was led not by me but by the children, who ran ahead to point out lady-birds, slugs and molehills. 

Our fight as adults at this crisis-torn stage of hgistory must include ensuring that every child has the opportunity to explore wild land in their immediate neighbourhood.

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