Biodiversity loss is the very real end of the world and no one is acting like it

Light Switch

Biodiversity loss is the very real end of the world and no one is acting like it

Radical, wholesale change is needed right this second and cannot be delayed

Cassie Freund

Ecology

Wake Forest University

At least 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. That was the conclusion of an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment released on May 6th. Many people were aghast at the IPBES findings, and dozens of excellent summary articles that cover this stunning news have since been written.

But is it really that shocking? Only if you haven’t been paying attention.

Truthfully, I’ve just felt numb about the IPBES findings. I know I’m not the only one. For the past 20 years, scientists have been trying to scream about widespread biodiversity loss without being defeatist, struggling to thread the needle of conveying the urgency about our situation – and what happens to humans when we drive every other living thing on our planet extinct – while still sounding upbeat enough to spur positive change. We toe the line between speaking strong enough to raise the alarm but optimistically enough that people don't get cynical or fall victim to ecological disaster fatigue.

It’s time to cut this crap out. This "traditional approach" to advocating - pleading, really - for change is clearly not working. And our time to avoid catastrophe is quickly slipping away.

"Biodiversity loss" is not just the disappearance of charismatic species like the giant panda and black rhinoceros. It also means that the pollinators we depend on for 75% of our food crops will vanish. Marine fisheries will collapse. Animal that harbor disease, usually kept in check by predators, could explode out of control, putting us at risk of new tick-borne diseases and parasites. And yes, we will lose megafauna like elephants, giraffe, and bison. Your grandchildren won’t believe you when you tell them about the big cats and mighty sharks that once existed on Earth.

The full IPBES report won’t be available for a while, but the Summary for Policymakers, which distills the committee’s findings down to the most important points and identifies actions that must be taken to mitigate some of the future carnage, is available online. It's flat-out dire.

The main conclusion of the report is that humans are changing the natural systems we depend on for life to an “unparalleled degree.”

A gray rhinoceros (rhino) laying on the ground at the Auckland Zoo.

This will not end well for us. No matter where you live, how much money you have, or whether you are even consciously aware of it, nature works for you. Animals, plants, and insects are disappearing from the face of the earth. And contrary to what some may think, we can’t just do a technology and engineer our way out of this.

No place on Earth is safe from human influence. Plastic trash litters both the highest mountains and the deepest ocean trenches on the planet. We have irreversibly altered 75% of Earth's land surface. Two-thirds of the ocean is rapidly changing, mainly through warming and overfishing. We have destroyed 85% of our planet’s wetlands, a critical ecosystem for natural disaster protection. We’ve boiled half of the world’s coral reefs to death in the past 150 years, including 50% of the iconic Great Barrier Reef in just the last three years. And yes, nearly one million species are staring extinction in the face because of things that we – you and I, our friends and neighbors – have done or contributed to indirectly.

If that doesn't scare you, chew on this: biodiversity loss could also decimate our food supplies. Our agricultural system is built on breeds of corn, wheat, and chickens that we have artificially selected to be as productive as possible. But, the same way it’s important to have a diverse stock portfolio, maintaining genetic and species diversity within our crop plants and livestock is important for keeping us fed even when disease or pathogen or say wholesale worldwide climate disaster sweeps through.

According to the IPBES report, at least 1,000 of the 5,631 breeds of domesticated mammals are now threatened (with 559 already extinct as of 2016). And the wild relatives of many crop plants are disappearing from nature as well, hampering our ability to adapt to future climate change.

The inescapable reality is that all of the very bad stuff I just described is happening even faster now than just 50 years ago. And although it is not clear from the headlines, all of this destruction is our fault. 

The uncertain fate of a million species has dominated the news, but the most terrifying part of the report for me was the committee's stark acknowledgement that humanity has now painted ourselves into a corner where our continued existence can only be met through “transformative” changes to our economic, social, and political systems.

If that sounds unlikely to you, join the club.

The international community has made half-hearted attempts at such transformative change before. The IPBES report focuses on two: the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Aichi targets ranged from goals as simple as, “By 2020, at the latest, people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably” to ideas as ambitious as, “By 2015, the multiple anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs, and other vulnerable ecosystems impacted by climate change or ocean acidification are minimized, so as to maintain their integrity and functioning.”

A house on a dry farm.

We’ve failed or are poised to fail on about 80% of these targets already. And because biodiversity is rapidly disappearing, the world is actually moving backwards on some of the Sustainable Development Agenda, such as ending poverty and improving human health and well-being.

The "good" news is that there will be no legal ramifications to anyone for this failure, so we can just keep chugging along if we want to. Well, some of us can: Like with climate change, the poorest countries will feel the sting of biodiversity loss long before the rest of us.

I guess the silver lining to this pitch black storm cloud is that we in developed nations hold the power to change things, just as we are the ones who drove it all into the ground. But this will require a truly radical re-imagining of society to create systems that bring environmental externalities into the market, increase financial transparency, and make everything from agriculture to access to education more equitable. Or, as Eric Levitz of New York Magazine puts it, all we need to do to avoid going out in “a globe-spanning murder-suicide” is “to build an international government that recognizes the interdependence of all living things.”

Simple, right?

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

This is so needed. The line that got me: And contrary to what some may think, we can't just do a technology and engineer our way out of this.

This is a deep frustration I’ve also experienced after hearing many well meaning people in the techsphere perhaps callously and confidently state that we can save it all once the Singularity or advanced AI arrives. You can’t save animals that are extinct, you can’t grow food without pollinators and rich soil and there will be no one to design advanced AI if we can’t feed ourselves.

Devang Mehta

Genomics

University of Alberta

I just love the tone of this piece. I (like everyone else here) am  tired of all the status-quoist language around climate change and  conservation, even from environmental groups and obviously from the oil  lobby. If there’s something I’d push back against, it’s this line:

And contrary to what some might think, we can't just do a technology and engineer our way out of this.
 

If anything, I think the new report is even more of a call to employ any and all means to prevent biodiversity loss.

Yes, that includes radical emissions cuts and rapid change to  renewables (and nuclear, cause let’s face it, if we don’t manage to limit warming, most of us aren’t going to be around to worry about what do with nuclear waste).

But more importantly, every climate model for limiting warming to 2 degrees C includes a substantial amount of carbon sequestration and geo-engineering, targets that we’ve made zero progress towards. And I’ve had it with environmental groups sticking their heads in the sand and  just repeating “emissions reduction”, without facing the fact that we already have too much CO2 in the atmosphere. Even if we reach zero emissions, we still need to put back a lot of carbon into the soil, or in plants (via trees engineered to grow faster, or plants engineered to store carbon in their roots) and I don’t see any productive use of just dissing technology here.

And speaking of plants, yes, to stop deforestation we need to eat  wayyy less meat, but we also need more land-intensive agriculture, i.e. no to organic farming. < insert rant against organic farming here  >.

After all this, even if the rich world becomes emissions neutral, India and China will not, and can not become emissions neutral without conducting large-scale human-rights abuses or getting trillions in foreign aid. To actually reduce CO2 levels, we also need rich-world  governments to actually buy carbon from carbon sequestration companies  and store it in the ground, basically take tax money and bury it;  something no political group has the courage to say. And some environmental groups are against CCS in general for some mad reason. So, yes I’m all for @cassief’s  rage, but please direct it towards the Republicans who block  renewables, and the environmentalists who are proud card-carrying Luddites, not against technology that can actually help prevent more  biodiversity loss.

Cassie Freund responds:

Yes, I totally agree that we need some technological solutions, and there are promising ones for climate change. Not all biodiversity loss is due to climate change though, and I do stand by my point that there’s not going to be a technological fix that saves us when we’ve wiped out most other life forms on earth (even if climate were to stay stable, I don’t think that would be the case).

This didn’t make it into the piece, but people tend to think that there is an adult in the room out there somewhere who will just make a big decision and save us - whether that’s a tech fix, international regulations, whatever - and that person does not exist. No one is going to save humanity from ourselves, it’s up to all of us, which means it’s also up to none of us… and that’s pretty scary to me.

Devang Mehta responds:

Oh I agree, I do, however, think we can have technological solutions to prevent us from wiping out life forms, from technology to clean up  the oceans and more environmentally neutral inputs in agriculture. Of the non-technological solutions one is to reduce consumption of all sorts of things that people depend on. This is neither realistic on a global scale, nor will it do anything about pollution and habitat loss that’s already happened. The other is afforestation and rewilding which is great in principle but again indirectly relies on technology to  restore lost production and necessitates greater urban concentration, which I’m all for, but most environmentalists see negatively.

I’ve seen so many environmental organisations and campaigners just adopt technophobia as an article of faith, when really we really have no other tool to deal with climate and biodiversity!

By the way, I’m also completely on board with your final prescription in the  article, "To build an international government… ", but I don’t see that happening anytime soon given how people view globalism today.
And I absolutely agree, there is no caretaker out there and it’s up to us to build the kind of international institutions needed to tackle these problems. But the pessimist in me just sees our generation continuing to  pat themselves on back for buying Rainforest Alliance-labelled coffee while disengaging completely from politics and international policy.

Sarah Laframboise

Biochemistry

University of Ottawa

Incredible piece! I struggle with finding a way to talk about these  types of issues because my experience with people is that an alarmist/fact-driven type view often scares people away from actually talking about it. When faced with a stat such as: “At least 1 million  plant and animal species are at risk of extinction” it is easy for those not involved in this field to simply say well that’s awful but nothing I do with change this. In part, I think this is due to the almost apocalyptic undertones of many articles on these types of stories. This is such a common excuse I hear from friends, family and colleagues all the time. Thank you for FINALLY calling out this line of thinking! This is real. This is important. It doesn’t matter what you think, as long as we act now.