A breathtaking new landmark report from the United Nations suggests that around a million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction thanks to human activity.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” said Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that compiled the forthcoming 1,500 page report. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
The report’s summary for policymakers was released Monday, while the full report will be published later this year.
While Watson says it is not too late to slow and even reverse the damage being done to nature, the headline for IPBES’ own press release describes a ‘dangerous,’ ‘unprecedented’ and ‘accelerating’ decline in biodiversity. Like the UN’s terrifying report on climate change last year, it’s all quite overwhelming and liable to prompt an already anxiety-prone populace to throw up our hands and start hoarding canned goods.
The problem is that, unlike an earthquake or a war, these slow-motion environmental disasters that the 21st century will be remembered for can be hard to witness, making them even harder to fight.
Recently I’ve come to realize how biodiversity loss has actually changed my home and it’s all I’ve been thinking about since the new UN report was released today.
Where I live in northern New Mexico, much of the open land is dominated by big sagebrush. The woody shrubs give off a nice scent and convert any available moisture to dusty green foliage that adds a subtle beauty to an already dramatic landscape. Sage has come to help define this region, but its drive to dominate mesas and meadows around here pushed a number of other species to the brink of local extinction.
See, millions of sheep and cattle once roamed this region, an extravagant abuse of the land that has made it inconceivable to envision it ever supporting a fraction of those numbers anytime soon.
Venture over a mountain ridge or two in just about any direction and you’re liable to find sage-free grasslands thriving in neighboring valleys. That’s because these more remote regions were not subject to the same decades of overgrazing that literally stripped the ground of nearly all its native vegetation here, allowing the sage to move in. Sage is notorious for not playing well with many other plants and quickly invading anywhere it can get its roots down. Once it’s in place, it renders the land pretty much unusable, save for some light grazing, and it is tough to remove without doing even more damage to the already denuded ecosystem in the process.
While the sage-covered valley where I live isn’t without its charms, hiking and camping in the more accessible and navigable grasslands nearby can make my own home feel a bit like paradise lost.
The activities that rendered it this way are now nearly a century in the past, a debt to nature that has been paid for by multiple generations since. And not just in the opportunity to lie back and relax on a soft bed of wild grasses, but also in the destruction of the agricultural economy here that has never really recovered. As such, eighty percent of the children that go to the school my daughter attends qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Much of the rhetoric around environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity inevitably mentions how the problem is being passed on to future generations. So far, guilt-based pitches to stem our destructive habits don’t seem to be too effective. But sometimes looking back in time to see how we’re suffering the cost of past indiscretions right now can help put the overwhelming predictions of what’s to come in perspective.
I know it might seem like I’m piling on here, bringing up an old tragedy in the light of a far larger one. But the lesson here isn’t that we’re screwed, but that we’ve faced these challenges head on and can do it again as Watson suggests.
In the grand scheme of things, restoring the sage-covered mesa where I live to its former, grassy glory may not even seem worth consideration. And yet, government agencies, local groups and even individuals have taken up the task here to restore the ecosystem to what it was in the 19th century. Perhaps most inspirational is the story of a lone property owner nearby who bought up thousands of acres just to spend the rest of his life restoring it.
It’s the same sort of initiative that Watson says is needed across the world right now.
“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably,” he said.