Nina Rosner explores the causes and consequences of the global loss to biodiversity in the Earth’s ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’
Photo by Karo kujanpaa
In the last few years, the mainstream environmental debate has widened, recognising not only the dangers of global carbon emissions but of the general decline and degradation of natural environments across the planet – but we are only just beginning to comprehend the vast losses in plant and animal life that humans have caused.
Scientists and activists, including world-renowned environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg and her allies in the leading environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, are calling this the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’. Yet, it’s not just grassroots activists talking about ecosystem collapse.
The Importance of Healthy Ecosystems
In the hope of pushing businesses and governments into more resilient decision-making, a recent analysis by insurance firm Swiss Re highlighted the economic risks of degraded ecosystems. Their Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) Index and a subsequent report revealed that in a fifth of countries, over 30% of ecosystems are in an extremely fragile state.
As a result, all of the natural resources that underpin livelihoods and economies – from food, to water, to air quality amongst others – are at stake. Ultimately, the research reaffirmed what we already knew: that failing to protect our natural environments will be catastrophic for human and planetary health, as well as our economic systems and structures.
Humans are reliant on nature not just for services and goods, but also for regulating the very conditions that make life possible. The Earth is an intelligent organism, with self-supporting systems that keep its many cycles in motion. Biodiversity is the cornerstone of a healthy, thriving ecosystem, with multiple species in constant interplay with each other and their environments creating richness and resiliency. In fact, research is continually revealing the surprising links between biodiversity and climate change.
Our planet holds the capacity to continually renew itself and maintain balance. Yet over the course of history, human activity has relentlessly disrupted this balance. The onward march of deforestation, intensive agriculture, soil degradation, pollution and burning fossil fuels has pushed ecosystems to the brink of collapse.
The Future of Biodiversity
At the UN Summit on Biodiversity held in September 2020, speakers acknowledged that despite past commitments, the biodiversity targets set for 2020 had not been met, and that urgent action must be taken now to halt the devastating trajectory we are on – that is, if we are to stand any chance against the diseases, extreme weather events, geopolitical tensions and conflicts that we are already facing as a result of environmental decline.
A wave of forest fires in Australia, Brazil, the United States and beyond, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic that broke out at the start of 2020, are clear examples of what may happen when nature is thrown off balance. An article published by the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) recently placed a direct link between Covid-19 and environmental degradation, concluding:
"Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spill-over of diseases from wildlife to people."
The more we degrade our ecosystems, the more vulnerable they become to external threats. Where a rich, diverse ecosystem might weather a storm, or stop a fire or a disease from spreading, a fragile ecosystem no longer retains its natural defences. This reality and its consequences are beginning to reveal themselves the world over.
Protecting and restoring our natural ecosystems is one of the most crucial tasks of our time: whether for the sake of halting climate change, safeguarding human health or global economies. Both scientific research and our lived experience of the world are showing that we are already at crisis point – it’s time to act.
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