When we look more closely at the ecosystemic X-ray, staggering details emerge. The average abundance of native species living in the planet’s largest habitats on land has fallen by at least 20 percent, with most of that loss taking place since 1900. Over the past five centuries, at least 680 species of vertebrates have gone extinct, including more than 9 percent of all domesticated livestock breeds. Meanwhile, at sea, we are harvesting a third of all marine fish stocks at unsustainable levels.
In the words of Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that issued the report, “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.”
To continue the medical diagnosis metaphor, the next few days represent the moment when humanity is walking out of the doctor’s office in a daze. The next few weeks represent the elevator ride down to the ground floor, when we’re replaying, in our heads, her words of warning. And the next few months represent our short ride home, during which we try to process what we’ve heard and almost reflexively veer toward one or the other of the aforementioned responses: Either we change, or we do nothing.
Hopefully we’ll be telling ourselves: We can do this.
The alternative response—We can’t—isn’t really a response at all. It’s the absence of one. Like a thoughtful physician, IPBES’s Watson doesn’t intend to give us the bad news and just stop there. The report also tells us that “it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he says. Through what he labels transformative change—“a fundamental, systemwide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values”—nature “can still be conserved, restored, and used sustainably.”
For my part, I will continue to explore the various ways in which humans all over the world are working to restore our ecosystems: the ongoing efforts to save endangered species; to conserve the Canadian boreal, tropical rainforests, coral reefs, and other besieged habitats; to implement smarter land use practices; and to manage fisheries more sustainably. We need to integrate such solutions into a holistic regimen that will move us toward the “transformative change” we so desperately need for our own survival. You can’t stave off a heart attack with a series of half measures; it’s not enough to cut back from two packs of cigarettes a day to one, or to drop five pounds when you really need to drop 50.
But for now, in the immediate aftermath of our diagnosis, let’s just agree that as bad as the situation is, we really do have what it takes to heal ourselves. Let’s take a deep breath, clear our minds, open our eyes, and commit ourselves to meaningful change. There really is no other choice.