Let’s face it. Nature is losing. The wild places of the world are disappearing, and will continue to disappear, until they are no more. I used to think I’d be dead long before it was all gone, but I don’t think that anymore.
According to the biennial report, Living Planet Report 2020 published by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles fell by two-thirds (68%) between 1970 and 2016.
Just two years ago, that number was only 60%. In some areas, like the Western Hemisphere’s tropics, they have declined by 94%.
The report followed 20,811 populations of 4,392 vertebrate species, including high-profile threatened animals such as polar bears but more of the lesser known animals and fish. In all regions of the world, vertebrate wildlife populations are collapsing and nature is being destroyed by humans on a scale like never before.
According to Audubon, every bird population we know about is in dramatic decline.
While we have brought a few species back from the brink of extinction – or onto the slightly more stable plateau of extinction – most of the species on the endangered list will disappear forever. Along with many of the species not even on the list. In a relatively short time.
The remaining trees and plants will be just those we like, or can’t get rid of. Some of the animals will be the ones we’ve spent billions to keep alive, but most will be just our food and friends, and those that can survive being around us, like cockroaches and rats.
Most people on Earth don’t care very much, especially the 4 billion just looking for a regular meal and clean water.
So why is this happening?
Destruction of habitat. While we all understand destruction by direct pollution from things like oil spills, coal mining and toxic waste discharges, the worst culprit is simple expansion of human habitat. Housing developments, agriculture, roads, deforestation, an increasing energy footprint, industrial expansion, fires, overfishing and acidification the oceans, and desertification.
And agriculture turns out to be the most egregious. Land-use change due to where and how we produce food, is one of the biggest threats humans pose to biodiversity.
Keeping almost 8 billion, soon to be 10 billion, people alive just takes a lot of space and resources, so we don’t have a lot to spare for the luxury of Nature.
We’re burning billions of acres of pristine Indonesian rain forests to plant palm oil trees (Scientific American). Palm oil is now the world’s cooking oil of choice since it’s one of the healthiest oils available with a low price tag and long shelf life.
But the low price tag doesn’t cover destroying one of the two key rainforests on Earth. The Amazon is being destroyed for soybeans, sugar, coffee, cattle and wood.
Even mangrove swamps are being destroyed for shrimp farms. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that mangrove swamps are a critical piece in the global ecosphere, cycling gases between the ocean and atmosphere in a unique manner.
I’m not saying that life will disappear and the Earth will be a dead planet. It’ll just become more like our back yards. Some nice and manicured, some dumpy with weeds. A few nicely kept parks. But definitely not natural.
However, some of us are looking over our shoulder. There’s a danger lurking in this Disney version of Earthland. Humans actually need a certain amount of natural wildness for our own survival. Bees pollinate half of our food crops. There’s a reason that oxygen is in the air. It doesn’t just come out of the ground. It’s made by algae in the oceans.
The real problem is that most people are so completely divorced from nature that they don’t know what’s happening, what’s gone before, or what awaits us. These global changes occur so slowly, and out of view, even the huge changes, that it’s hard to notice.
No one remembers the passenger pigeon, but when my grandfather was born in 1896, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in the world. But in 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
For over 150,000 years, the Earth had only 10 million people on it at any one time. But our astounding cerebral cortex gave rise to a few key developments like fire, the wheel, steel and agriculture, and an astonishing frontal lobe allowed us to use them effectively.
The population began to grow dramatically just before the beginning of the Common Era, rising to 300 million during the Middle Ages and to a billion at the beginning of the Industrial Age.
Then 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999 and 7 billion in 2011. In just four years, we’ll top 8 billion. This exponential rise is textbook for a bacterial colony in a petri dish, right before it dies from outpacing its food sources and generating too much waste. It’s also eerily analogous for humans in the petri dish of Earth.
Humans now comprise the largest mass of vertebrate matter on land. The rest is almost all our food and friends, mainly the animals we domesticated plus a bunch of xenobiotics we’ve transported far from their habitats (Cornell University). Hardly any vertebrate mass left on land is wild or natural (In These Times).
Let that sink in for a minute. Most of what people see in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel or in movies about animals, IS ALMOST ALL GONE. Humans have dammed a third of the world’s rivers, have covered, destroyed or altered half of the world’s land surface. We use up most of the fresh water faster than it can be replenished. And we extinct about 30,000 species every year.
And this is all continuing apace. Globally, there is no slowing of these trends. But it can be slowed, even reversed. According to the Living Planet Report, pioneering biodiversity modelling has provided ‘proof of concept’ that we can halt, and reverse, the loss of nature while feeding a growing population. But it will require truly transformational changes in the way we produce and consume food and in how we sustainably manage and conserve nature.
From the original equilibrium of 10 million people to 10 billion people in only 2,500 years – Nature just can’t handle this density of humans, not on its own. There’s still time to prevent the complete loss of wild Nature. We may be beyond the limits to growth, but the system is still resilient enough to respond to even a reasonable attempt at conservation.
We have the know-how to do it – that cerebral cortex is pretty good.
But we really need to do something fast.