Disturbing. Sobering. Heartbreaking. A wake-up call. A reality check.
Up to a million species could be facing extinction within decades, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report that shocked the world earlier this month. That’s probably within most of our lifetimes. Certainly, it’s within mine. But even given the expedited timeline, we have a hard time grappling with the urgency of what it means to lose species diversity on such a massive scale. It is such a huge problem, it’s hard to wrap your head around it.
Over 75% of terrestrial environments and 66% of marine environments have been significantly altered by humans.
Nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production and 85% of wetlands present in 1700 had been lost by 2000.
Almost 33% of reef forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, over 33% of marine mammals, and over 40% of amphibians are threatened with extinction.
These statistics and this report shouldn’t have shocked anyone. There have been warning signs for decades.
What would the world look like if we lose one million species? What would life look like without the ecosystem services those species provide? And how can just one person do something about it?
The next species to go extinct might be a snail in Hawaii, a tree in New Zealand, a grasshopper in Africa, a frog in the Amazon, or the vaquita in the Gulf of California. After that it could be the bee that pollinates your tomatoes, the mangrove that stops a hurricane’s flood from ripping through your house, or your child’s favorite wild cat. We likely won’t know what species is next until we can’t find it anymore, and we are close to a tipping point where extinctions may come more and more frequently.
For some reason, the importance of biodiversity doesn’t always resonate. At Defenders, we have been dedicated to wildlife and habitat conservation and the safeguarding of biodiversity for over 70 years, and we often talk about individual species or individual projects. But every species we work to protect, from North Atlantic right whales to ocelots, dunes sagebrush lizards to marbled murrelets, Quino checkerspot butterflies to northern long-eared bats, and giant manta rays to polar bears are important species in the web of life. To bring people’s attention to the larger issue of biodiversity loss, we have to make it smaller, more local, more personal, and more approachable. That’s why we engage with communities across the country to protect public lands, restore habitat, address impacts of climate change, limit negative interactions between humans and wildlife, and advocating for protections for imperiled species.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of human-caused extinction, which is why I’m here at Defenders. I grew up knowing that imperiled species the world over are being eaten, sold for parts, finned alive, chased from their homes, poisoned to make way for livestock or agriculture, and their habitats polluted, warmed, and paved over. I heard it from David Attenborough, saw it on signs at the zoo, learned about it in school, saw evidence on our family vacations to the beach, and read it in books and encyclopedias.
I can rattle off an ever-growing list of “endlings,” the last of their species: Lonesome George, Martha, Incas, Benjamin, Celia, Toughie. You’ve probably heard some of these names, but if you Google the rest — their stories and the stories of those who fought to save their kind will bring tears to your eyes.
In addition to learning about the end of nature, I grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley — an area that used to be farmland but that is now covered with forest. Just a few decades ago, you never saw coyotes or turkeys or bears, and not long before that, you wouldn’t dare swim or fish in the river. Before I was born, residents successfully fought against acid rain and a hydroelectric plant and they fought to clean up the river. Now, bald eagles, oysters, and whales have returned to the river and the New York harbor.
The environmental movement was born before I was, but knowing these stories has helped me realize that there is no problem so big that individuals can’t be part of the solution. Biodiversity loss is no exception. The UN report lays out scores of solutions, all practical and attainable.
In our everyday lives, we can think globally and act locally by consuming less, understanding our biodiversity and carbon footprints, supporting businesses and non-profits that protect the planet, demanding that our politicians take climate change and the sixth mass extinction seriously, and adding up all the small ways we can make a difference. We can drive slowly in spring when amphibians and reptiles are crossing roads to find vernal pools, plant native plants in our yards, and carry reusable water bottles and shopping bags with us so we’re never unprepared.
Today is International Biological Diversity Day, and this year’s theme is Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health. There is no better theme to follow the unprecedented UN report and there is no better day to start sharing, caring, and acting then today. There are still people who don’t know of the perils we are inflicting on our planet. It is up to those who care, those who are passionate, to share their personal stories. The UN report made headlines, but the likelihood of those front-page articles causing the kind of transformative change that the report itself calls for is slim. What will cause change, is talking to people about what they have seen, what they have done, and the hope they have for the future. And today is the day to start.