“Dire” — an adjective describing an extremely serious or urgent situation or event causing great fear or suffering. Synonyms include horrible, atrocious, shocking, outrageous, unspeakable, alarming and grim.

The front page, above the fold, headline in the May 7 edition of The New York Times read, “Report details global shrink in biodiversity,” a story that continues on page 10 under the caption, “U.N. report outlines dire results of worldwide decline in biodiversity.”

As is the case with warnings related to the climate crisis, the 1,500-page report is based on thousands of scientific studies and was compiled by scientists from 130 countries from around the globe, including the United States.

Much of what follows here is based on that May 7 article and a follow-up editorial on May 12.

The report is stunning and depressing and indicates a fundamental insight into the future: Human activities such as farming, logging, poaching, overfishing by large industrial fleets, pollution, creating space for invasive species, mining, consuming, an exploding global population, and sprawling development of roads and cities are pointing the planet to a sixth extinction. There have been five previous extinctions, the last of which was more than 50 million years ago when an asteroid struck the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs.

The editorial pointedly observes, “This time the asteroid is us — and we will pay heavily for our folly.”


The relatively new human activity of burning fossil fuels has not historically been a major driver of extinction and the loss of diversity, but the climate crisis has become, and will remain, “a major driver of wildlife decline.”

How much are we losing? The report indicates that “biodiversity, a word encompassing all living flora and fauna, is declining faster than at any time in human history” and estimates that “around one million species already face extinction, many within decades.” Put another way, the warning in this article is that current rates of extinction are “tens to hundreds of times higher than they have been in the past 10 million years.”

So what if we lose a million species? The article explains, “The report is not the first to paint a grim portrait of Earth’s ecosystems. But it goes further by detailing how closely human wellbeing is intertwined with the fate of other species.

“For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake.” Environmental protection was (is?) all about the particular plant or animal — nothing much to do with us humans. We can mostly agree to save the whales and polar bears, set aside a park or two here and there and call it a day, so that we can all feel good and go visit pretty places.

The report informs us of what should be obvious to all. Protecting biodiversity on the lands and in the waters of Earth is not just a moral issue; there are direct, dramatic, and negative consequences to “human wellbeing” from ignoring what the experts call “ecosystem services.”

Speaking for myself, it’s more than a little annoying that we, as a species, generally tend to act only when our self-interest is involved, when we can attach a dollar amount or a human-centric reason to protect the planet. This new report details some of the essential benefits of biodiversity to humans.

“This report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.” The climate crisis is amplifying many of the factors that drive the decrease in biodiversity.

“ … in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year.

“Wetlands clean and purify water. Coral reefs nourish vast fish populations that feed the world. Organic matter in the soil nourishes crops.

“Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean.

“Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines.

“The decline of wild bees and other insects that help pollinate fruits and vegetables is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk.

“The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.”

The report is not all alarm bells. It also puts forward actions that can mitigate the loss of diversity, first and foremost of which is reducing carbon emissions.

Back in 1992, when the world first gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the first global agreement on climate change, governments also ratified a Convention on Biological Diversity. The parties of the convention are scheduled to next meet in China in 2020 and will consider the recommendations of this report as a proposal called the “Global Deal for Nature.”

The United States has never signed on to this treaty and under the current president is unlikely to do so, but it is encouraging that, as with the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the rest of the world is moving on in the face of dire warnings and acknowledging that the climate crisis is one part of a bigger battle for planetary sustainability.

Paraphrasing Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Printed in the May 15, 2019 edition on page A6 | Published on May 15, 2019