The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) presented a report to the United Nations last week stating that up to 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction with devastating implications for human survival. IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson, said:
“We have been telling the world we have a problem... It’s much worse today than it was in 1992. We have wasted all the time the last 25 years.”
The report’s authors noted that the world’s population has tripled since 1950 and that urban areas worldwide have doubled since 1992. By mid-century, the world’s population is expected to approach 10 billion. The resulting pressure on natural resources has been enormous. 75% of the land and well over 50% of the marine environment have been altered by humans.
If the Report’s scientists have been telling us about the problem for 25 years, why has it come to this point? What have the major conservation organizations been doing? Where have been their priorities?
The truth is, they have all, for the most part, been focusing on the symptoms of our planetary woes and not their chief driver. It’s much easier, and far less controversial to focus on a cleaning up a river or working to ban plastics or demanding cleaner air -- all of which are extremely important to the quality of human life, than to point the finger at and do something about what is truly causing our extinction emergency -- the sheer number of human lives.
One conservationist who has long spoken about the devastating effect our numbers are having on the natural world is Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University and a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them. In the forthcoming environmental documentary, 8 Billion Angels, Pimm states:
“When I started teaching in the late 1970s, there were three billion people on the planet. There are now seven going on eight. We are trashing the planet with as many people as we have. If half the world’s population that are destitute were to live anywhere near as well as we do, then we would be trashing the planet even more.”
Pimm is right. To live sustainably with 7.7 billion people on the planet, scientists agree we would have to reduce the economy by approximately half. That requires an enormous reduction in activities like fishing, road building, housing, farming, transportation and many other economic activities that not only extract material from the land and water, but transform, pollute and destroy these environments.
To be equitably sustainable, experts say that an individual would have to live on approximately $5500 a year. The roughly 3.5 billion people living above this sustainable level have no interest in reducing their wealth to this level and the 4 billion or so living below this threshold are rightfully demanding a better life marked by higher income and consumption of more goods and services.
Because we know that living at this level will never be a choice most people are willing to make, we must choose the only solution that permits people around the world to live at a level that offers a higher quality of life within sustainable limits.
Far from just being an EXTINCTION problem or a CLIMATE problem or any number of the other environmental emergencies roiling our planet, we have a PEOPLE problem. Until other conservation-minded organizations and people of all nations acknowledge this fundamental truth we will continue to waste even more time, exterminate more species, and may ultimately face the same fate ourselves.
Terry Spahr, Executive Director