Humans Caused The Largest Loss Of Biodiversity Since The Dinosaurs Were Wiped Out

Monday, November 5, 2018

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The most significant event of the last half-century is arguably “the Great Acceleration,” the explosive growth of our global population and economy in the wake of World War II.

 In many ways, the Great Acceleration is a positive story. It’s the story of lifting billions of people out of extreme poverty, and the spread of basic freedoms across the globe. But with that came an exponential increase in the demand for food, water and energy.

Our rapidly growing footprint on this world comes at a cost: in less than a single person’s lifetime, global wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent.That’s the finding of WWF’s recent “Living Planet Report,” which tracked thousands of populations of mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles between 1970 and 2014.

We’re witnessing the largest loss of Earth’s biodiversity — the vast, varied and delicate web of all living things and the ecosystems that sustain them — since a cataclysmic event wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Today, humans are the main culprit for biodiversity loss, primarily through unsustainable fishing, hunting and conversion of land for agriculture. But we are also the only species capable of bringing it to an end. 

Why should we care about biodiversity loss? Simply put, our planet’s natural bounty helped write the Great Acceleration’s inspiring story of human progress. From the food we eat to many of the medications introduced in the last 25 years, the value that biodiversity provides is essential to our survival as a species.

It’s not too late to course correct. Life is resilient. Life bounces back — when given half a chance. We’ve seen it right here in the U.S. By the 19th century, logging, the fur trade and other economic activities had reduced forest cover in New England to roughly 30 to 40 percent and driven species like moose, deer and beaver to the brink. 

Today, thanks to a mix of conservation efforts and societal changes that shifted the region’s economy away from land-intensive activities, forest covers 80 percent of the region. It’s the single greatest restoration of forest in the Americas in more than a millennium.

History also tells us that government action can help stop biodiversity loss on a national scale. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1973, is one of the cornerstones of American conservation and a model that has inspired conservation laws worldwide. Some 99 percent of the species protected under the ESA have avoided extinction, and iconic species like the bald eagle have enjoyed remarkable comebacks.

How do we recreate these success stories on a global scale? Just as the climate threat called for the global pact agreed to in Paris in 2015, we ultimately need a global deal to save nature. Indeed, our efforts to protect biodiversity and slow climate change go hand in hand, for the same ecosystems that keep carbon out of the atmosphere also provide shelter, sustenance and other essential resources for countless species — including us.

This is our shared challenge, and our shared responsibility. Another 50 years from now, what will be the next global headline for humanity? Will it be that we sat on our hands and let our world deteriorate unchecked? Or will it be that we acted in time to save nature — and ourselves?

Nik Sekhran is chief conservation officer at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Previously, he worked at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where he served most recently as the director for Sustainable Development, leading a team of over 200 staff dedicated to advancing the UN sustainable development goals.