Earth’s Failing Life Support System
Biodiversity, or the great variety of life on Earth, from the large number of forests in the Americas to the wide range of birds and mammals in Africa and the deep stocks of fish and other marine animals in Asia, is declining faster than scientists realized.
The rapid decline in biodiversity not only means the die-off of many species of plants and animals on the planet; it also means the break-down of the life support system on which humans rely. Without a vast and dynamic web of life to generate the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink, can we survive?
For years, scientists have warned that biodiversity losses were occurring at steadily higher rates across the planet, but they did not see an imminent danger to human beings until now.
The game, for humanity, has changed. Time is running out.
Today the decline in biodiversity has reached the point at which Earth’s ecosystems are losing their ability to support human life on 60 percent of the planet’s land masses. More than 70 percent of all men, women, and children live in these areas. This finding is part of a series of new reports by an organization, called Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES. The group is arguing for new policies by governments across the globe to halt the rapid decline in biodiversity.
Humanity’s Way of Life
At the end of March, in the city of Medellín, in northwestern Colombia, officials from IPBES released the results of a three-year assessment, by more than 500 scientists from 100 countries, of biodiversity in four principal regions: (1) Africa; (2) the Americas; (3) Asia and the Pacific; and (4) Europe and Central Asia. The officials used the data to show, in particular, the link between humanity’s modern way of life and the planet’s rapid loss of plants and animals.
“We keep making choices to borrow from the future so that we can live well today,” stated Jake Rice, an IPBES official who oversaw the group’s study of biodiversity in the Americas.
To scientists, it’s clear that by making choices based on the consumption of increasingly large quantities of natural resources to maximize economic gains in the short term, humans are accelerating the destruction of life on Earth.
Homo sapiens have caused a long list of environmental problems at the root of the rapid decline in biodiversity. We are practicing highly destructive behaviors, from burning fossil fuels to cutting down forests and raising cattle.
By burning fossil fuels to generate power, human beings have generated, in the process, the massive emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, driving climate change, which could cause the extinction of more than half of Africa’s bird and mammal species by 2100, according to the IPBES assessment. But by raising domestic cattle, sheep, goats, and buffaloes to produce food for meat-based diets, human beings also are driving climate change: The livestock sector is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions on the planet; it is the largest source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions into the atmosphere.
At the same time, the steady rise in the human population, which currently stands at 7.5 billion men, women, and children across the globe, is exerting its own pressures on biodiversity, according to the IPBES assessment.
In Africa, where almost 200,000 square miles of land which once allowed economic activity but which now has no value because of overuse by farmers and miners, the human population will double in size, jumping from 1.25 billion in 2017 to 2.5 billion by 2050. By comparison, in the Americas, where almost 25 percent of the plant and animal species today are at risk of extinction, the human population will increase from 960 million in 2017 to 1.2 billion by 2050, a rise of 20 percent.
Meanwhile, scientists see no hope of new food sources for feeding all of the new members of humanity. In Asia-Pacific, for example, the number of exploitable fish stocks will fall to zero by 2048, if current trends in fishing activities in the region are not reversed, according to the IPBES assessment.
Ultimately, human beings are not just driving the destruction of plants and animals in exotic locations on the African savannah or islands scattered across the South Pacific. Human beings are destroying themselves, at their own dining tables while consuming large servings of hamburgers and French fries.
Still, many people just don’t care.
For them, only an increased cost of living in combination with a decreased quality of life will sound an alarm loud enough to cause modifications in behavior. When climate change starts killing off increasingly large numbers of species and also starts forcing people to pay increasingly large sums of money to recover from monster hurricanes or wildfires, the urgency finally will hit.
But will it be too late?