Our civilisation and the demands it places upon the global resources are decimating the natural ecosystems that all species of animal on Earth find their home.
Scientists around the world have produced countless reports that all point to the systematic destruction of nature at the hands of human-kind.
A UN report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has warned nature’s dangerous decline is ‘unprecedented’ with species extinction rates ‘accelerating’.
The report suggests that it is not too late to make a difference but that the window of opportunity is fast running out.
So what is the context for this report and what are the main threats to Earth’s biodiversity and all the animals and plant-life that it warns about?
1. Earth’s biodiversity is being wiped out
A staggering 1 in 4 species is at risk of extinction. From amphibians to coral reefs, sharks to mammals, the world’s unique and varied wildlife is under threat.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) has produced a red list: providing the world’s with its most comprehensive record to date of all species facing extinction. It serves as a call to action to reduce our impacts and protect other threatened creatures but also as a reminder that we are not the only animals that occupy this planet.
Species at risk of extinction:
The IUCN Red List is a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity. Far more than just a list of species and their respective statuses, it’s a powerful tool to inform and catalyse the action needed for biodiversity conservation and policy change which, in turn, is critical to protecting the natural resources we need to survive. It provides information about range, population size, habitat and ecology, use and/or trade, threats, and conservation actions that will help inform necessary conservation decisions.
It’s an issue that has been at the forefront of worldwide political concerns and debate about climate change and the state of the environment. Yet all of the various agreements, treaties and international conferences have done little to stem the rate of destruction. The Red List is a reminder that so much more needs to be done.
As recently as 2010 environment ministers from almost 200 countries came together reaching agreement at the Convention of Biological Diversity. The purpose of the convention was clear: to bring to a halt the current extinction event brought about by human impact on the planet and it’s various species.
Huge marine zones were established with the aim to protect marine life and all signatories signed up to their own national biodiversity plans. But just 10 years later and many nations have not upheld the agreements and done little to ensure they are met. Short term governments are not interested in long-term environmental problems and solutions.
The political climate has also hugely changed. The US refuses to ratify the Paris Agreement and habitat destruction around the global is accelerating.
By 2050 it is predicted that Africa will have lost 50% of its birds and mammals; fish populations around the world will have disappeared, eaten by people, and the seas will have been emptied, upsetting the balance and provided a massive ecological gap for jelly fish to occupy. The losses will feedback into the carbon cycle, exacerbating an already precarious situation.
2. Habitat loss is a leading cause of extinctions
Habitat loss is one of the leading causes of the extinction of species as a result of human activity.
As deforestation continues to obliterate pristine areas of rainforest around the world and it is thought that extinctions as a result of habitat and tree cover loss will become the leading cause of extinctions worldwide.
As people expand in number the needs of the human population become ever greater and humans encroach on the natural world to sustain their families, children and profit from the exploitation of natural spaces.
This takes the shape of deforestation, road building which accelerates the rate of habitat loss, urban sprawl, mining, farming, burning and wild-fires, intentionally started.
It’s an issue that is at the forefront of politics in countries like Borneo and Brazil. The debate goes to the heart of the environmental crisis. Should development and economic progress to enrich societies and create human wealth be at the expense of some of the most precious wildernesses in the natural world.
3. Our pollution and carbon emissions is changing the climate and biosphere of the planet
We are physically changing the chemistry of the air we breathe. Whilst we’re unlikely to run out of oxygen anytime soon our actions are forcing a steady change to the level of carbon in the atmosphere which is creating the greenhouse effect and warming the planet.
The blog, Skeptical Science, has rebuffed claims that humans contribute a tiny amount of carbon to the atmosphere by pointing out that whilst are contribute might be small compared to the natural cycles and processes ongoing around the world it is enough to upset the natural balance:
Human CO2 emissions upset the natural balance of the carbon cycle. Man-made CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by a third since the pre-industrial era, creating an artificial forcing of global temperatures which is warming the planet. While fossil-fuel derived CO2 is a very small component of the global carbon cycle, the extra CO2 is cumulative because the natural carbon exchange cannot absorb all the additional CO2.
And researchers have calculated just how fast the climate is changing as a result of human actions on the biosphere. Professor Will Steffen, a climate change expert and researcher at the Australian National University, published this work in the journal The Anthropocene Review in which he has argued that the climate is changing 170 faster than with natural forces. Steffen and colleague, Owen Gaffney from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, have created the ‘Anthropocene Equation’ to establish the impact of humanities activity on the Earth. The paper states:
In the last six decades, anthropogenic forcings have driven exceptionally rapid rates of change in the Earth System. This new regime can be represented by an ‘Anthropocene equation’, where other forcings tend to zero, and the rate of change under human influence can be estimated.
Gaffney presented his findings in New Scientist, explaining:
Homo sapiens now rivals the great forces of nature. Humanity is a prime driver of change of the Earth system. Industrialised societies alter the planet on a scale equivalent to an asteroid impact. This is how the Anthropocene – the proposed new geological period in which human activity profoundly shapes the environment – is often described in soundbites.
But is it possible to formalise such statements mathematically? I think so, and believe doing this creates an unequivocal statement of the risks industrialised societies are taking at a time when action is vital.
It’s a strong call to arms. In a world that is dominated by changeable politics and powerful media influences the science that underpins the liability for climate change all around provides an irrefutable framework. An undeniable bedrock in which we are forced to take responsibility.
The conclusion from Gaffney is stark, he suggests that we are ‘fumbling with the controls’ of the planet and argues that:
the dominant neoliberal economic systems still assume Holocene-like boundary conditions – endless resources on an infinite planet.Owen Gaffney, Stockholm Resilience Centre
And he suggests that we need a new economic model that enables us to store carbon, enhance biodiversity and enable nature to go through its natural processes in purifying water and avoiding irreversible pollution of the soil and atmosphere.
4. Consumerism and modern lifestyles are driving the destruction of nature
The challenge of moving to a new economic system that does not depend on the exploitation of the natural world is a phenomenal shift away from our current paradigm. Almost everything we do, everything we eat, everything we wear in some way damages the natural world.
With the phenomenal increasing wealth of countries like China, India and Brazil this problem is only set to get worse as these countries industrialise at breakneck speed.
And if you happen to be in any doubt that consumerism and capitalism is much more pervasive and destructive than it was 30 years ago then the scientific research exists to provide hard evidence. A study from the Journal of Industrial Ecology has shown that everything we buy is responsible for up to 60% of greenhouse gases currently being emitted. The study set out to ‘analyze the environmental impact of household consumption in terms of the material, water, and land‐use requirements, as well as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, associated with the production and use of products and services consumed by these households.’ It found that ‘food accounts for 48% and 70% of household impacts on land and water resources, respectively, with consumption of meat, dairy, and processed food rising fast with income.’
Rising consumerism helps people to meet their basic needs, it creates jobs and allows money to flow into economies, raising millions of people out of poverty. However, this unprecedented growth also drives the destruction of the natural world.
And it feeds into our deep, darker, base instincts to hunt and gather. Alan Bradshaw, in the Guardian summarised some of the darker aspects of this growing trend, describing how ‘feverish consumerism’ has led to the death and injury of shoppers, trampled by crowds a black Friday shopping event in New York City. Bradshaw suggests:
The time is right for a more resonant and joyful anti-consumerism. The recognition that we need to downsize our lifestyles for environmental reasons now corresponds not with the false political economy of austerity, but the very real awareness of the damage that consumer capitalism wreaks on the world. The challenge, then, is to make anti-consumerism joyful by emphasising the satisfaction and necessity of becoming more sustainable and refusing to fuel a system grounded in the exploitation of people and the environment. Today, the greatest pleasures might be found in not shopping at all.
It’s a complex problem. Forbes has highlighted the benefits of a consumerist approach in its article: 18 Emerging Economies Lifted A Billion People Out Of Extreme Poverty — What They Did Right? It’s clear that exporting capitalism around the world has untold benefits for whole nations in helping them raise their citizens out of poverty. Sustained economic growth is a miracle for the world’s poor, who are able to access it, and a disaster for the natural world. How we find the balance between protecting the natural world and caring for the very poorest in it is a debate that will continue for generations.
5. Overpopulation demands are creating an irreversible loss of pristine ecosystems
Underscoring all of the environmental problems that we face today is an ever-increasing human population that continues to grow.
Human overpopulation comes about when the ecological footprint of humanity far exceeds the geographical location and its carrying capacity of the environment occupied by humans. People who argue that overpopulation isn’t an issue would say that the planet can sustain far more humans than we currently have. Technically that’s true and technological solutions will, over time, increase the amount of food we can produce. But this argument fundamentally fails to take into account quality of air, soil and life itself. It also ignores the enslavement of most of the planet and the other species we have decided to farm in order to serve the needs of ourselves.
We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right nowDavid Attenborough, Population Matters
Nature is under threat from all sides. It’s difficult for individuals to evaluate the scale of the problem because the system we live in hides the damage that that same system inflicts on the natural world. A capitalist consumerist system allows us to shop from the relative safety and comfort of our laptops, phones and local high streets.
We don’t see the orangutans losing their home to palm oil plantations when we buy chocolate. We don’t know about the hidden environmental impact of the internet. And we are kept in the dark about the massive environmental impact of our holidays.
Once we totally understand the environmental impacts of our choices we will then have a full awareness of the ways nature is under threat. And only then can we take responsibility for our everyday actions. For that to happen the capitalist system needs to change from the ground up. But we have good reason to be positive because we collectively created this system and we can change it, when we commit to living in complete harmony with the natural world.