A new United Nations report on biodiversity was released this week with much media coverage. Scientists and mainstream journalists seem unwilling to address the fundamental drivers of biodiversity decline, but public response suggests transformative change is gaining traction.
By Jenna Dodson
This week, many media outlets are covering the pre-release of a new United Nations (UN) report on global biodiversity decline with headlines such as, “One million species at risk of extinction, UN report warns” and “Humans are speeding extinction and altering the natural world at an ‘unprecedented’ pace”. Indeed, the “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” summary finds that three-quarters of all land environments and two-thirds of all marine environments have been “severely altered” by human activities over the past five decades, leading to unprecedented rates of change and 1 million species now threatened with extinction.
Those who pay attention to environmental trends likely are not surprised by these findings, and any pragmatist would respond with the next logical question – so what can we do? Unfortunately, this is where the report summary falls short, as it fails to discuss solutions that adequately address the underlying causes driving biodiversity loss: human overpopulation and rapid economic growth.
In the past 50 years, the human population has doubled, the global economy has increased in size nearly 4-fold and global trade has grown 10-fold, together driving up the demands for energy and materials. These fundamental demographic and economic drivers have led to large-scale disastrous human activities that the report broadly categorizes into five direct drivers of biodiversity loss: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasion of alien species.
Report authors write that acting immediately and simultaneously on multiple fundamental and direct drivers could slow biodiversity and ecosystem loss. They note, “changes to the direct drivers of nature deterioration cannot be achieved without transformative change that simultaneously addresses the indirect [fundamental] drivers.” In other words, renewable energy projects, sustainable cities, afforestation and other efforts focused on ameliorating direct drivers will be futile if we fail to curb economic and population growth.
In some parts, the report advocates for a global economic system that steers away from the current limited paradigm focusing on maximizing economic growth. However, only two recommended actions, namely, the use of alternative models (such as degrowth models) and a shift beyond GDP as the standard economic indicator (instead using measures of human well-being), encourage an alternative to the current growth-centered framework. This is not enough. Society needs a straightforward statement from scientists that economic growth and overconsumption is exterminating biodiversity and undermining human well-being, along with policy recommendations that limit consumption, slow global economic activity and begin the transition to long-term economic stability within ecological limits.
In regards to ending population growth, the summary report is largely silent. Despite stating that, “The negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystem functions are projected to continue or worsen in many future scenarios in response to indirect drivers such as rapid human population growth, unsustainable production and consumption and associated technological development,” no actions are suggested to address population growth. The UN projects a 4 billion increase in the global population by the end of the century, unless measures are taken to avert it. This population increase, should it occur, will lead to continued biodiversity loss and undermine protection efforts1. Researchers have criticized biodiversity efforts that ignore human population size as a fundamental driver, and encourage conditions that reduce population growth to be included in biodiversity frameworks2. Put simply, population growth is incompatible with successful biodiversity conservation, and actions to end population growth must be discussed.
Surprisingly, the general public is more open to this discussion. Public comments on the articles written in the Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, and in the New York Times point to potential solutions. Swedish commenters encourage political and religious leaders to recognize continued population growth as an environmental disaster, writing that the UN should take the lead on tackling global population growth. The UN has yet to recognize the issue, despite international campaign efforts that seek to establish a UN treaty of population.
Commenters in the U.S. write that one of the simplest solutions to end population growth is to remove barriers to birth control worldwide. Indeed, family planning programs that give women control over their fertility would stabilize and slowly reduce the human population, along with gender equality and education1.
It is telling of our short-sighted political and economic system that the public is more willing to engage in an open discussion about the conflict between growth and biodiversity than the experts and mainstream journalists. The full “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” report comes out later this year, and will provide another opportunity for scientists (145 experts from over 50 countries) to initiate a broader, more forward-thinking discussion.
Authors of the summary report acknowledge that proposing changes to fundamental drivers will likely spark opposition from those invested in the status quo, but such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good. Public comments suggest that citizens are willing to fight for the common good and for the well-being of other species. People want to embrace a good quality of life that does not entail ever-increasing material consumption. They are looking for political leaders who will translate individual concerns into national and international action (see below for selected comments). The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services can help initiate this fundamental change, a change that will preserve biodiversity, with positive implications for human and ecological well-being. But only if they provide actions and solutions that encourage global society to address the fundamental drivers.
- Crist E, Mora C, Engelman R. The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science. 2017;356:260-264. doi:10.1126/science.aal2011
- Driscoll DA, Bland LM, Bryan BA, et al. A biodiversity-crisis hierarchy to evaluate and refine conservation indicators. Nat Ecol Evol. 2018;2:775-781. doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0504-8
The New York Times article, “Humans are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace’ had over 1400 comments as of 7 May 2019. We reviewed “Readers Picks” comments that were recommended 50 times or more. Of the 48 comments that fit that criteria, 40% identified population growth as an issue. The following are selected comments from that review.
I keep finding it astounding when people talk about saving the environment or the earth as if it were a separate entity from humans. As if we were doing charity. We ARE the environment too. We depend on all other species as much as they depend on us. We have to radically change our consumption patterns, especially in wealthy countries. This has to be largely driven by the government at this point, or else it won’t be enough to create real change. We also have to rethink how many children we bring to the world. One child born in the United States will consume more than five children in India. Prayers are not enough. We have to press our governments to enact changes, as well as being willing to make changes in our personal patterns of behavior.
-YAF, New York; 627 recommend
I was struck by the irony that this article, that portends a profoundly bleak and agonizing future for both humans and the natural world was just below the article focusing on concerns about an economic slowdown on account of Trump’s threat of new tariffs on Chinese imports. Our dependence on never-ending economic growth has been the main contributor to environmental degradation. I’m very dubious that we can have this many people doing endless shopping to support an always expanding economy without the inevitable collapse of the Earth’s natural world.
-Eric Gross, New York; 386 recommend
Our species is notoriously bad at addressing risks that are complex, not proximate, and take a sustained long term effort to address – even if those risks are ultimately existential. We need a wholesale rethink of everything to do with how our species behaves individually and in aggregate, and we need to do this while battling a deeply and powerfully entrenched set of people – the oligarchs – who use the international trade system to race to the bottom and plunder the commons. WTO rules and all trade agreements need to establish environmental and labour standards that establish a floor beyond which none can sink if they want to play in the big sandboxes. These rules have to be clear, enforceable, and enforced. We also have to find ways of reducing human population over time and withdrawing from sensitive ecologies. (Sorry, but that is part and parcel of what has to happen.) We have to redefine the meaningful life, and to enable a low environmental footprint method of having that life without being chained to the illusion that consumerism provides meaning – it doesn’t. If we cannot do this – which unfortunately I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about – then we will be the creator of the sixth mass extinction event, and we will also almost assuredly bring about our own extinction as well. Gaia weeps.
-Nicholas, Canada; 385 recommendations
Overpopulation is not one of our major problems, it is our ONLY problem, since it is either directly causes or intensifies all significant problems we face – loss of bio-diversity, climate change, environmental destruction, food, energy and water shortages, mass migration, social injustice, unequal distribution of goods and the resulting conflicts, and forced reliance on dangerous or damaging technologies. It is utopic of course to hope that society will attack this problem. If the world was not ready for a stabilizing two child family when it was first proposed in the 60’s, it is now certainly not ready for a one child family to reduce total population. In Western Europe where fertility is now below the replacement point, politicians, instead of being happy about the advantages of a declining population in a world faced with dwindling resources and climate change, are trying to reverse this trend through immigration and children-friendly initiatives. Politicians only see only the problems we face as society ages, and growth slows.
-Richard Kroll, Munich; 63 recommend
I am gratified that so many comments to this article contend that overpopulation is the root of environmental destruction, for this is the strongly held opinion of myself and most persons with whom I have discussed planetary depredation. Yet overpopulation remains a taboo subject among the political parties and nearly all news media.
-Cromer, USA; 59 recommend
Yes, the way to alleviate our impact is to reduce our population. This means the entire world needs to have only one or no children for the rest of this century. This will also require a rethinking of our economic systems to deal with a shrinking population instead of growing numbers. I fear that humans are too selfish to do what needs to be done. Welcome to the Sixth Great Extinction!
-Catlover, Colorado; 58 recommend