You’ve probably already heard the news: A UN assessment has shown the full price of humans’ impact on biodiversity and nature, and the news is not good. A full one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. The BBC has a particularly good article detailing the findings of the UN report, but here are some highlights.
The report took 30 years to compile. It is based on 15,000 reference materials and is 1,800 pages long. However, a brief “summary for policymakers” runs to only 40 pages and captures some of the most important findings. More importantly, the researchers have suggested what can be done—but those actions will require “transformative change” in every aspect of how the human race interacts with nature.
Between 1980 and 2000, a whopping 10 million hectares (almost 25 million acres) of tropical forest were lost to cattle ranching in South America and palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia. Wetlands are worse off, with only 13 percent of those present in 1700 still existed by 2000. Urban areas have doubled since 1992. Soils are being degraded at an unprecedented rate, too; this has reduced the productivity of 23 percent of the earth’s land surface. Plastic pollution has increased by a factor of 10 since 1980, and every year 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludge, solvents, and other wastes into the world’s waters.
All of this has led to about 25 percent of the remaining plants and animals on the earth being threatened. Rapid declines in insect populations were also noted. All in all, 1 million species are in jeopardy of extinction. This could ultimately put the entire human race at risk of extinction due to rapidly changing climate and growing inability to produce enough food to feed the 7 billion-plus people inhabiting the planet.
“We have documented a really unprecedented decline in biodiversity and nature, this is completely different than anything we’ve seen in human history in terms of the rate of decline and the scale of the threat,” Dr. Kate Brauman of the University of Minnesota and coordinating lead author of the assessment, told the BBC.
What can stop this decline and possibly even reverse it? The assessment says that the “transformative change” needed includes:
- Moving away from the GDP as a key measure of economic wealth. The researchers suggest we need to adopt a more holistic view of wealth and economic growth that captures quality of life and long-term effects of decisions policymakers make.
- Changing financial incentives that damage biodiversity. We must end subsidies for fossil fuels and industrial fishing and agriculture. “These drive the plundering of the land and ocean at the expense of a clean, healthy, and diverse environment on which billions of women, children, and men depend now and in the future,” said Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development.
- Increasing the amount of land and sea that is under protection. Observers say that a third of the earth’s landmass needs to be preserved. “We need to secure half of the planet by 2050 with an interim target of 30 percent by 2030,” said Jonathan Baillie of the National Geographic Society. “Then we must restore nature and drive innovation. Only then will we leave future generations a healthy and sustainable planet.”
What can we as individuals do to help preserve the planet? First, we must give up acts of “performative environmentalism” like banning straws and plastic shopping bags in favor of real transformation.
The first step is to change our diets. “We can become healthier as individuals by eating more diverse diets, with more vegetables, and we can also make the planet healthier by growing that food in more sustainable ways,” said Dr. Brauman.
But our power extends to the voting booth as well. We can vote for politicians who advocate for environmental preservation and have serious ideas about how we can reduce our burden on the planet.
We can use our dollars. If we have the wealth to invest, we can invest in renewable energy rather than coal and other fossil fuels. Speaking of which, some work-based retirement plans (e.g., 401(k) plans in the U.S.) offer investment packages that focus on sustainable energy and socially responsible businesses, so if that’s an option for you, consider switching your investment portfolio.
And finally, we can do simple things like turning the lights off when we leave a room or using appliances that are less energy-hungry.
What do you think? What will you do to reduce human impact on the planet? Every little bit helps.
Photo: Pollinators like this honey bee are among the many insects threatened with extinction by humans’ impact on the planet. Pollinators are required to fertilize the plants that feed us. Credit: Shutterstock