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Taking a closer look at nature’s ‘unprecedented’ rate of decline


Imagine a world where about one million species of animals and plants have died. Much of the human population doesn’t have clean drinking water and the loss of species and worsening climate change has led to severe food and water shortages, rampant disease, an increasing number of environmental refugees, civil unrest and political turmoil.

Now imagine that scenario is real and unfolding now. Because it is.

A report summary released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in May ( unveils an environmental apocalypse that has been accelerating for decades. Left unchecked, the rapid degradation of our environment means that by the time my grandchildren reach my age of 50-something, the world they live in will seem like a science fiction dystopia compared to today.

The IPBES report, the most comprehensive of its kind to date, assessed changes in the environment over the past 50 years to project possible outcomes for the future of planet Earth. It calls the rapid decline of nature “dangerous” and “unprecedented,” with species extinction rates “accelerating.” It warns that the “current global response is insufficient” and “transformative changes” are needed to halt the decline.

Here are some of the report’s findings:

• Up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

• Approximately 75 percent of the land-based environment and 66 percent of the marine-based environment has been “severely altered” by human actions.

• About 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are extracted globally each year, up nearly 100 percent since 1980

• More than 85 percent of the wetlands present in 1700 were lost by 2000 and that loss continues to grow.

• More than 75 percent of global food crops rely on animal pollination and $235 to $577 billion of annual global crop value is at risk due to pollinator loss.

• 100-300 million people in coastal areas are at increased risk due to loss of coastal habitat protection.

• Only 68 percent of global forest area remains today compared with the estimated pre-industrial level. More than 700 million acres of native forest cover were lost from 1990-2015 due to clearing and wood harvesting.

• $345 billion in global subsidies are paid to industries like coal, oil and natural gas global for fossil fuels that result in $5 trillion in overall costs, including costs to the environment.

• More than 2,500 political conflicts over fossil fuels, water, food and land are currently occurring worldwide.

• 40 percent of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water.

• More than 80 percent of global wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment.

• 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters.

• Plastic pollution has increased 10 times since 1980.

“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 Prof. Josef Settele, co-chair of the assessment, in a news release ( “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

I wonder if we would be so nonchalant about destroying so many other species if so many of us weren’t under the delusion of being separate from nature and our environment. We are as much a part of it as the bug crawling across my floor, the bird singing outside my window that will eat the bug when I put it outside, the tomatoes growing in my garden that I’ll eat this summer, the bacteria and fungi that will eat me when I die.

Animal, plant or fish, we all drink the same water. We breathe same air. In fact, without trees, plants and algae, we’d have no oxygen to breathe and our atmosphere would become so saturated with CO2 that we couldn’t survive. Nature and the environment are our food, water, medicine, energy, and shelter.

The good news from the IPBES report summary is that opposition from “vested interests” — those who make money off of destroying the environment —  can be overcome for the public good. It will require new legislation to change how we allow industries to operate at our expense. But legislation takes time and, according to the report, we don’t have much time to turn things around.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for legislation to be passed to start doing the things we know we need to do to save ourselves and our planet. While we ask our lawmakers for better laws and raise awareness with our friends and neighbors, we can begin taking action, individually and locally, to minimize the harm we cause ourselves. Together, by choosing to live Earthwise, we can change things for the better.