A United Nations report released Monday said that one million animal and plant species face imminent extinction because of human activity and global warming. The same day, Buckingham Palace announced that the Duchess of Sussex, a.k.a. Meghan Markle, “was safely delivered of a son.” Which story did you click on?
If you went with the birth of a new member of the Royal Family, that’s understandable. Good news such as that is simpler to swallow than the nearly incomprehensible proposition that we humans now threaten the survival of one in eight of the remaining species with which we share the planet.
That’s the headline conclusion in the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
The UN body, similar to the better-known intergovernmental panel that has been sounding the alarm on climate change, was tasked with the job of examining research from 15,000 scientific and government sources, and taking a sweeping look at the future of our natural landscape.
It’s as grim as you might expect. Three-quarters of the land on the planet has now been “severely altered” by human actions. The same goes for 66 per cent of Earth’s marine environments. Starkest of all, 85 per cent of the world’s wetlands have disappeared.
As a consequence, the rate of extinction of animals and plants today is tens to hundreds of times higher, depending on species, than the average over the past 10,000 years. That includes the rate of extinction of insects and animals that are critical to the pollination of the plants we eat.
Over all, the abundance of wildlife and plants has dropped by an average of 20 per cent around the globe, a decrease that will accelerate as climate change alters or eliminates ecosystems populated by species adapted to live in them.
But as alarming as these findings are, they are also abstractions. Put another way, how would the extinction of the Bengal tiger affect someone living in a Canadian suburb? What does the loss of millions of hectares of rain forest and boreal forest have to do with people living in cities?
The authors of the study were aware of the difficulty of making their findings relevant to the average person. Nature means different things to different people. Some think of it as something to admire, or to escape to. For others, it is an opportunity to be exploited.
But for all of us, a thriving natural world is what makes human life possible. We are part of nature, and we are dependent on it.
What binds us is what the study refers to as “nature’s contributions to people” – all the ways in which the natural world is critical to the health of our own particular species.
The study lists 18 NCPs, with the creation of habitat for animals and plants, the pollination and propagation of seeds, and the regulation of air quality, climate and ocean acidification as the top five.
Other NCPs include the provision of food and animal feed, the production of energy, sources of medicine, the maintenance of options for the future - such as replacing one food source with another if one disappears - and the support of cultural identities.
None of the NCPs is a human activity but, in conjunction with human assets such as knowledge and technology, they are the world we live in. And they coexist with us in a delicate balance. For instance, clearing a forest for agriculture might increase the provision of food and feed (NCP 12) but will also decrease pollination (NCP 2), climate regulation (NCP 4) and the maintenance of options for the future (NCP 18).
The lesson of this new report, then, is not that the bad news about the environment just keeps coming, but that the solutions lie in recognizing that the natural world must be treated as our inescapable ally. There is no human contraption that will turn all of our greenhouse gases into oxygen as effectively as our forests and oceans can; there is no filtering system to produce the clean water we need on the scale that Mother Nature has provided.
Human beings, from voters to policy makers, need to start seeing the natural world as more than something to admire or exploit. Instead, it’s the basis of our existence. As the report says, it is not too late to take action. Get it right, and every child born today, royal or otherwise, will have a bright future.