Natural Ecosystem Collapse Demands Transformative Change

A yet-to-be-released U.N. report says half a million to a million species are projected to be threatened with extinction, many within decades—and we must act now.
A chemically deforested area of the Amazon caused by illegal mining activities in the river basin of the Madre de Dios region in Peru

Cris Bouroncle/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations is poised to release a new report assessing the world’s biodiversity and the health of the ecosystem’s millions of species, including our own. As you might expect, the news isn’t encouraging. According to a draft copy obtained by AFP, the report states that “half a million to a million species are projected to be threatened with extinction, many within decades.” While people may jump to the conclusion that climate change is causing the collapse of our natural ecosystems, that’s only part of the story. The report identifies causes of species loss in order of impact as:

  1. Shrinking habitat and land-use change
  2. Hunting for food or illicit trade in body parts
  3. Climate change
  4. Pollution
  5. Invasive species

Coupled with the U.N. Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the message is clear: iI we want to thrive on a planet that looks similar to the one we’re on now, we must quickly disrupt business as usual and embrace transformative global change, securing abundant clean air, clean water, natural lands, healthy oceans, and glorious species biodiversity for future generations.

Each nugget of information about what’s happening to our planet is grim news and on its own a cause for despair:

  • Up to a million species face extinction within decades because of human influence.
  • We are rapidly undermining the services nature provides, accelerating the loss of clean air, drinkable water, CO²-absorbing forests, pollinating insects, protein-rich fish, and storm-blocking mangroves.
  • Our own political and economic systems are part of the problem, as subsidies to fisheries, industrial agriculture, livestock raising, forestry, mining, and the production of biofuel or fossil fuel energy encourage waste, inefficiency, and overconsumption.
  • Climate change solutions may inadvertently harm nature. For example, the land needed to grow biofuel crops may wind up cutting into food production, the expansion of protected areas, or reforestation efforts.
  • Nature’s contribution to human well being will be most severely compromised in regions that are home to indigenous peoples and the world’s poorest communities, which are also vulnerable to climate change.
  • Nearly half of land and marine ecosystems have been profoundly compromised by human interference in the last 50 years.
  • Three-quarters of land surfaces, 40 percent of the marine environment, and 50 percent of inland waterways across the globe have been “severely altered.”
  • More than two billion people rely on wood fuel for energy, four billion rely on natural medicines, and more than 75 percent of global food crops require animal pollination.

Clockwise from top left: A black-footed ferret; a sea turtle; an elephant; a whale shark

Clockwise from top left: Ryan Hagerty/USFWS; Jackob Owens; Greg Lippert; Michael Liao

But this report should help us see the forest through the trees. Like the global warming report, it should help us understand that all these various signals of natural ecosystem collapse are symptoms of our collective human patterns, including consumption, resource exploitation, and inequalities in economic and political power. In short, the report is an indictment of the various political and economic forces that got us into this mess. And that’s good—we need that indictment because the only way we’re going to save our planet and ourselves is if we firmly break with the failed systems of the past and embark on a new human journey.

That journey should include bold initiatives, like setting aside 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans as protected areas by 2030. And there’s so much more. We need to toughen existing international treaties, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and force them to exert their mandates in a way that maximizes protection for species and natural systems as opposed to the current system of micromanaging exploitation.

It won’t be easy. We don’t have a choice. We’ve got horn blasts warning us of the danger. It’s time for battle. It’s time to engage as if our lives depend on it—because they do.

Writer’s note: A summary of the report (the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) will be released on May 6, 2019, by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). According to IPBES, the report is being “[p]repared by 150 leading international experts from 50 countries, balancing representation form the natural and social sciences, with additional contributions from a further 310 experts."