The digital war on biodiversity
There is a war going on outside, and biodiversity is losing by every metric available. Our humanity, and that of future generations, depends on us taking up arms today and fighting on the losing side, click for click, until the balance of the planet is restored.
The UN Secretary General’s address on the urgency needed to protect nature was revolutionary given the founding role of the UN as a peace-forming organization (1). When it comes to biodiversity, the casualties keep building, day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year. Individuals, species, communities, whole ecosystems are identified, targeted, eliminated (2). The precision and effectiveness of the onslaught and the sheer geographic extent of the losses suggest this is one of the most successful wars humanity has ever fought. It is perhaps the only war, where most, if not all, nations have all been on the same side, united, hand-in-hand, with consolidated common cause, to destroy nature at its roots.
The latest battlefield
The source of this destruction is well known amongst biologists and laypeople alike. It’s it a war over resources, habitat, territory, and right of passage. It is being waged at both land and sea, motivated by consumption patterns of an ever-burgeoning human population, and executed through conversion and degradation of natural places for capture, processing and supply of goods and services (3). It is not a new war, as historical records tell us (4), but the acceleration over the past half century, both in population growth and increased and indiscriminate demand accompanying economic development, has exponentiated its reach, and unrelenting, advance on the rest of life on our planet.
The latest battlefield of this war is unmistakably online. It is legioned by few key marshals, who control the flow majority of web traffic (5), the ad-tech industry (6), and optimize the experience of users for attention and sales of products, not the environment. Combined with the emergence of e-commerce platforms, online retail, and increasing and rapid investment in direct to consumer operations for sale of food, cosmetics, clothes, furniture, electronics, and other items sourced from our planets resource base, the key threats to biodiversity are now digitally entrenched. The threat has only increased with COVID-19, and is set to continue into the future.
We urgently need to combat this ‘invisible’ biodiversity loss, because for today and for the future, winning the battle for biodiversity online will be key to winning the war.
Identify enemy territory
The scale of the challenge is astronomical. Last year Chinese e-commerce platforms Alibaba and JD made revenues of $115 Billion USD in a single day, using highly tuned artificial intelligence matched to new buying patterns during the pandemic (7). Walmart, trying to compete with Amazon, was up in online sales from $15 Billion in 2017, to $38 Billion in 2020, and continues to grow (8). PepsiCo, Nestle, Unilever and Mondelez International are all following suit, and upping their direct to consumer online sales (9).
Importantly, specific sectors, and products are more closely tied to the biodiversity crisis than others. For example, in the food sector, the concentration of power through trade, and vertical integration of production, processing and retail (10), alongside the direct attribution of production and consumption to biodiversity loss through habitat loss, and deforestation (11,12), sets the responsibility to particular companies somewhat akin to that afforded to major fossil fuel industry companies and climate change.
Redefine the rules
A key part of an offensive strategy must be re-defining the rules of combat. We need regulation on online markets and digital advertising that accelerate biodiversity loss. There has been a focus on regulating digital marketing for competition (13) and for regulating applications of AI for societal risks (14,15) — but the environmental impacts of a ‘race to the bottom’ from the combination of these technologies is where the problem lies. Further, much of the current focus on AI for sustainability, including national strategies, are dominated by monitoring (16,17), which while providing essential data, does not tackle its use in behavioral manipulation that has adverse environmental outcomes.
Redefining rules at final stages in product purchases also has a critical role to play here. What differentiates the digital space from the brick and mortar environment is that any digital intervention by design has a low marginal cost and is massively scalable. This means that mandated labeling of products, and product environmental impact education, can be implemented with little cost where traceability exists. We also have an idea of which interventions are likely to work best. For example, we know that for human health some kinds of labeling campaigns — such as the 5-a day campaign in the UK — fail to be successful, even despite political buy-in, retailer uptake, and high public awareness (18). Whereas others, such as graphic labeling in smoking adverts are extremely effective and work for all users but those with highest dependence (19) . We need mandated graphic labeling which ‘pop-up’ at the moment of sale for products sold online. Just think, would you proceed with your cart if you saw a slaughtered orangutan linked to the product you were about to buy? It took a long time for the tobacco industry to be regulated effectively for improved human health, and now we need to apply similar approaches to protect the planet’s health too.
Engage in combat
The digital battle for biodiversity, like the war, is currently an unfair fight. There is embedded biodiversity loss in the algorithms that keep us fixated to our screens, every click, every sale. But this is not an intangible, or, an intractable, problem. Humans have a deep connection to nature which is embedded in our DNA. While we may not be able to see, or taste CO2 emissions, which may limit action on climate change, we are emotionally affected when we see our forests being cut down, our coral reefs ruined, and our fellow creatures with which we share the planet, systematically massacred (20).
Currently, this invisible biodiversity loss is happening behind our screens, where we cannot see the impact. We need to leverage our emotional connection to nature and the science of human psychology and consumer profiling to combat recruitment and growth of digital factions working against biodiversity. The same tactics used for digital marketing could be leveraged to understand and support portions of the population can be swayed to act in line with biodiversity conservation targets. But most importantly, we need to reconnect people to nature through their digital experiences.
We must join together today and fight on the losing side, calling out the responsible parties, regulating digital activity, and designing technology for the good of the planet — algorithms that are designed not to destroy the planet, but help on the road towards humans living in harmony with nature. If we fail to act on the digital insurgence on biodiversity today, the casualties will simply multiply into the future, at which time, for the world of our children and grandchildren, it will be much too late.
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