‘One Million Species are Threatened with Extinction.’ As this hit the media headlines following the recent Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, many friends and colleagues sent me shocked messages saying “Did you see this?” “This is a disaster!” Or something similar. Their words, my thoughts exactly!
This silent crisis has been going on for decades. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, and the United Nations Brundtland Report came out in 1987, both ringing warning bells about planetary crisis and the welfare of future generations. Just like Cassandra, who, in ancient Greek legend, was blessed with the gift of prophecy, but cursed because nobody would ever believe her, the world has failed to heed or respond to increasingly frightening warnings of ongoing and future disaster.
Our ecological meltdown is inextricably intertwined with many other crises, such as inequality and climate change. The challenge of providing nutritional food to an increasing global population, projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, is one good illustration of how loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, inequality and climate crisis cannot be viewed and addressed as issues apart.
The biggest cause of biodiversity loss is the degradation and loss of natural habitats to farming for food, fuel and timber, and overexploitation of plants and animals by humans, whether it be over-hunting, over-fishing or logging. Commodities such as palm oil, soy and beef, are juggernauts of deforestation. Agriculture and deforestation, largely driven by expansion of agricultural land, are responsible for around 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Variable weather patterns cause havoc to farmers.
Some might say, “But we need food to stop hunger and to ensure the health of the global population.” True enough, but nature is essential to this; providing us with food, the water we drink, the climate we inhabit and the air we breathe. Our food system needs to urgently evolve without further destruction of natural habitats, and with equality at its centre.
The good news is that it is not that we do not have enough food and need more land. The problem is the food production and consumption system, with its unequal distribution and its huge but avoidable waste. Tremendous progress has been made in poverty reduction but still over a quarter of the world population is affected by nutritional deficiencies, making them susceptible to long-term, irreversible health effects, with highly damaging socio-economic consequences,
Around 98 percent of over 800 million malnourished people live in developing countries, while 1.4 billion people are overweight. More than one billion tonnes of food is wasted every year, amounting to US$2.6 trillion annually, with US$700 billion in environmental costs, and US$ 900 billion in social costs.
Already 60 percent of all mammals on Earth (in terms of biomass) are livestock – a major source of greenhouse gas emissions; 36 percent are humans – the biggest cause of massive greenhouse emissions, and just four percent of the living mammals on the planet are wild. The Global Assessment tells us that only a quarter of all land is substantively free of the impact of human activities. By 2050, that figure could drop to just one tenth.
The Assessment also tells us that, at the same time, land degradation including forest loss through human activities is negatively affecting the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, forcing people to migrate, while accelerating species extinction and loss of ecosystems. Twelve million hectares of tropical forest were lost in 2018, the equivalent of 30 football fields per minute, causing massive emissions. Didn’t we hear this 30 years ago? Why didn’t the world act? Why do Swedish high school student Greta Thunberg and the young generation have to go on school strike? It is we, the adult population, who do not seem to be learning anything.
What more do we need out of our planet? Do we really need more land? Can we afford to take more lands and pollute them, in the process exterminate our cohabitants in the natural world? Can we stop now while there is still something to stop, and options are there? Or do we only stop when we have to, because nothing is left?
In a world with only 10 percent of land allocated for natural habitats and wildlife, where will the water come from, what will fertilize our lands, pollinate our crops, maintain the balance that sustains our lives? In this future inequality will thrive, and everybody and everything will be poorer. The warnings are clear. It is time to heed our Cassandras.
This blog was originally published here.