The first documented extinction of 2019 occurred on New Year’s Day, with the death of a Hawaiian tree snail named George. George, who was about an inch long, had a grayish body, grayish tentacles, and a conical shell striped in beige and brown. He was born in captivity, in Honolulu, and had spent his unassuming life oozing around his terrarium, consuming fungi. Researchers with Hawaii’s forestry department had tried to find a partner for him—George was a hermaphrodite, but he needed a mate in order to reproduce—and when they couldn’t they concluded that he was the last of his kind, Achatinella apexfulva. A few days after he went, presumably gently, into that good night, the department posted a eulogy under the heading “farewell to a beloved snail . . . and a species.” “Unfortunately, he is survived by none,” it observed.
George’s passing prompted a spate of headlines, and then, it seems safe to say, was forgotten. Americans have, by now, grown inured to “last of” stories, which appear with the unsurprising regularity of seasonal dessert recipes. (George the snail was named for Lonesome George, a Pinta Island tortoise from the Galápagos, also the last of his kind, who died in 2012.) In February, the Australian government declared a ratlike creature known as the Bramble Cay melomys to be extinct. The melomys, found on a single low-lying island between Australia and Papua New Guinea, appears to have been done in by climate change, which has shrunk its habitat and brought ever more damaging flooding. Then, in April, Chinese state media reported that the last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle had died. “Her species might die with her,” the Washington Post noted.
Last week, an international group of scientists issued what the Times called “the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity.” The findings were grim. On the order of a million species are now facing extinction, “many within decades.” “What’s at stake here is a liveable world,” Robert Watson, the chairman of the group, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, told Science.
The U.N.-backed I.P.B.E.S. is to flora and fauna what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to the atmosphere. Based in Bonn, it is funded by a hundred and thirty-two member nations, including the United States. More than three hundred experts contributed to its latest assessment, which runs to more than fifteen hundred pages.
The authors trace two diverging trend lines: one upward-sloping, for people, and one sloping downward, for everything else. During the past fifty years, the planet’s human population has doubled. In that same period, the size of the global economy has quadrupled, and global trade has grown tenfold. If hundreds of millions of people around the world are still mired in poverty, there are many more people living in prosperity today than ever before.
To keep nearly eight billion people fed, not to mention housed, clothed, and hooked on YouTube, humans have transformed most of the earth’s surface. Seventy-five per cent of the land is “significantly altered,” the I.P.B.E.S. noted in a summary of its report, which was released last week in Paris. In addition, “66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands (area) has been lost.” Approximately half the world’s coral cover is gone. In the past ten years alone, at least seventy-five million acres of “primary or recovering forest” have been destroyed.
Habitat destruction and overfishing are, for now, the main causes of biodiversity declines, according to the I.P.B.E.S., but climate change is emerging as a “direct driver” and is “increasingly exacerbating the impact of other drivers.” Its effects, the report notes, “are accelerating.” Watson wrote last week, in the Guardian,that “we cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.”
How long can the two trend lines continue to head in opposite directions? This is the key question raised by the report, and it may turn out to be the key question of the century. Many documented species have already disappeared—to take the example of Hawaiian tree snails, Achatinella apexfulva is just one of hundreds of species that have been lost—and probably even more vanished before they could be identified. Many others, like the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, are functionally extinct.
So far, it could be argued, the casualties haven’t slowed us down. The I.P.B.E.S. report cautions, however, against assuming that this pattern will continue. Nature, it succinctly observes, “is essential for human existence.” The report points to pollinators as one group of organisms that humans can’t readily do without. Ninety per cent of flowering plants and seventy-five per cent of all types of food crops rely on pollination by animals—birds, bats, and (mostly) insects. Cash crops including coffee, cocoa, and almonds are pollinator-dependent. In many regions, important pollinators, like native bees, are in decline. It’s not clear exactly why, but probably one of the major factors is an increasing reliance on synthetic pesticides, which don’t distinguish between insects that are useful and those that are unwanted. These chemicals are supposed to prevent crop failures; the danger is that they may end up causing them.
As much as six hundred billion dollars’ worth of annual agricultural production “is at risk as a result of pollinator loss,” the I.P.B.E.S. warned. In an earlier report, on pollinators and the food supply, the group predicted that “total pollinator loss” would decrease production of the most important dependent crops “by more than 90 per cent.”
We would, it seems, be well advised to shift course, if only for our own, species-centric reasons. And, according to the I.P.B.E.S., there is still time for “transformative changes” in the “production and consumption of energy, food, feed, fibre and water.” Regrettably, though, all signs point to more of the same. In 2018, carbon-dioxide emissions from the energy sector rose to a new high of thirty-six billion tons. Also in 2018, nearly thirty million acres of tropical forest were lost—an area the size of Pennsylvania. As the Web site InsideClimate News noted, this destruction occurred “even as more corporations and countries made commitments to preserve tropical forests.” As long as we continue to tear through the biosphere, expect the losses to continue to mount. ♦
[Some of this stuff is wtf way out of line, like suggesting that the animals think we were gracious “Hosts”, that the animals got along with homo erectus, or Plestocene age humans, but most of this is timely and right on:]
So you’ve probably heard about the new report saying human-caused climate change is putting about a million different species of animals and plants at risk of extinction, and we just wanted to pop on over and say that it’s true, a lot of us are on our way out the door.
Seriously, look at the time! We can’t believe it’s been hundreds of thousands of years already! That’s a pretty long time, when you think about it, and you can’t go on coexisting as humans and animals on the same planet forever. And you know what they say: It’s better to burn out than to fade away. We’re gonna take our cue here and get out of your hair pretty soon. So arrivederci, and adios!
We’ve had some really good times, us and you humans. Who can forget the crazy days of the Pleistocene epoch? Sure, the Ice Age was no picnic, but it was honestly pretty great later on hanging out and watching y’all evolve. We’ve had this whole symbiotic thing going where animals and Homo erectuscould live side by side. Over the years, we’ve gotten to migrate with you as you’ve moved around and really had a chance to find ourselves and flourish in new places. It was paradise. It would’ve been awesome if life could’ve stayed that way forever, you know?
We’re not trying to flake or anything, believe us. Look, you guys are obviously busy with your machines and your wars and your relentless pursuit of profit. Sometimes, people and animals grow apart. And that’s okay. We’ve always been pretty chill with what you guys are doing, so don’t worry, it’s totally cool. A flourishing ecosystem that supports all of Earth’s creatures isn’t going to be everyone’s thing. It’s your habitat now, after all, and you’ve been gracious hosts to us for a long time. So thanks!
Since we’ve got you here, we do want to mention that it hasn’t been all fun and games. If we’re being honest, we’re still not totally keen on poaching, pollution, zoos, deforestation, or raising us in terrible conditions for the express purpose of slaughtering and eating us. Those things are kind of a buzzkill. Don’t get us wrong, we’re not trying to be overly critical, since you obviously have your reasons. We just wanted to get that off our chests before we get going.
Also, it’s sort of weird you breed some of us as pets. Just saying.
Do we wish we could stick around longer? Sure, a little. When the dodo peaced out back in the late 1600s, we were like, really? Already? The party’s just getting started! But now when we look around—the oceans are heating up, the food’s running out, and most of our natural environments are gone—we wonder if maybe the dodo was right to take off when it did. The vibe isgetting kinda weird in here. Not that the last couple hundred years of rapid industrialization have been all bad for us, but let’s just say the Earth’s not quite as fun for us as it used to be.
We don’t want to belabor our departure—no one likes a guest who overstays their welcome—so we’ll just do a quick soundoff of who’s heading out soon so you can say a quick toodle-oo: the Bengal tiger, Amur leopard, hawksbill sea turtle, Chinese giant salamander, Javan rhinoceros, Sumatran rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, giant panda, vaquita, eastern gorilla, Sumatran orangutan, Borean orangutan, saola, gharial, Asian elephant, Philippine crocodile, Chinese pangolin, Malayan tiger, mountain pygmy possum, Andaman shrew, western swamp turtle, Philippine forest turtle, Ploughshare tortoise, Cross River gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla, saola, South China tiger, pika, giant otter, red wolf, Tasmanian devil, peppered tree frog, northern tinker frog, mountain mist frog, armored frog, Eungella torrent frog, Sumatran elephant, African wild donkey, Saiga antelope, giant muntjac, addax, bowhead whale, beluga whale, Balkan lynx, Asiatic cheetah, gloomy tube-nosed bat, Armenian whiskered bat, Hill’s horseshoe bat, Thongaree’s disc-nosed bat, Aru flying fox, central rock rat, pygmy hog, Gilbert’s potoroo, Allan’s lerista, Carpentarian rock rat, Kangaroo Island dunnart, Darwin’s fox, Peruvian black spider monkey, the red wolf, spoon-billed sandpiper, Siberian crane, Bengal florican, regent honeyeater, orange-bellied parrot, great Indian bustard, sociable lapwing, white-billed heron, whooping crane, red-vented cockatoo, Himalayan quail, Hainan black-crested gibbon, Bulmer’s fruit bat, Philippine naked-backed fruit bat, Fijian monkey-faced bat, Northern white-cheeked gibbon, indri, Andohahela sportive lemur, Manombo sportive lemur, Sahamalaza sportive lemur, all the other sportive lemurs, Celebes crested macaque, Pagai Island macaque, Sarawak surili, kipunji, hirola, tamaraw, wild Bactrian camel, white-rumped vulture, red-headed vulture, Indian vulture, slender-billed vulture, longcomb sawfish, Ganges shark, red-finned blue-eye, finless porpoise, squatina, northern river shark, Pondicherry shark humphead wrasse, orphan salamander, cloud forest salamander, Monte Escondido salamander, El Cusuco salamander, Zarciadero web-footed salamander, Cerro Pital salamander, blue whale, black-footed ferret, Yangtze finless porpoise, Zapotec salamander, and basically everyone from the wetlands.
We’re definitely missing a bunch who are just slipping out really quickly without saying farewell. We hope that’s okay. You probably won’t even notice they’re gone! We’re not all leaving yet. Just a lot of us.
But we don’t want to go out on a bad note. We have so many wonderful memories of the pre-Anthropocene era, and we don’t want those fond recollections of vibrant, life-sustaining forests and jungles and prairies to be forgotten. But it’s time for us to mosey on out down the dusty trail. Sayonara!
Oh, and we hope you don’t mind, we’re taking most of the plants with us too.
Fishing nets and ropes are a frequent hazard for olive ridley sea turtles, seen on a beach in India’s Kerala state in January. A new 1,500-page report by the United Nations is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe.CreditSoren Andersson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded.
The 1,500-page report, compiled by hundreds of international experts and based on thousands of scientific studies, is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization. A summary of its findings, which was approved by representatives from the United States and 131 other countries, was released Monday in Paris. The full report is set to be published this year.
Its conclusions are stark. In most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”
At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in.
As a result, biodiversity loss is projected to accelerate through 2050, particularly in the tropics, unless countries drastically step up their conservation efforts.
Cattle grazing on a tract of illegally cleared Amazon forest in Pará State, Brazil. In most major land habitats, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century.CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
The report is not the first to paint a grim portrait of Earth’s ecosystems. But it goes further by detailing how closely human well-being is intertwined with the fate of other species.
“For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,which conducted the assessment at the request of national governments. “But this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.“
A previous report by the group had estimated that, in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year. The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide and helps slow the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines.
But as these natural landscapes wither and become less biologically rich, the services they can provide to humans have been dwindling.
Humans are producing more food than ever, but land degradation is already harming agricultural productivity on 23 percent of the planet’s land area, the new report said. The decline of wild bees and other insects that help pollinate fruits and vegetables is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.
The authors note that the devastation of nature has become so severe that piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient. Instead, they call for “transformative changes” that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agriculture’s environmental footprint and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.
“It’s no longer enough to focus just on environmental policy,” said Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the study and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. “We need to build biodiversity considerations into trade and infrastructure decisions, the way that health or human rights are built into every aspect of social and economic decision-making.”
Scientists have cataloged only a fraction of living creatures, some 1.3 million; the report estimates there may be as many as 8 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them insects. Since 1500, at least 680 species have blinked out of existence, including the Pinta giant tortoise of the Galápagos Islands and the Guam flying fox.
Though outside experts cautioned it could be difficult to make precise forecasts, the report warns of a looming extinction crisis, with extinction rates currently tens to hundreds of times higher than they have been in the past 10 million years.
“Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the report concludes, estimating that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken.”
Unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals. More than 500,000 land species, the report said, do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.
Over the past 50 years, global biodiversity loss has primarily been driven by activities like the clearing of forests for farmland, the expansion of roads and cities, logging, hunting, overfishing, water pollution and the transport of invasive species around the globe.
In Indonesia, the replacement of rain forest with palm oil plantations has ravaged the habitat of critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers. In Mozambique, ivory poachers helped kill off nearly 7,000 elephants between 2009 and 2011 alone. In Argentina and Chile, the introduction of the North American beaver in the 1940s has devastated native trees (though it has also helped other species thrive, including the Magellanic woodpecker).
All told, three-quarters of the world’s land area has been significantly altered by people, the report found, and 85 percent of the world’s wetlands have vanished since the 18th century.
And with humans continuing to burn fossil fuels for energy, global warming is expected to compound the damage. Roughly 5 percent of species worldwide are threatened with climate-related extinction if global average temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the report concluded. (The world has already warmed 1 degree.)
“If climate change were the only problem we were facing, a lot of species could probably move and adapt,” Richard Pearson, an ecologist at the University College of London, said. “But when populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, when natural landscapes are already fragmented, when plants and animals can’t move to find newly suitable habitats, then we have a real threat on our hands.”
The dwindling number of species will not just make the world a less colorful or wondrous place, the report noted. It also poses risks to people.
Volunteers collected trash in March in a mangrove forest in Brazil. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.CreditAmanda Perobelli/Reuters
Today, humans are relying on significantly fewer varieties of plants and animals to produce food. Of the 6,190 domesticated mammal breeds used in agriculture, more than 559 have gone extinct and 1,000 more are threatened. That means the food system is becoming less resilient against pests and diseases. And it could become harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops and livestock to cope with the extreme heat and drought that climate change will bring.
“Most of nature’s contributions are not fully replaceable,” the report said. Biodiversity loss “can permanently reduce future options, such as wild species that might be domesticated as new crops and be used for genetic improvement.”
The report does contain glimmers of hope. When governments have acted forcefully to protect threatened species, such as the Arabian oryx or the Seychelles magpie robin, they have managed to fend off extinction in many cases. And nations have protected more than 15 percent of the world’s land and 7 percent of its oceans by setting up nature reserves and wilderness areas.
Still, only a fraction of the most important areas for biodiversity have been protected, and many nature reserves poorly enforce prohibitions against poaching, logging or illegal fishing. Climate change could also undermine existing wildlife refuges by shifting the geographic ranges of species that currently live within them.
So, in addition to advocating the expansion of protected areas, the authors outline a vast array of changes aimed at limiting the drivers of biodiversity loss.
Farmers and ranchers would have to adopt new techniques to grow more food on less land. Consumers in wealthy countries would have to waste less food and become more efficient in their use of natural resources. Governments around the world would have to strengthen and enforce environmental laws, cracking down on illegal logging and fishing and reducing the flow of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment.
The authors also note that efforts to limit global warming will be critical, although they caution that the development of biofuels to reduce emissions could end up harming biodiversity by further destroying forests.
An elephant in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya, outside Nairobi. More than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.CreditTony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
None of this will be easy, especially since many developing countries face pressure to exploit their natural resources as they try to lift themselves out of poverty.
But, by detailing the benefits that nature can provide to people, and by trying to quantify what is lost when biodiversity plummets, the scientists behind the assessment are hoping to help governments strike a more careful balance between economic development and conservation.
“You can’t just tell leaders in Africa that there can’t be any development and that we should turn the whole continent into a national park,” said Emma Archer, who led the group’s earlier assessment of biodiversity in Africa. “But we can show that there are trade-offs, that if you don’t take into account the value that nature provides, then ultimately human well-being will be compromised.”
In the next two years, diplomats from around the world will gather for several meetings under the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty, to discuss how they can step up their efforts at conservation. Yet even in the new report’s most optimistic scenario, through 2050 the world’s nations would only slow the decline of biodiversity — not stop it.
“At this point,” said Jake Rice, a fisheries scientist who led an earlier report on biodiversity in the Americas, “our options are all about damage control.”
Nature is in freefall and the planet’s support systems are so stretched that we face widespread species extinctions and mass human migration unless urgent action is taken. That’s the warning hundreds of scientists are preparing to give, and it’s stark.
The last year has seen a slew of brutal and terrifying warnings about the threat climate change poses to life. Far less talked about but just as dangerous, if not more so, is the rapid decline of the natural world. The felling of forests, the over-exploitation of seas and soils, and the pollution of air and water are together driving the living world to the brink, according to a huge three-year, U.N.-backed landmark study to be published in May.
The study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform On Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), expected to run to over 8,000 pages, is being compiled by more than 500 experts in 50 countries. It is the greatest attempt yet to assess the state of life on Earth and will show how tens of thousands of species are at high risk of extinction, how countries are using nature at a rate that far exceeds its ability to renew itself, and how nature’s ability to contribute food and fresh water to a growing human population is being compromised in every region on earth.
Nature underpins all economies with the “free” services it provides in the form of clean water, air and the pollination of all major human food crops by bees and insects. In the Americas, this is said to total more than $24 trillion a year. The pollination of crops globally by bees and other animals alone is worth up to $577 billion.
The final report will be handed to world leaders not just to help politicians, businesses and the public become more aware of the trends shaping life on Earth, but also to show them how to better protect nature.
“High-level political attention on the environment has been focused largely on climate change because energy policy is central to economic growth. But biodiversity is just as important for the future of earth as climate change,” said Sir Robert Watson, overall chair of the study, in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
“We are at a crossroads. The historic and current degradation and destruction of nature undermine human well-being for current and countless future generations,” added the British-born atmospheric scientist who has led programs at NASA and was a science adviser in the Clinton administration. “Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment.”
Around the world, land is being deforested, cleared and destroyed with catastrophic implications for wildlife and people. Forests are being felled across Malaysia, Indonesia and West Africa to give the world the palm oil we need for snacks and cosmetics. Huge swaths of Brazilian rainforest are being cleared to make way for soy plantations and cattle farms, and to feed the timber industry, a situation likely to accelerate under new leader Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist.
Industrial farming is to blame for much of the loss of nature, said Mark Rounsevell, professor of land use change at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, who co-chaired the European section of the IPBES study. “The food system is the root of the problem. The cost of ecological degradation is not considered in the price we pay for food, yet we are still subsidizing fisheries and agriculture.”
This destruction wrought by farming threatens the foundations of our food system. A February report from the U.N. warned that the loss of soil, plants, trees and pollinators such as birds, bats and bees undermines the world’s ability to produce food.
Nature is likely to be hit particularly hard over the next 30 years, said Jake Rice, chief scientist emeritus at the Canadian government’s department of oceans and fisheries, who co-chaired the Americas study. High consumption and destructive farming will further degrade land and marine ecosystems, he added, although the pace of destruction is diminishing because so much has already gone.
“The great transformation has already taken place in North America but the remote parts of South and Central America remain under threat. A new wave of destruction is transforming the Amazon and Pampas regions [of Latin America],” said Rice.
All of this comes at a huge cost and has implications for the systems that prop up life on this planet, throwing into doubt the ability of humans to survive.
“The loss of trees, grasslands and wetlands is costing the equivalent of about 10 percent of the world’s annual gross product, driving species extinctions, intensifying climate change and pushing the planet toward a sixth mass species extinction,” says the report.
Future generations will likely experience far less wildlife, said Luthando Dziba, head of conservation services at South African National Parks, who co-chaired the section of the IPBES report that focuses on Africa.
“Africa is the world’s last home for a wide range of large mammals but the scientific consensus is that under current scenarios to 2100 more than half of African bird and mammal species could be lost,” said Dziba.
Around 20 percent of Africa’s land surface has already been degraded by soil erosion, loss of vegetation, pollution and salinization, he said, adding that the expected doubling of the continent’s population to 2.5 billion people by 2050 will put yet further pressure on its biodiversity.
While people are familiar with the threats to whales, elephants and other beloved animals, the problem goes far deeper than that. Animal populations have declined by 60 percent since 1970, driven by human actions, according to a recent World Wildlife Fund study.
“Species which are not charismatic have been politically overlooked,” said Rounsevell. “Over 70 percent of freshwater species and 61 percent of amphibians have declined [in Europe], along with 26 percent of marine fish populations and 42 percent of land-based animals … It is a dramatic change and a direct result of the intensification of farming,” he said.
This destruction is also driving mass human migration and increased conflict. Decreasing land productivity makes societies more vulnerable to social instability, says the report, which estimates that in around 30 years’ time land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, will have forced 50 to 700 million people to migrate.
“It will just be no longer viable to live on those lands,” said Watson.
The study will also recognize that much of the remaining wealth of nature depends on indigenous people, who mostly live in the world’s remote areas and are on the frontline of the damage caused by destructive logging and industrial farming. According to IPBES, indigenous communities often know best how to conserve nature and are better placed than scientists to provide detailed information on environmental change.
Brazil – which nationwide hosts about 42,000 plant species, 9,000 species of vertebrates and almost 130,000 invertebrates – has an indigenous population of almost 900,000 people, says the report.
“What surprised me the most about this study was that it became clear that the older cultures, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, have different values which protect nature better [than Western societies],” said Watson. “No one should romanticize indigenous peoples, and we cannot turn the clock back, but we can learn a lot from them on how to protect the planet.”
Although their conclusions are stark, the IPBES authors are not entirely gloomy about Earth’s prospects. In offering practical options for future action, they want to show that it is not too late to slow down or even reverse degradation.
The authors are expected to say in their conclusions that to avoid disaster, existing laws will have to be enforced, and further regulations put on, for example, deforestation and overfishing. Reports already published have also called for better protection of pollinators, tighter control of invasive species and greater public awareness of the decline in nature.
They will also recognize that individual and community actions to plant trees, regenerate abandoned lands and protect nature can have a major positive impact.
Many other solutions to save nature have been put forward by individuals and countries.
Several countries are taking bold initiatives to restore land, both to help meet climate targets and to protect and enhance biodiversity. Pakistan intends to plant 10 billion trees (although its previous billion tree campaign was not without controversy), Ethiopia has mobilized communities to regenerate 15 million hectares of degraded lands and the Green Wall project is pushing for a 4,970-mile long belt of vegetation across Africa. Meanwhile, the U.N. Environment program has reported a surge in the number and size of marine protected areas.
Public awareness of the crisis is also growing, with new social movements setting up to put pressure on governments to act urgently. The Extinction Rebellion movement, which began in London in October, argues that we face an unprecedented emergency. Backed by academics, scientists, church leaders and others, including Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva, it claims to have spread to 35 countries in its first two months. Children too are joining in. On March 15, thousands of young people across 30 countries plan to strike from school and protest against inaction on climate change.
But despite these moves to reverse the ongoing destruction of the natural world, the big picture remains worrying. Ambitious global agreements like the Aichi targets set in Japan in 2010 and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals around protecting nature, may not be met at current rates of progress, say the report authors.
Ultimately, Watson concludes that saving nature will require a major rethink of how we live and how we think about nature, but that it is possible to turn this dire situation around if governments want it to happen.
“There are no magic bullets or one-size-fits-all answers. The best options are found in better governance, putting biodiversity concerns into the heart of farming and energy policies, the application of scientific knowledge and technology, and increased awareness and behavioral changes,” Watson said. “The evidence shows that we do know how to protect and at least partially restore our vital natural assets. We know what we have to do.”
For more content and to be part of the ‘This New World’ community, follow our Facebook page.
HuffPost’s ‘This New World’ series is funded by Partners for a New Economy and the Kendeda Fund. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the foundations. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to email@example.com
Sir David’s new programme lays out the science behind climate change, the impact it is having right now and the steps that can be taken to fight it.
“In the 20 years since I first started talking about the impact of climate change on our world, conditions have changed far faster than I ever imagined,” Sir David states in the film.
“It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”
Speaking to a range of scientists, the programme highlights that temperatures are rising quickly, with the world now around 1C warmer than before the industrial revolution.
“There are dips and troughs and there are some years that are not as warm as other years,” says Dr Peter Stott from the Met Office.
“But what we have seen is the steady and unremitting temperature trend. Twenty of the warmest years on record have all occurred in the last 22 years.”
The programme shows dramatic scenes of people escaping from wildfires in the US, as a father and son narrowly escape with their lives when they drive into an inferno.
Scientists say that the dry conditions that make wildfires so deadly are increasing as the planet heats up.
Some of the other impacts highlighted by scientists are irreversible.
“In the last year we’ve had a global assessment of ice losses from Antarctica and Greenland and they tell us that things are worse than we’d expected,” says Prof Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds.
“The Greenland ice sheet is melting, it’s lost four trillion tonnes of ice and it’s losing five times as much ice today as it was 25 years ago.”
These losses are driving up sea levels around the world. The programme highlights the threat posed by rising waters to people living on the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, forcing them from their homes.
“In the US, Louisiana is on the front line of this climate crisis. It’s losing land at one of the fastest rates on the planet – at the rate of of a football field every 45 minutes,” says Colette Pichon Battle, a director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy.
“The impact on families is going to be something I don’t think we could ever prepare for.”
Sir David’s concern over the impacts of climate change has become a major focus for the naturalist in recent years.
This has also been a theme of his Our Planet series on Netflix.
His new BBC programme has a strong emphasis on hope.
Sir David argues that if dramatic action is taken over the next decade then the world can keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5C this century. This would limit the scale of the damage.
“We are running out of time, but there is still hope,” says Sir David.
“I believe that if we better understand the threat we face the more likely it is we can avoid such a catastrophic future.”
This is a hard piece to write, partly because we, too, are baffled. Environmental collapse, coupled with living in the sixth mass extinction, are new territory. We are still in the process of confronting the reality of living with the prospect of an unlivable planet. These thoughts emerge out of our sober forays into an uncertain future, searching for the right ways to live and serve in the present. The second reason for our reluctance to share this contemplation is anticipation of the grief, anger and fear it may trigger. We visit these chambers of the heart frequently, and know the challenges of deep feeling, particularly in a culture that denies feelings and pathologizes death.
As the unthinkable settles in our skin, the question of what to do follows closely. What is activism in the context of collapse? Professor of sustainability leadership and founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability(IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK) Jem Bendell’sdefinition of collapse is useful: “the uneven ending of our current means of sustenance, shelter, security … and identity.” Bendell isn’t the first to warn of collapse — NASA warned of it five years ago. Anyone who takes in the realities of our times will need to find their own relationship to the hard truths about converging environmental, financial, political and social unraveling. There are billions on the planet who are already experiencing the full direct effects of this right now. Forty percent of the human population of the planet is already affected by water scarcity. Humans have annihilated 60 percent of all animal life on the planet since 1970.
Described here, borrowing from Bendell’s analysis, are three responses to imminent collapse. The first is characterized by intensifying efforts to fixthe mess we have created. The idea here is that if we just work harder, we can change the situation. The second is mitigation of inevitable suffering and loss, easing the pain and harm that is already underway. Mitigation slows the demise down, giving us the time for the third, which is adaptation to the life-threatening scenarios before us, or in Bendell’s words, “deep adaptation.”
The three-tier framework we’re suggesting is more like a spectrum, and the tiers interlace at times. As our understanding of the biosphere catastrophe evolves, we may shift our focus of activism. Our age and stage of life also affect where we invest our lifeblood.
The downside of the first response, “fixing” the crisis, is that it often galvanizes false hope in an external panacea that we can vote for or count on. Riveted on the fixes, attention can be diverted away from the adaptation to the crisis that needs to happen in short order, both personally and within our institutions. For example, it takes time to plan for waves of millions of refugees and extreme food and water shortages. Solutions centered on “fixing” often sell books and technological promises. The opportunists are eyeing the take. This motivation is more of the same mentality that got us into this situation in the first place.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
The upside of the fixing response, however, is the upwelling of the human spirit through intensified social movements. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New Green Deal is a valiant example of a fresh plan to “fix” what is broken in the United States. The direct actions of the Extinction Rebellionare a powerful force, not to mention the electrified youth marchesgathering momentum around the world. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg spearheaded a stunning victory in the EU recently. If the impeded stream sings, as Wendell Berry put it, these are rivers of rousing choirs.
The second response, mitigation, also has merit. It aims to stave off the collapse long enough to get needed preparation in place for what is to come.
Stellar examples of this are found in the regenerative agriculture movement. A farmer in drought-stricken Australia told us about the macadamia farm his family owned. He remembers his mother saying, “We’ll plant ’til we can’t.” That day came, so they decided to give farming a go in New South Wales. He described digging a posthole three feet deep recently. At the bottom of the hole was more dust. He and his family are joining fourth generation farmers who are jettisoning traditional farming practices that further deplete the parched earth. He uses no chemicals, rotates stock every three or four days, and is building every condition for the native grasses to thrive once again. Neighboring farms are “destocking” (i.e. slaughtering) sheep and cattle as feed disappears. Food supplies are dwindling for people and animals alike. But he will plant ’til he can’t. When asked about his motivation to persist in such difficult and heartbreaking work, he said it was for love of the land, but most importantly, love for his children. He wants to provide a safe refuge for them for as long as possible.
Regardless of the plethora of geoengineering plans to draw down CO2 levels or reflect solar radiation back into space, the tough reality is that the effects of CO2 already present in the biosphere are irreversible, and intensifying rapidly. Barring unforeseen forces at work, a consensus of scientific research tells us that a minimum of three degrees Celsius (3°C) warming is already baked into the system under current global climate pledges. A study published in Nature magazine showed that over the last quarter-century, the oceans have absorbed 60 percent more heat annually than estimated in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The study underscored that the oceans have already absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere and that planetary warming is already far more advanced than had previously been grasped. If the oceans had not absorbed that heat, global atmospheric temperatures would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit (97°F) hotter than they are today. Today’s carbon dioxide levels at 410 parts per million (ppm) are already in accordance of what historically brought about a steady state temperature of 7°C higher and sea levels 23 meters higher than they are today.
Anyone who thinks there is still time to wholly remedy the situation must answer the question: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by the oceans? Invigorated activism, as heartening and important as it is, is not going to completely stem these tides.
Thus, the third level of activism, adaptation, comes into focus.
Adaptation is new territory. Here is the realm of healing, reparation (spiritual and psychological, among other ways) and collaboration. It is strangely rich with a new brand of fulfillment and unprecedented intimacy with the Earth and one another. It invites us to get to the roots of what went astray that has led us into the sixth mass extinction. Given that with even our own extinction a very real possibility, even if that worst-case scenario is to run its course, there is time left for amends, honorable completions, and the chance to reconnect in to this Earth with the utmost respect, and in the gentlest of ways.
The window for practical preparation for accelerating collapse and chaos is now open.
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” Czech dissident, writer and statesman Václav Havel said, “but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”
Here are a few stories about adaptation, to give a feel for actions that flow out of this type of hope — a hope that includes a hard-won acceptance of the very real possibility of impending collapse.
— An association of mental health workers has created the Climate Psychologists Alliance, in the U.K., Scotland and the U.S. They provide newly adapted psychological services for understanding and facing human-caused climate disruption, along with the difficult truths that come along with it, and helping one another engage while responding to our ecological crisis.
— Gerri Haynes is a 75-year-old and mother of four children and many precious grandchildren. She and her husband, Bob, live in Seattle. They have asked their children and families to remain located nearby in anticipation of duress to come. Their top priority in life, after years of work with Physicians for Social Responsibility, is keeping their family safe and together. The bonds are deep and will carry them through.
— Siena is an 18-year-old Canadian who has opted out of the university track, despite top grades. She has chosen to go to a local trade school where she is studying metal work (milling), welding, plumbing, electrical and carpentry. Her focus will be horticulture. Siena loves working with her hands both for practical purposes and for the joy of creating beauty. She is keenly aware of the usefulness of these skills should industrial infrastructure collapses. She is adapting to our global crisis with great enthusiasm, amid her keen awareness of how much is changing and the challenging times that are imminent.
— Dahr recently spoke to a class at Cabrillo Junior College, elaborating on the climate science in his book, The End of Ice, that explores bearing witness and finding meaning amidst climate disruption. At the end of his talk, a young woman raised her hand and asked, “What can I do? I am poor and have so little to offer.” Later on, in a conversation she mentioned that she was the mother of a young child. This brought tears. The act of parenting, while fully conscious of our likely demise, could now be one of the most heroic forms of activism on the planet. Though the future looks bleak, how can we live in a way that supports seven generations hence? What a form of activism, raising children who cherish this world, who are secure and confident in themselves, who can see and think clearly, who know they matter, who walk on this Earth with respect and curiosity?
— The two of us, along with neighbors, maintain a large garden that provides us vegetables, fruit and berries, along with the calm satisfaction of watching the insects and birds it attracts. Millions of people are already wisely and instinctively following their interests in growing food. Here is intense satisfaction, joy and preparation.
— Finally, a tribute to Stan Rushworth who is filling in a critical void in our attempts to reconnect with the Earth in the time before us. An elder of Cherokee descent who was brought up by his grandfather in traditional ways, Stan knows that all trees and rocks are alive, and that all beings are connected and communicating in their own ways. He knows there is no back-to-the-Earth movement in the United States that does get our history straight. The truth is that the first colonists arrived in North America when it was the thriving home of over 60 million Native people. In very short order, 96 percent of these men, women and children were cruelly sacrificed in the spirit of “manifest destiny” as one of the most barbaric rapid genocides that has ever been carried out. Rushworth teaches at a community college, where his labor of teaching this critical history to younger generations has gone on for a quarter of a century. Without commitment to acknowledge, work against and build reparations for the abomination of Native genocide, we have no foundation upon which to live.
Way upstream of all these noble stories is a subtle and profound kind of activism that could permeate every action we choose to take, on any tier. Author and teacher Joanna Macy, who is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology describes an activist as “anyone who does something for more than personal advantage.” The implications of generous action begin to tip a massive scale away from the pervasive greed and self-centeredness that fuels the root causes of this sixth mass extinction. In fact, we belong to a complex and wondrous net of life, characterized by balance, natural limits and respect.
What if, in the time we have left, we can simply remember this? Then we enable ourselves to walk away from the illusion of separation. Luckily, we already have a compass within ourselves, ready for activation. During a recent unseasonable cold snap in our hometown, one of our friends, Casey Taylor, spontaneously took it upon himself to make a large bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and search out homeless people in the woods. He delivered the sandwiches along with blankets and heating fuel to everyone he could find. He knew of a need and deployed himself, no matter his humble resources, to fill it.
Perhaps one of the most potent rebellions of this time is the refusal to walk in the mainstream western herd, conforming to expectations and values that have ultimately ravaged the Earth. Opting out at its core means realignment with an inner knowing about what is ours to do, from the inside out.
Each one of us must choose the path that is ours. The sum total of this is legions of people taking action in their unique ways, and supporting one another.
Consider this story of a father’s support for his daughter’s choice to follow her calling. Mark Oates, father of 17-year-old Shayla, wrote to Barbara about his despair and fear, as his daughter heads into a dicey climate march that risks repercussions:
Shayla has decided she needs to rebel again and will be putting up posters for the School Strike 4 Climate on Friday in preparation for the 15th of March. She knows that it is too late, but will rebel anyway…. It is what she feels she needs to do…. I will be overseas during the school strikes, or I would have gone with her. My mum, Rosemary is going with her instead.
I have a tear in my eye … the grief, the courage of the young and old, the pride in her … she has always been one to stand up and protect another that is being victimized … but why is it the young and the old that are standing in front of the machine? So sad that we got to this place…. With love.
Barbara wrote him back:
Mark, I honor your clear sight and feel your breaking heart in all this. Amazing, your mom and Shayla going together. Even though we know how advanced the demise is, there are things we all need to do, to be able to live with ourselves, to galvanize in ourselves the ferocity to live in these times, to feel the oneness that pervades in these events. Intuitively I feel it is something formative and essential for Shayla. And REALLY hard on the heart of a Dad. Arms around your whole family and blessings on the Earth you walk on.
This reflection was written on the backs of many conversations … with one another, Mark Oates, Joanna Macy, Sarah-Jane Menato and indirectly, Jem Bendell. It is our hope that these words inspire these challenging conversations with your friends and loved ones.
Lastly, what if all the fixing and mitigating and adapting fail? Perhaps we will have become worthy human beings, having acted during this time of crisis with extraordinary love and integrity. We will turn toward one another and all the beings on the planet, with clear and humble love, knowing we are one living whole. On bended knee, we will weep in abject gratitude for the gift of life itself entrusted to us. In this is profound meaning and purpose.
Perhaps the singing of the impeded stream is, in the end, enough.
“Deep Adaptation,” by Jem Bendell. A paper that provides readers “with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change.”
Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is an author and teacher, scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology. She is a respected voice in movements for peace, justice and ecology. Macy interweaves her scholarship with learnings from six decades of activism.
Going to Water, by Stan Rushworth. An historical novel, and one of the greatest books ever written about healing. “The journal of a Cherokee woman with tremendous courage and determination to persevere in the face of all odds, one who carries a transcendent vision while struggling with everyday life. Where she succeeds and fails is determined by her clarity of focus, by her trust in culture and family, by the powerful responses to the emotional ride she takes on her journey, and by her enduring love.”
The Climate Psychology Alliance provides a forum for people wanting to make connections between depth psychology and climate change, as we all face the difficult truths of climate change and ecological crisis.
Dahr Jamail’s “Climate Disruption Dispatches.” Jamail’s regular updates on the science of climate change are reliable sources of scientific truth.
The 2018 edition says only a quarter of the world’s land area is now free from the impact of human activity and the proportion will have fallen to just a 10th by 2050.
The change is being driven by ever-rising food production and increased demand for energy, land and water.
Although forest loss has been slowed by reforestation in some regions in recent decades, the loss has “accelerated in tropical forests that contain some of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth”, the report notes.
It says South and Central America suffered the most dramatic decline in vertebrate populations – an 89% loss in vertebrate populations compared with 1970.
Marine freshwater species are particularly at risk, the report says. Plastic pollution has been detected in the deepest parts of the word’s oceans, including the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific.
This report shows that many species are dwindling at an alarming rate. But it doesn’t tell us that we’ve lost 60% of our wildlife.
The Living Planet Index looks at the falls in each species, rather than in the total wildlife population.
A huge percentage fall in a rare species will not make much difference to the total number of animals in the world. But it will make a difference to the average fall.
Imagine there were only two species in the world: frogs and pandas. Say that fecund frogs, whose numbers remain in the millions, see zero fall. The poor, prudish pandas whose shyness has seen their number drop from 100 to only 20 see an 80% fall.
On average, there would be an average fall in the populations of species of 40%. But the total population of animals would not be much changed.
The former is what the Living Planet Index tells us about: how much individual species are growing or shrinking.
But that is not the same as stripping 40% (or 60%) of wildlife from the planet.
A summary of a speech by Leilani Munter at the United Nations last night…:
Humans are the most dangerous animal on Earth. We represent just 0.01% of all living things and yet in our short time here we have already had a catastrophic effect on the natural world: we have destroyed 83% of all wild mammals and 50% of all plants.
Of all mammals on Earth, 60% are now livestock, 36% are humans, and just 4% are wild animals. Farmed poultry makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. How sad is it that most of the birds on Earth are not able to fly. That’s what wings are for.
We are adding 1 billion people to our planet every 12 years and for every billion people comes 10 billion farm animals at our current rate of meat consumption. This is not sustainable.
Every single environmental crisis we face: climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss, pollution, species extinction – all of them are accelerated by our rapidly growing population. We cannot address the others without addressing the core issue of the problem.
Charles Darwin once said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Humans must show evolutionary adaptation by reducing population growth and meat consumption, as well as replacing the fossil fuel economy with a renewable energy economy. Otherwise we are up shit creek without a paddle.
(CNN)The desert of northwestern New Mexico, in the vicinity of the Four Corners, is my special place. The high-altitude sun sparkles off the badlands, illuminating rocky pastels of red, green and brown that seem to extend indefinitely in all directions. No wonder that Georgia O’Keeffe — who painted here for decades — found this landscape as her muse.
by Steve Brusatte
Not many people live here, making it feel like a remote backwater within the world’s most industrialized country. But that’s the way I like it. I’m a paleontologist, and I visit here at least once a year, to hunt for fossils of dinosaurs and other long-extinct creatures. The fewer buildings, roads and houses to cover up the treasure we seek, the better.
Most of the candy-striped badlands in this part of New Mexico are carved from rocks laid down in rivers and lakes between about 84 and 56 million years ago. These were lush environments, teeming with life during a time when the Earth was much warmer and there were no ice caps on the poles. Bones, teeth, shells, and other parts of animals would often get buried in mud or sand and turn to stone, becoming the fossils that provide the only clues that these lost worlds ever existed.
You can find many dinosaurs here. We often come across the railroad spike teeth of T. rex and the gargantuan limb bones of long-necked sauropods of the Brontosaurus mold, some of which weighed more than a Boeing 737, easily making them the largest animals to ever thunder across the land.
The New Mexico desert where fossils can be found.
We find the skull domes that horse-sized omnivores called pachycephalosaurs used to head butt each other, and the jaws that horned and duck-billed dinosaurs sliced up plants with. So many species, big and small, living together.
I usually prospect these colorful hills with one of my best friends in science, Tom Williamson, a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. Sometimes, we walk for days and can’t get away from the dinosaur bones, because they are so common. By now we know the best places to find them: a layer-cake series of rock strata, formed during the very end of the Cretaceous Period (84-66 million years ago).
You can read the layers like the pages in a novel, and although the characters are fascinating, the story is fairly uneventful. During this whole stretch of time, dinosaurs were in control. History seemed to be standing still, and it appeared that dinosaurs would keep on ruling the world forever, as they had done for over 150 million years.
But then, suddenly, their bones disappear. We can pinpoint the exact place in the rock sequence. It’s where the cyclical mudstones and sandstones, records of that stable Cretaceous world, abruptly give way to coarser boulder-strewn rocks characteristic of fast-moving currents and corrosive storms. Something dramatic happened to the local environment, and the dinosaurs were gone.
A feathered dinosaur skeleton discovered in China.
The same pattern is seen halfway around the world, in the chalky-colored limestones of Gubbio, Italy. Underneath a medieval aqueduct that clings to the sides of a deep gorge, the geologist Walter Alvarez noted that the Cretaceous rocks at the bottom of the canyon are chock full of small fossils of ocean plankton.
Above these rocks, however, are nearly barren limestones, sprinkled with a few tiny, simple-looking fossils. The knife-edge separation between these two rocks is a dainty strip of clay, only about half an inch thick.
The clay is the cockpit voice recorder that reveals the fate of the plankton, and the dinosaurs: it is full of iridium, an element common in outer space but rare on Earth. It was delivered by a 6-mile-wide asteroid the size of Mount Everest, which was moving faster than a jetliner when it collided with the Earth 66 million years ago, punching a crater more than 100 miles wide and causing a chain reaction of volcanoes, wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes and climate change that wiped out some 70% of all living things.
The dinosaurs couldn’t cope, and all of them (except for a few birds) died. They were soon replaced, and we see the evidence in New Mexico. The chaotic boulder-filled rock layer quickly gives way to the same types of mudstones and sandstones that had been formed during the Cretaceous, a sign that environments returned to normal within a few thousand years. But there are no dinosaur bones to be found in these newer Paleocene-aged rocks (66-56 million years old).
Instead, there are countless jaws, teeth, and skeletons of the things that took over from the dinosaurs, the species that went on to start the next great dynasty of Earth history: mammals.
It’s a sobering story, and one of relevance to us today, as our climate and environment are changing rapidly.
There are consequences to all of this upheaval: we are in the age of the so-called “sixth extinction,” with species dying out at hundreds or thousands of times the usual rate. Faster, perhaps, than even during the five mass extinctions of Earth history, including the one that killed the dinosaurs.
Maybe dinosaurs can help save us. We’re used to thinking of them as movie monsters, skeletons that wow tourists at museums, and objects of childhood fascination. But they are so much more than that. They were real living, breathing, evolving animals that had to deal with rising and fall temperatures, fluctuating sea levels, volcanoes and asteroids.
After all, none of the environmental changes going on today is new. The Earth has been through them before, and dinosaurs and other extinct animals can tell the story of what happened. What died, what survived, how long it took to recover.
Among the mammals that Tom Williamson has discovered in those dinosaur-free, post-extinction rocks in New Mexico is a skeleton of a puppy-sized creature called Torrejonia.
It had a slender body, gangly limbs and long fingers and toes, and you can almost envision it leaping through the trees. It is one of the oldest primates — a fairly close cousin of ours, and a reminder that we humans had ancestors that were there on that terrible day, that saw the rock fall from the sky, that survived the cataclysm while the dinosaurs did not, probably because they were small, agile, adaptable and able to eat many types of food.
There is something almost poetic about it. In a sense, we are the dinosaurs. Before creatures like Torrejonia started the domino chain of evolution that led to humans, the dinosaurs ruled. They evolved superpowers like big brains, keen senses and the ability to grow to enormous sizes. There were probably many billions of them, living in all corners of the globe, that woke up on that day 66 million years ago confident of their undisputed place at the pinnacle of nature.
We humans now wear the crown that once belonged to the dinosaurs. We are confident of our place at the pinnacle of creation, even as our actions are rapidly changing the planet around us. It leaves me uneasy, and a troubling thought lingers as I walk through the New Mexico scrublands, seeing the bones of dinosaurs give way so suddenly to fossils of Torrejonia and other mammals.
If it could happen to the dinosaurs, could it also happen to us?
Dinosaurs, of course, had no way to prevent the asteroid that killed them. But we have a choice — we can still stop, or at least slow down, pumping toxins into the atmosphere. Our choice will dictate whether we really are the dinosaurs: whether we go the way of T. rex and Triceratops, or whether we have learned from their sad story.
Humankind is revealed as simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth by a groundbreaking new assessment of all life on the planet.
The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.
The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.
Another surprise is that the teeming life revealed in the oceans by the recent BBC television series Blue Planet II turns out to represent just 1% of all biomass. The vast majority of life is land-based and a large chunk – an eighth – is bacteria buried deep below the surface.
“I would hope this gives people a perspective on the very dominant role that humanity now plays on Earth,” he said, adding that he now chooses to eat less meat due to the huge environmental impact of livestock.
The new work reveals that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.
“It is pretty staggering,” said Milo. “In wildlife films, we see flocks of birds, of every kind, in vast amounts, and then when we did the analysis we found there are [far] more domesticated birds.”
But comparison of the new estimates with those for the time before humans became farmers and the industrial revolution began reveal the full extent of the huge decline. Just one-sixth of wild mammals, from mice to elephants, remain, surprising even the scientists. In the oceans, three centuries of whaling has left just a fifth of marine mammals in the oceans.
“It is definitely striking, our disproportionate place on Earth,” said Milo. “When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken.”
Despite humanity’s supremacy, in weight terms Homo sapiens is puny. Viruses alone have a combined weight three times that of humans, as do worms. Fish are 12 times greater than people and fungi 200 times as large.
But our impact on the natural world remains immense, said Milo, particularly in what we choose to eat: “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms.”
“I would hope people would take this [work] as part of their world view of how they consume,” he said. ”I have not become vegetarian, but I do take the environmental impact into my decision making, so it helps me think, do I want to choose beef or poultry or use tofu instead?”
The researchers calculated the biomass estimates using data from hundreds of studies, which often used modern techniques, such as satellite remote sensing that can scan great areas, and gene sequencing that can unravel the myriad organisms in the microscopic world.
They started by assessing the biomass of a class of organisms and then they determined which environments such life could live in across the world to create a global total. They used carbon as the key measure and found all life contains 550bn tonnes of the element. The researchers acknowledge that substantial uncertainties remain in particular estimates, especially for bacteria deep underground, but say the work presents a useful overview.
Paul Falkowski, at Rutgers University in the US and not part of the research team, said: “The study is, to my knowledge, the first comprehensive analysis of the biomass distribution of all organisms – including viruses – on Earth.”
“There are two major takeaways from this paper,” he said. “First, humans are extremely efficient in exploiting natural resources. Humans have culled, and in some cases eradicated, wild mammals for food or pleasure in virtually all continents. Second, the biomass of terrestrial plants overwhelmingly dominates on a global scale – and most of that biomass is in the form of wood.”