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The Accelerating Ecological Genocide

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

In May 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its latest assessment of the accelerating extinction rates of our global biodiversity. The report was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years. It has inputs from another 310 contributing authors and is based on the review of about 15,000 scientific publications. The full report (exceeding 1,500 pages) will be published later this year. A preliminary overview of the report makes a somber reading. Here are the highlights:

Nature’s decline is unprecedented; species extinction rates are accelerating; current global responses are insufficient; 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction; nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinction is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.

The report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species have been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture have become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.

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.

The Report notes that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius with climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics; impacts are expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers. Despite progress to conserve nature and implement policies, the report also finds that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors. With good progress on components of only four of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, it is likely that most will be missed by the 2020 deadline. Current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land. Loss of biodiversity is therefore shown to be not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue.

To better understand and, more importantly, address the main causes of damage to biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, we need to understand the history and global interconnection of complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change, as well as the social values that underpin them. Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability. There are twenty-five notable findings:

+ Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions.

+ More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.

+ Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface.

+ 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.

+ In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.

+ Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.

+ 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers are entering coastal ecosystems.

+ There are more than 400 ocean dead zones – a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.

+ Losses of intact ecosystems have occurred primarily in the tropics, home to the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet.

+ 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost from 1980 to 2000, resulting mainly from cattle ranching in Latin America (about 42 million hectares) and plantations in South-East Asia (about 7.5 million hectares, of which 80% is for palm oil, used mostly in food, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuel) among others.

+ Since 1970 the global human population has more than doubled (from 3.7 to 7.6 billion), rising unevenly across countries and regions.

+ The per capita gross domestic product is four times higher with ever-more distant consumers shifting the environmental burden of consumption and production across regions.

+ The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.

+ The numbers of invasive alien species per country have risen by about 70% since 1970, across the 21 countries with detailed records.

+ The distributions of almost half (47%) of land-based flightless mammals and almost a quarter of threatened birds may already have been negatively affected by climate change.

+ 75% of our terrestrial environment is severely altered to date by human actions (marine environments 66%).

+ 60 billion tons of renewable and non-renewable resources are extracted globally each year, up nearly 100% since 1980.

+ There has been a 15% increase in global per capita consumption of materials since 1980.

+ 85% of wetlands present in 1700 had been lost by 2000 – loss of wetlands is currently three times faster, in percentage terms, than forest loss.

+ There is a 17% infectious diseases spread by animal vectors causing 700,000 annual deaths.

+ 821 million people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa.

+ 40% of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water.

+ 80% of global wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment.

+ 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters.

+ Plastic pollution has increased 10 times in since 1980.

Global warming and Climate Change

+ 1 degree Celsius: average global temperature difference in 2017 compared to pre-industrial levels, rising +/-0.2 (+/-0.1) degrees Celsius per decade

+ 3 mm: annual average global sea level rise over the past two decades

+ 16-21 cm: rise in global average sea level since 1900

+ 100% increase since 1980 in greenhouse gas emissions, raising the average global temperature by at least 0.7 degrees

+ 40%: rise in carbon footprint of tourism (to 4.5Gt of carbon dioxide) from 2009 to 2013

+ 8%: of total greenhouse gas emissions are from transport and food consumption related to tourism

+ 5%: estimated fraction of species at risk of extinction from 2°C warming alone, rising to 16% at 4.3°C warming

+ Even for global warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees, the majority of terrestrial species ranges are projected to shrink profoundly.

The Report also presents a wide range of illustrative actions for sustainability and pathways for achieving them across and between sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance and many others. It highlights the importance of, among others, adopting integrated management and cross-sectorial approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation. Also identified as a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.

To increase the policy-relevance of the report, the assessment’s authors have ranked, for the first time at this scale and based on a thorough analysis of the available evidence, the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far. The culprits are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

In conclusion, whether one calls what is coming Anthropocene, a period during which human activity alters the climate and the environment; Capitalocene describing capitalism’s impact on the Anthropocene; Sixth Mass Extinction – the massive death of animals and plants; or Ecocide – the impending ecological suicide, the report makes an horrific reading. Some will say, this is alarmist. Well, yes, it is. It is highly alarming. And it is not the first time that those who can see afar are being abused as being alarmist. Rosa Luxemburg, at the eve of World War I, warning that this war would lead to the senseless massacre of French and German workers, was accused of being alarmist. For her views she was murdered. Surely, people who warned us of the impending Holocaust during the 1930s were called alarmist. Those who warned us against dropping the atomic bomb were accused of being alarmist, those who warned against the Vietnam war where alarmist, those who warned against the Iraq war were alarmist, etc. But in each case the alarmists were proven right. What we are facing today is nothing short of The Uninhabitable Earth – the annihilation of life on earth. It is about time to ring the alarm bells.

 

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Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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