At no other time in the history of humanity have people had to grapple with the actual fate of the planet, yet that responsibility falls to us. What a time to be alive! What a weight we carry on our shoulders! We can look away and kid ourselves that everything will be fine, or we can do what needs to be done to secure a future for humanity and the planet that is our only home.
My eyes are actually filling as I write these words as I’ve spent my life trying to reset our relationship with the natural world and I sense that green thinking people are finally in the ascendence, and there is just time to avert disaster. The principle is simple, the natural world doesn’t just provide a pleasant view and a relaxing experience, it is fundamental to our very survival. We learn this at Key Stage 2 but then fail to consider the ramifications for global society. Plants put oxygen into the atmosphere, which we breathe to live, it doesn’t come from anywhere else, and our understanding of the complex natural systems (ecosystems) that sustain life on our planet is partial at best.
Yet we press ahead with the clearance and destruction of natural systems seemingly without concern or constraint. Natural systems might be thought of as plants and animals and their numerous varied and complex interactions. Such systems are both aquatic and terrestrial. They are responsible for the balance of gasses in our atmosphere, for recycling organic waste, for regulating the emergence of disease (or not if damaged) and provide us with food and water. These are the systems that allow life to continue into the future which is something I am all for, and I suspect most others would be with me on this.
To give some sense of scale to the problem, it's worth considering the findings of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the summary of which was approved at the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary, 2019. This informs that:
- Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 per cent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
- 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
- More than one-third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 per cent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
- Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23 per cent of the global land surface, up to US$ 577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
- In 2015, 33 per cent of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7 per cent harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
- Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
- Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilisers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 – a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
The situation is stark indeed, with natural systems both aquatic and terrestrial being pushed further towards collapse. The pace of destruction is accelerating, driven primarily by the global economy which is structured to incentivise economic growth and continues unrestrained by the ‘value’ of ecosystem services.
Other key indirect drivers of ecosystem destruction include per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in most cases has accelerated ecosystem degradation; and issues associated with intergovernmental accountability – the idea that resources might be extracted, and damage caused in one part of the world to satisfy the needs of consumers in some other distant location, perhaps the other side of the planet. The impacts are not directly experienced!
The capacity of our planet to support human activity has been exceeded! In fact, people in the UK would need around 3 planets to meet the requirements of our current way of life. The symptoms include the build up of waste, the loss of biodiversity, the pollution of freshwater, the breakdown of oceanic ecosystems and last but not least, the climate crisis! And the prescription: a rebalancing of the global economy and adoption of global trading structures to ensure human activity is moderated by the need to remain within the carrying capacity of natural systems. Fancy a doughnut?