Curtains for Lonesome George – and the rest of us too?

This is the giant tortoise Lonesome George, last survivor of his Galapagos Islands subspecies, at the Darwin research centre on Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador, where he died last weekend, aged 100. George had survived pirates, whalers and goats, which ate their way through his habitat. But his destiny was to be the last of his subspecies, the Pinta Island tortoise.

On the same day as it reports this news, The Guardian carries George Monbiot’s latest column in which he eviscerates the leaders of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – who could not even be bothered to attend the Earth summit in Rio last week.  It is, Monbiot says, ‘the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war’. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing and yet the world’s nations solemnly agreed at the end of the summit to ‘keep stoking the destructive fires’: sixteen times in the final text, Monbiot notes, they pledged to pursue ‘sustained growth’, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.

The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before. The thought that it might be the wrong machine, pursuing the wrong task, cannot even be voiced in mainstream politics. The machine greatly enriches the economic elite, while insulating the political elite from the mass movements it might otherwise confront.

Monbiot writes dismissively of what has been achieved internationally in the last two decades:

It marks, more or less, the end of the multilateral effort to protect the biosphere. The only successful global instrument – the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer – was agreed and implemented years before the first Earth Summit in 1992. It was one of the last fruits of a different political era, in which intervention in the market for the sake of the greater good was not considered anathema, even by the Thatcher and Reagan governments. Everything of value discussed since then has led to weak, unenforceable agreements, or to no agreements at all.

In his column last week, he was even more scathing:

This … earth summit in Rio de Janeiro is a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago. By now, the leaders who gathered in the same city in 1992 told us, the world’s environmental problems were to have been solved. But all they have generated is more meetings, which will continue until the delegates, surrounded by rising waters, have eaten the last rare dove, exquisitely presented with an olive leaf roulade. The biosphere that world leaders promised to protect is in a far worse state than it was 20 years ago. Is it not time to recognise that they have failed?

These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed. Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. The past 20 years have been a billionaires’ banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. […]

You have only to see the way the United States has savaged the Earth summit’s draft declaration to grasp the scale of this problem. The word “equitable”, the US insists, must be cleansed from the text. So must any mention of the right to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality and women’s empowerment. So must a clear target of preventing two degrees of global warming. So must a commitment to change “unsustainable consumption and production patterns”, and to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources.

He is led to draw the deeply pessimistic conclusion that we have missed the chance of preventing two degrees of global warming, and that most of the other planetary boundaries will be crossed. So, he asks, what do we do now?

Some people will respond by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear: the forests, the brooks, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the sea ice, the glaciers, the birdsong and the night chorus, the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long?

He offers three ways of continuing to care for the planet, focussing on rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – which, he believes, offers the best hope we have of creating refuges for the natural world. He, personally, decided to spend much of the next few years promoting rewilding in the UK and abroad.

Which brings us neatly back to Lonesome George.  Although his relatives were exterminated for food or oil by whalers and seal hunters in the 19th century, and his habitat on Pinta was devastated by escaped goats, his survival was the result of his relocation from Pinta Island in 1972 to Santa Cruz Island, where conservationists run a tortoise breeding centre.  Scientists tried to get George to mate with other giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands and to eventually repopulate Pinta – but all their attempts failed, even that of Sveva Grigioni, a Swiss zoology graduate student, who smeared herself with female tortoise hormones and, in the cause of science, spent four months trying to manually stimulate him.

But, echoing George Monbiot’s point, whereas in 1960, only 11 of the Galápagos Islands’ original 14 populations of tortoises remained, and most were on the point of extinction, today, around 20,000 giant tortoises of different subspecies inhabit the islands and most of the feral goats that plagued Lonesome George have been eradicated.

Conservation scientists agree that George was important because he symbolised both the rapid loss of biodiversity now taking place around the world, but at the same time he provided the inspiration to begin restoring it in places like the Galápagos Islands.

Monbiot concludes his piece by turning his guns again on the failure of world leaders at Rio:

Was it too much to have asked of the world’s governments, which performed such miracles in developing stealth bombers and drone warfare, global markets and trillion-dollar bailouts, that they might spend a tenth of the energy and resources they devoted to these projects on defending our living planet? It seems, sadly, that it was.

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