In just a few decades, we are likely to see many fewer species on the planet than we see today. That is the grim message in a May 7, 2019, report from the United Nations on the status of species in this era of rapid climate change and human interventions in the environment. There now are as many as 1 million species threatened with extinction — an unprecedented and accelerating die-off that cannot be prevented without transformative changes in our treatment of nature.
The warnings come from the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Its report is the product of 145 expert authors from 50 nations along with contributions from another 310 contributing authors. It is based on a review of 15,000 science and government sources.
The human interventions include a tenfold increase in plastic pollution over the last 20 years; 400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludges and fertilizer pouring into global waters annually; a doubling of greenhouse gas pollution since 1980; the loss of 85% of the world’s wetlands during the industrial era; and a 70% increase in invasive species across 21 countries. Urban areas have doubled since 1992; 33% of fish stocks are overfished; and 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 an area greater than the United Kingdom.
As international scientists warned us last fall about climate change, it will take transformative changes in human behavior — no less than a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values” — to prevent this level of extinction.
As one of the authors put it, we are tearing the web of life. Until we understand that we are part of and dependent upon that web, and until we stop special interests from tearing it for profit, the loss of biodiversity will continue. It’s probably time to stop calling ourselves the planet’s most intelligent species.