Our thriving world Is that which affords the element without which there would be no words, no earthweal, no living poetry.
Biodiversity is “The fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. It also encompasses the variety of ecosystems such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem, living creatures, including humans, form a community, interacting with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them.” (The Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD (2020) 108.)
The loss of biodiversity is the shadow twin of climate change and a threat of equal magnitude.
In May 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its landmark Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It triggered headlines around the world when it reported that 1 million species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction. It was a wake-up call to a crisis facing biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people.
Other key findings of the report:
- More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.
- At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.
- Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% 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.
- More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
- The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45% and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980.
- Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% 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% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
- 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 fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totaling more than 245,000 square kilometers— a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Joseph Settele of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and an IPES conference presenter. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
We’ve talked a lot about climate change here but the crisis partnering with it is a plummeting decline in biodiversity. Climate change is one driver of biodiversity loss, but right now the bigger factor is human destruction of habitat by farming, mining, fishing and logging, by pollution and introduction of alien species.
There are two global pacts addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, but until now the climate change agreement has received most of the limelight. The 2021 climate change conference in Glasgow kicks off later this month and will see thousands of climate scientists, activists, heads of state, and multinational corporations attending. The 15th annual meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity was this week, with about 500 convening in Kunming, China, and another 1,500 participats online. Member countries pledged to increase funding for research into threats to the world’s plants, animals and ecosystems. The Convention is designed to protect global biodiversity and share its benefits equitably. This week it noted that member states had failed to meet 10-year goals of the 2010 framework and adopted more aggressive goals for conservation, ecological restoration and sustainable use.
(The United States is not a participant in Convention. For three decades, Republicans in the Senate have blocked ratification of the treaty because they say it would require that the United States bring its laws and regulations into conformity with global standards and infringe upon U.S. sovereignty. As an observer, the United States can send a delegation to the conference in Kunming and make statements, but it can’t vote on updates. The U.S. joins just three other countries who are also non-participants – Andorra, Iraq and Somalia.)
Many believe the time is overdue to begin tackling climate change and biodiversity loss in one effort. “When you have two concurrent existential crises, you don’t get to pick only one to focus on — you must address both no matter how challenging,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, an advocacy group. “This is the equivalent of having a flat tire and a dead battery in your car at the same time. You’re still stuck if you only fix one.”
Summing up at this week’s conference, Anne Larigauderie, ecologist and IPBES executive secretary, stressed the urgency of the moment. “We really don’t have a lot of time. Those 10 years are very crucial between now and 2030,” she urged, expressing her hope that the scientific basis offered by the IPBES reports could “enable governments to make an ambitious framework to preserve biodiversity moving forward.”
A copy of the IPBES assessment report is available here.
I’ve been puzzling how to make biodiversity the subject of an earthweal challenge. I’ve been reading Richard Powers’ new novel Bewilderment, the follow-up to his wildly acclaimed The Overstory. Powers says the writing of that book was transformative. He moved to the Great Smoky Mountains and become what a I would call biodiverse. He said in an interview with Ezra Klein,
I think what was happening to me at that time, as I was turning outward and starting to take the non-human world seriously, is my sense of meaning was shifting from something that was entirely about me and authored by me outward into this more collaborative, reciprocal, interdependent, exterior place that involved not just me but all of these other ways of being that I could make kinship with. And when you make kinship beyond yourself, your sense of meaning gravitates outwards into that reciprocal relationship, into that interdependence. And you know, it’s a little bit like scales falling off your eyes. When you do turn that corner, all of the sources of anxiety that are so present and so deeply internalized become much more identifiable. And my own sense of hope and fear gets a much larger frame of reference to operate in.
Bewilderment is a story of that attunement in a 9-year-old autistic boy as he is transformed by a yet-fanciful treatment using fMRI imaging— an “empathy machine,” if you will. (The technology is developing and could well be on a nearing horizon.) Basically, the boy receives a neural imprint an ecstatic state that had been recorded of his mother, an animal-rights activist who had been killed in a car wreck a few years before. As he attunes to that resonance, he becomes inquisitive, open, good-natured and infinitely empathic to the living world about. A fascinating book which I think demonstrates how we can shed the self-obsessed nonsensical determination of a human world driving the world off a cliff.
Surely that is a task we can take up ourselves. For this week’s challenge, write about biodiversity. What is the sound of life that is complex, intermingling, evolving and sustaining? Shower your attention on the world at large, at critters tiny and great. Weave your awareness into the living web. What is the voice of a biodiverse poetics? Surely poetry has much to say about this, as it is one of nature’s greatest gifts to our species. Our kinship links are in poetry. Let’s try linking them to the world.