We are often reminded that the fate of humanity is tied to the fate of other species. A new report is once again emphasizing the interdependence of life on Earth. It tells us that we are destroying biodiversity at a perilous rate. The sixth great extinction threatens life on the planet. While previous extinction events were caused by things like volcanoes and asteroids, the defining feature of this one is that it is being driven by human activity. This suicidal rampage has been dubbed the age of the Anthropocene. A summary of a comprehensive new report warns that unless we make significant changes, we will, “plunge the planet into a nightmarish, downward spiral of conflict, growing inequality and continuing degradation of Nature.”
The recent United Nations report was created by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It details the past losses and future prospects for nature and humans. It was created over the course of three years by 150 experts from more than 50 countries. They examined 15,000 sources of information to create the first report of this type since 2005.
Representatives from 132 governments recently met in Paris to take a look at the peer-reviewed conclusions in a 44-page Summary for Policymakers. The 1,800-page assessment of scientific literature is the most exhaustive UN report on the state of nature ever produced.
Extinction is taking place up to 1000 times faster than the natural background rate and some projections suggest they will soon be 10,000 times background rates. Every day, we lose up to 150 species, and every year, we lose between 18,000 and 55,000 species. In the past 45 years, the number of living mammals, fishes, birds, reptiles, and amphibians has fallen by half. We have identified only one-tenth of all life on the planet, think of how many invaluable species may have disappeared without our knowledge.
We are losing clean air, potable water, pristine forests, pollinators, and other insects. Both terrestrial and marine life is being decimated. A quarter of known plant and animal species are already threatened. The extinction rate for vertebrates is now 114 times higher than the historical background rate.
Up to one million species are at risk of extinction due to human activities. Habitat loss (deforestation, coral bleaching), climate change, pollution (especially fossil fuel emissions and plastic), over-exploitation, over-consumption, mining, and poaching are pushing our ecosystems past the point of no return. All of these factors are altering the natural world at a rate that is “unprecedented in human history.” These assessments may be even worse as we only know about 10 percent of the estimated 11 million terrestrial species that occupy the Earth.
Three-quarters of the land, almost half of marine environments, and half of the inland waterways have been “severely” changed by human activity, according to the report. We have cut down half the world’s forests and damned more than three-quarters of the planet’s rivers. We are destroying natural habitats and overtaxing resources on an unprecedented scale.
Much of the harm we are doing is caused by the ways we use the Earth to derive food and energy. Around 40 percent of the planet’s land surface is being used for crops and livestock and half of the Earth’s accessible fresh water is being used in agricultural irrigation. We have removed more than half of the wild fish from the ocean and we continue to exploit 90 percent of our fisheries beyond their maximum sustainable limits. Our fossil fuel consumption is the leading cause of climate change and a major source of pollution. Since the 1950s we have increased our use of fossil fuels by more than 550 percent.
A 2016 study indicates that 58 percent of the Earth’s land surface has surpassed the “safe” threshold putting these ecosystems in danger of collapse. Although a recent NASA report indicates the Earth is getting greener, much of this is monoculture plantations which are nowhere near as effective in supporting biodiversity when compared to natural forests. The fact is we lost around 12 million hectares of biodiverse forest in the world’s tropical regions in 2018.
We cannot ignore the horrific injustice we are perpetrating against nature. Nor can we avoid the realization that we are threatening our own survival. We are not only killing species we are destroying biological relationships and undermining the stability of life on Earth.
“The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” says report co-chair Josef Settele, an entomologist at Germany’s Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, in a statement. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
When we destroy nature we are destroying the ecosystem services that it provides. This includes food, medicines, clean air, potable water, and healthy soil. It is important to understand just how valuable individual species can be. For example, the loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs will expose 300 million people to increased risk from flooding. Think of what can happen when we eradicate vast swaths of biodiversity.
We are risking far more than just the $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits nature provides to humans each year. We are threatening the survival of many forms of life on the planet, including our own. We are undercutting the very things that we depend upon for our survival. “[T]his report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.” the IPBES Chair Robert Watson said.
Destroying biodiversity undermines nature’s ability to bounce back from extreme events like fires and floods. Nature also provides something arguably even more profound. A sense of wonder, awe, and beauty that can have powerful psychological and spiritual benefits.
“The evidence is incontestable,” Watson said. “Our destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services has reached levels that threaten our well-being at least as much as human-induced climate change.”
Although much of the damage is irreparable, there is still time to stave off the worst impacts if we act now. The UN report calls for “transformative changes” to save the natural world and ourselves. It warns that we must rapidly end humanity’s destructive approach to the economy, food production, and energy usage.
As reported by the Guardian, Watson said, “There is no question we are losing biodiversity at a truly unsustainable rate that will affect human wellbeing both for current and future generations. We are in trouble if we don’t act, but there are a range of actions that can be taken to protect nature and meet human goals for health and development.”
Steven Osofsky, a professor of wildlife health and health policy at the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and expert on biodiversity, said anyone who does not believe that humans are creating an extinction crisis is “either lying or not paying attention.” Although he concedes that the situation is perilous he also said that he has to believe that it is not too late.
“[T]here are prospects for hope in bringing together sectors that have historically been antagonistic…From how we feed the world, to how we generate energy, to how we educate the next generation (especially women and girls),” he added, “there are solutions to the pressures currently impacting global biodiversity and the natural systems of humanity (perhaps ironically) ultimately depends upon for survival.”
We will need to do far more with far less. Importantly government will need to strengthen and enforce environmental laws. We need to take a holistic approach that integrates considerations for biodiversity into every aspect of human endeavor.
“It’s no longer enough to focus just on environmental policy,” Sandra M. Díaz is quoted as saying in the New York Times. Diaz is a lead author of the study and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. “We need to build biodiversity considerations into trade and infrastructure decisions, the way that health or human rights are built into every aspect of social and economic decision-making.”
We are facing a social and ecological emergency. We need education, research, preparedness, and prevention. Above all, we need to realize that we are part of the ecosystems that we are destroying.
Human health is inextricably linked to the health of the planet’s biodiversity and for better or worse, the fate of life on Earth is in human hands.
Anthropogenic Species Extinction is a Crime Against Nature
Border Walls are a Threat to both Flora and Fauna
Combating Climate Change to Slow Species Extinction
People Powered Mass Extinction
The Perils of Growth and the Ubiquity of Growthism
Reflections on Rhino Horn Economics and the Natural Capital Movement on World Rhino Day
Half of All Wildlife on Earth is Going Extinct
Collapsing Fisheries and the Importance of Fishing
The Mass Extinction of our Oceans May Have Already Begun
The State of Our Oceans: We are Headed Towards a Marine Mass Extinction
The Financial Costs of Biodiversity Loss
List of Canadian Animals and Plants that are Extinct or at Risk
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