U.N. Report: A Million Extinctions and Ecological Collapse Are on the Way

We got ourselves into this mess. It’s high time we got ourselves out of it.
A dead sperm whale beached on Hunstanton Beach in Norfolk, England, in 2016

Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty

The numbers are grim: Up to a million species could go extinct—many in mere decades—if humanity doesn’t force governments and industries to clean up their act.

The bleak prediction comes from a summary of an upcoming United Nations biodiversity report. Though scientists have long warned us about humanity’s impact on plant and animal species, the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is one of the most sweeping (and startling) on the state of the planet’s natural systems, based on thousands of scientific studies and authored by hundreds of international experts.

Let’s start with the bad news.

Going, going, gone for good.

The assessment estimates that current extinction rates could be up to hundreds of times higher than at any other point in the past 10 million years. At sea, a third of marine mammals, reef-forming corals, sharks, and shark relatives are on the brink. Life on land isn’t faring any better. Humans have significantly altered three-quarters of the earth’s land area, leaving more than half a million species without enough habitat to survive. Around 40 percent of amphibians are in jeopardy, and some of our most charismatic species—giraffes, grizzly bears, and right whales—are in dire need of our help. Others, such as the Caribbean monk seal, Spix macaw, and northern white rhino are either already gone or clinging to existence in captivity.

Our forests are flattened.

Trees and plants act as our planet’s lungs, “inhaling” carbon dioxide and then “exhaling” oxygen.  This helps makes forests a potent antidote to climate change, but according to the assessment, we’ve destroyed a third of the planet’s forest cover in the last two centuries alone. The biggest culprits—the timber, agricultural, and biomass industries—show no signs of slowing down.

We log more than a million acres of Canada’s boreal forests each year to make single-use products like toilet paper. In South America, we burn some of the densest and most biologically diverse rainforests to make more room for agriculture and cattle ranching. In addition to oxygen, forests are vital to life on earth in myriad ways, supporting millions of species—from tapirs to tigers to owls to orangutans.

Oceans are running empty.

In the last 50 years, fishing has had the single greatest impact on sea life. We are overfishing a third of the world’s fish stocks, and another 60 percent are fished at their maximum sustainable levels. Our development of coastlines, drilling of seabeds, and plastic pollution make the seas even more inhospitable to healthy marine life populations. And that familiar villain, carbon pollution, is acidifying and warming the oceans. Together, these threats imperil some of the very foundations of marine ecosystems: coral reefs and plankton.

Reminder: Humans will take a hit, too.

We do not exist independently of nature. Humans need pollinators to grow fruits and vegetables, freshwater streams and wetlands to supply and filter drinking water, fertile soils to meet our agricultural demands, forests to provide medicines, and oceans to provide food. A million pending extinctions is a huge threat to our own quality of life on this planet—and our continued existence on it.

But don’t despair!

Conservation laws work—if we let them.

The Endangered Species Act has a success rate of 99 percent. Meaning, once listed, 99 percent of species have so far avoided extinction. Strengthening the ESA and similar international laws can curb poaching, trophy hunting, overfishing, and habitat destruction. Some of the world’s leading conservation groups, including NRDC, have already called for the protection of 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. Let’s get started.

Walk the talk.

Governments need to shift subsidies and incentives away from polluting and extractive industries to policies that protect and restore their natural systems. The United States, for example, could push sustainable agricultural practices and end weighty subsidies for monoculture industries like corn that deplete soils and harm ecosystems. The country could also shift its energy policies to compel a swift transition to renewable sources instead of encouraging the fossil fuel industry to continue to drill, mine, and warm the planet. 

Indigenous people can lead the way.

The report finds that lands managed by indigenous communities are often healthier than when managed by government or corporate entities. Just look to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where Gwich’in natives are fighting to protect the coastal plain, porcupine caribou herds, and their ancient way of life from government attempts to open up the region to oil and gas drilling. It’s long past the time that we start listening to the people who live and rely on these lands, some of the world’s last near-pristine landscapes, on how to best to keep them that way.

Bottom line: We can fix this.

The report concludes that we have the power to stop the projected ecological catastrophe, but it will require a paradigm shift—a radical reorganizing of our technological, economic, social, and economic systems. Good-bye extractive industries, like mining, biomass, logging, and fossil fuels, and hello recycling, renewables, and reusables. We must curb our consumption rates across the board, but particularly of single-use and resource-intensive goods (ditching our plastic habits is just the beginning). Trade-offs—say, less meat for more forests and more public transit for less pollution—will be necessary. And we must, above all, make the planet’s natural systems a leading priority in our collective fights for a better world. Anything less won’t cut it.

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