Going, Going, Gone — Millions Of Species Becoming Extinct After 5 Decades Of Human Ecosystem Damage

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Well, we’ve really done it now. Our insatiable hunger for fossil fuels, combined with a human-centric approach to the planet, now threatens around 1 million animal and plant species with extinction — many within decades, more than ever before in human history. That’s according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The report offers a desperate picture of species distinction — and with their loss comes grave impacts on people around the world. An IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, says that the overwhelming evidence “presents an ominous picture. The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”

The report also advises that there is still time to make a difference. It would take transformative change at every level, from local to global. “Nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably,” Watson argues. But he also says it would take “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.”

Do governments around the world have what it takes to save the chain of life on earth? Yes, we have many intelligent leaders who could muster the wherewithal and materials to implement systemic change. But will they?

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Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties, and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating, or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is becoming increasingly smaller, and links are weakening. Why? Human activity. 3/4 of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. And this human activity is producing a direct threat not only to other species but to our human well-being itself in all regions of the world.

Loss of biodiversity is not only an environmental issue but a complex developmental, economic, security, social, and moral issue as well. This is because biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are part of the human web of sustaining life, and that safety net “is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz, an IPBES Chair. “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

To increase the policy-relevance of the report, the assessment’s authors ranked, for the first time at this scale and based on a thorough analysis of the available evidence, the 5 direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far. These culprits are, in descending order:

  1. changes in land and sea use
  2. direct exploitation of organisms
  3. climate change
  4. pollution
  5. invasive alien species

The IPBES report has determined that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories.


How have Species Changed since the Industrial Era?

At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century, and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. What’s been threatened?

  • more than 40% of amphibian species
  • almost 33% of corals
  • more than 1/3 of all marine mammals
  • 10% of insects

Importantly, social values underpin all of these.

For example, more than 1/3 of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45%, and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980. In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.

Other notable findings of the report include:

  • On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
  • Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface.
  • Up to $577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss.
  • 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
  • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
  • 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters.
  • Fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) – a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.

What factors do we need to understand in order to make sense of these pressing species extinctions?

  • history and global interconnections
  • complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change
  • increased population
  • per capita consumption
  • technological innovation
  • resource extraction and production in one region to supply distant global consumers

A Range of Possible Species Scenarios for the Coming Decades

The report highlights the importance of  adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation. A wide range of illustrative actions for sustainability and pathways for achieving them are available across and between multiple sectors:

  • agriculture
  • forestry
  • marine systems
  • freshwater systems
  • urban areas
  • energy
  • finance
  • many, many others.

Due to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms, and climate change, negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored in the report, except those that include “transformative change.” Also identified as a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.


Final Thoughts

The IPBES is the first intergovernmental report of its kind, introduces innovative ways of evaluating evidence, and draws on indigenous and local knowledge. It notes that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius – with climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics – impacts expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.

  • Who are the major contributors? 145 expert authors from 50 countries
  • How many other authors contributed? Another 310 authors
  • When? The report assesses changes over the past five decades
  • What was the goal? To provide a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature
  • How many resources were reviewed? About 15,000 scientific and government sources

It is our hope here at CT that the report’s shocking statistics about our potential species loss will help people grasp the bigger picture — that it’s time NOW to engage in significant reductions in our daily carbon footprints and to advocate vocally for governmental reductions in carbon emissions.


Copyright free images via Pixabay

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1281 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna