Human beings are more prosperous and numerous than we’ve ever been, while the Earth’s other species are dying off faster than at any time in human history.
These two conditions are related. But if the second one persists long enough, we will be following our fellow organisms into the dustbin of geological history.
This is the primary takeaway from a new United Nations report on our planet’s rapidly diminishing biodiversity. Humanity is reshaping the natural world at such scale and rapidity, an estimated 1 million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, according to the U.N. assessment. Climate change is a major driver of all this death, but burning fossil fuels is far from our species’ only method of mass ecocide. We are also harvesting fish populations faster than they can reproduce themselves, annually dumping upward of 300 million tons of heavy metals and toxic sludge into the oceans, introducing devastating diseases and invasive species into vulnerable environments as we send people and goods hurtling across the globe, and simply taking up too much space — about 75 percent of the Earth’s land, and 85 percent of its wetlands, have been severely altered or destroyed by human development.
All this plunder has worked out fairly well for us, thus far. But all of our prosperity depends upon the natural world reproducing itself. As the New York Times notes, the U.N. has previously estimated that nature provides the economies of the Americas with $24 trillion worth of non-monetized benefits each year:
The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide and helps slow the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines. But as these natural landscapes wither and become less biologically rich, the services they can provide to humans have been dwindling.
For now, we’re still wringing more food out of the Earth than ever before. But we’re also exhausting the ecosystems on which that bounty depends — land degradation is sapping the agricultural productivity of nearly one-quarter of the Earth’s land mass. The mass death of pollinating insects is already jeopardizing $577 billion in annual crop production. The (now virtually inevitable) deaths of major coral reefs, combined with overfishing, will soon remove a major source of protein from the diets of billions.
“The most important thing isn’t necessarily that we’re losing . . . 1 million species — although that’s important, don’t misunderstand me,” Robert Watson, chairman of the U.N. panel that authored the report, told the Washington Post. “The bigger issue is the way it will affect human well-being, as we’ve said many times — food, water, energy, human health.”
Earth’s ecosystems did not evolve to thrive amid the conditions that a global, advanced capitalist civilization of 7 billion humans has created. And that civilization did not evolve to thrive on a planet without coral reefs, wetlands, or wild bees — and with global temperatures exceeding preindustrial levels by 1.5 degrees. Bringing our civilization’s ambitions and modes of operation into better alignment with the environment’s demands no act of altruism. It merely requires recognizing our own collective long-term self-interest, and “changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste,” on a global level, through international cooperation.
In other words: Humanity is probably going out in a globe-spanning murder-suicide. But it doesn’t have to — if we can recognize the interdependence of all human beings well enough to build an international government that recognizes the interdependence of all living things.