The devastating impact we have on this planet has been obvious for some decades. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her seminal work ‘Silent Spring’, which documented the adverse effects of indiscriminate use of pesticides. Along the way we have had a number of other environmental issues: from ozone layer depletion to the devastating impacts of climate change.
Now the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has spent three years of effort, using 15,000 reference materials, to publish a 15,00 page document giving us perhaps the most powerful indictment of how humans have treated this planet. And the prognosis is not good. We are consistently contributing to drastic loss of natural resources and because it is not as well known as climate change, it is being termed as a “silent crisis’.
In the last 50 years, increasing population and need for natural resources has led to a level of extraction never before seen in our history; whether on the land or the sea. And the refuse from our activities has impacted land, sea, as well as the sky.
The report tells us that since 1900, the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent. More than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of corals and more than 33 percent of all marine mammals are threatened. Even for insects, of which there is not a great deal of data, evidence supports an estimated 10 percent as being threatened. By the 16th century we had already driven to extinction at least 680 vertebrate species.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”said Prof. Settele, co-chair of the Assessment.
The report highlights that an estimated three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment have been altered. Furthermore, plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980 to say nothing of the 300–400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities, which are dumped annually into the world’s waters.
The direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts have been classified as: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.
All of these drivers combined are killing species at never before seen rates and an average of around 25 percent of animals and plants are now threatened, which translates to around a million species now facing extinction within decades, a rate of destruction tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. Ecosystems have declined by 47 percent and global biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82 percent. Moreover, the productivity of 23 percent of the land surface has been reduced.
The authors present a number of options and future scenarios and in almost all cases, the negative trends for nature will continue to 2050 and beyond.
A range of transformative actions are presented that define pathways to sustainability in agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance and many others.
Although we have done our best to completely annihilate all nature from this planet and thus have jeopardized our own future; there are still some things we can do together to make sure all is not lost. This means working towards nature and biodiversity conservation, while taking into account sustainable extraction and development.
The IPBES report is a clarion call, telling us that we do not have a choice anymore. We must adopt more sustainable economic systems and move away from the “current limited paradigm of economic growth”. This is now crucial if we are to avert the “silent crisis” that has come upon the Earth — the only home we have.
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