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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Humans and Extinction: a summary
distributed 5/17/19 - ©2019

PROLOGUE: Last week's Eco-Justice Notes was the first installment in a series addressing the crisis of mass extinction. The series is related to the intergovernmental report on biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES) which was released May 6.

The first Notes on this topic laid a foundation for an in-depth look at the report by exploring three metaphors which might help us grasp the reality of large-scale extinction. I've heard back from readers that the images of removing rivets from a plane in flight, and of a symphony where instruments are taken away, are helpful. My new analogy that tried to connect with taking out specific NFL football players was not a big success.

Today, I'll try to communicate the major eco-justice points from the IPBES report about the scope and urgency of the biodiversity crisis. Next week, I plan to wrap up the series with some analysis about the options for addressing widespread extinction.

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Jumping right to the heart of the report's news -- and it is not good news -- there's a large heading which states: "Humanity is a dominant global influence on life on earth, and has caused natural terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems to decline." More bluntly, another heading states, "Human actions threaten more species with global extinction than ever before." Make no mistake. This is not a "natural cycle" or a trend with unknown causes. Indisputably, the dramatic loss of biological diversity is tied to human impacts.

The broad, global statements are supported by facts about the decline in numerous ecosystems, with lots of highly disturbing statistics. To name but a few:

  • Only around 25% of land is sufficiently unimpacted that ecological and evolutionary processes still operate with minimal human intervention.
  • Only 13% of the wetland present in 1700 remained by 2000.
  • Only 3% of the ocean was described as free from human pressure in 2014.
  • Severe impacts to ocean ecosystems are illustrated by 33% of fish stocks being classified as overexploited, and greater than 55% of ocean area being subject to industrial fishing.

Those facts are followed by another big heading: "The global rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating." It is in that paragraph that we find the projection which made shocking headlines 10 days ago. The data suggests that, "of an estimated 8 million animal and plant species (75% of which are insects), around 1 million are threatened with extinction." A separate line of evidence, based on habitat loss, "suggests that around 9 per cent of the world's estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species -- more than 500,000 species -- have insufficient habitat for long-term survival, [and] are committed to extinction, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored ."

Popular Science summarizes these figures in a set of five charts. A column in the Concord Monitor reminds us that this really isn't breaking news. The numbers are "consistent with what ecologists and conservation biologists have been saying for quite some time now."

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8 to 13% of all species on Earth could be extinct within decades, and many more will be greatly diminished.

That's sad, if we think of all those species as things which exist in isolation from each other. But it is more than sad, of course, because all species are tied together into a complex web of life. One of the important things about the IPBES report -- which is not in most of the mainstream reporting -- is its constant message that humans are very much a part of that complex web. The report separates humans from nature, but not by much.

On the very first page of the report's text, the heading for paragraph 1A says: "Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life. Most of nature's contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable." It isn't just sad if those species go away. The widespread extinction of species is a threat to human existence.

The IPBES report makes frequent use of a new term, which you just saw in the quote above, "nature's contribution to people," which is used so often that it usually is abbreviated as NCP. That term is used in place of an economic phrase which has been common for decades, "ecosystem services," which speaks of valuable things that nature does for us that we don't have to pay for. Insects pollinate plants that we use for food. (Animal pollination is not trivial at all -- "more than 75 per cent of global food crop types, including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and almonds, rely on animal pollination.") Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air, and release oxygen. Fish are harvested from the ocean as a major source of human food. And so on.

"Nature's contribution to people" is a bigger category than those ecosystem services. "Nature underpins all dimensions of human health and contributes to non-material aspects of quality of life -- inspiration and learning, physical and psychological experiences, and supporting identities -- that are central to quality of life and cultural integrity, even if their aggregated value is difficult to quantify." One chart lists 18 categories of those contributions, with an indicator of the 50-year global trend for each. (The chart, on page 10, shows most of those indicators decreasing, which is not good.)

The report also stresses that nature's contributions to people are not something that humans simply absorb or receive. "Most of nature's contributions to people (NCP) are co-produced by biophysical processes and ecological interactions with anthropogenic assets such as knowledge, infrastructure, financial capital, technology and the institutions that mediate them." Humans are actively involved in way we interact with, and benefit from, that natural world.

Those strike me as the big concepts of the report in describing what is happening to life on Earth. They are worked out in innumerable, and essential, details.

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A related and recurring theme discusses how humanity has such big impacts on ecosystems. Long discussions are distilled to the most basic level in one graphic (on page 12 -- and used on today's Facebook post). There are six "direct drivers" of global declines: land/sea use change; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; invasive alien species, and "other." The figure shows the relative impact of each of those direct drivers on three kinds of ecological settings: terrestrial, freshwater, and marine.

Each of the six direct drivers are influenced by four other "indirect drivers:" demographic and sociocultural, economic and technological, institutions and governance, and conflicts and epidemics.

As I try to visualize the interplay of those three settings, six direct drivers, and four indirect drivers, I get a 3-dimensional chart with 72 different points of intersection. This gives a hint about why the "what we can do" discussion won't be easy.

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Another essential factor in understanding this report is that human experience and cultures also are seen as diverse and complex. There's no unified "humans" who are doing things to the world. Human roles and impact vary greatly in diverse geographies, and within cultures.

"Indigenous people and local communities" are often mentioned as having lighter impacts on their environment, having valuable knowledge about ways of relating to the natural world, and holding beliefs which lessen impacts. On the other side of the impact scale, within nations and globalized institutions, "economic incentives generally have favoured expanding economic activity, and often environmental harm, over conservation and restoration." Stating the obvious, we're told that "vested interests may oppose the removal of subsidies or the introduction of other policies."

The intersection of ecological health and social justice is affirmed through incorporating the UN's Sustainable Development Goals into the heart of the report. By frequent reference to those goals, it is made very clear that recognized standards of human justice and well-being must be met while also working to reduce the deterioration of biodiversity and ecosystem health. As with last fall's report from the IPCC on the need to hold global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C, addressing the sustainable development goals is inseparable from dealing with the crisis of extinction.

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As I wrote last week, this summary report is hard reading. There is a massive amount of complex information packed into 3 dozen pages. And it is hard because of the emotional and spiritual challenges of taking in such troubling news.

Next week, I hope to cover the options for change presented within the report. The report affirms that "Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals ..." Surprisingly, in the face of so much complexity and detail, the report's core recommendation is quite concise -- but it won't be easy. Stay tuned.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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