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Biodiversity loss: An irreversible threat?

Written by Science

Habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation are major threats to biodiversity alongside the overarching issues of climate change. It is no surprise then, that environmental justice groups are declaring a climate and ecological crisis and demanding a revolution.

A recent study published by Adermann et al (2020), focusing on mammalian extinction, suggests accelerated biodiversity loss is caused by human actions. The future of biodiversity is clearly in our hands, but can we be trusted to make significant changes and is it possible to slow down or reverse these predictions? 

Our planetary past holds the key to predicting our future. In Adermann’s study, extensive fossil records were analysed followed by predictive modelling. Findings suggest, that from Late Pleistocene to present, human activity has had a greater impact on extinction rates than natural environmental variation. Furthermore, these extinction rates are set to increase at an ‘unprecedented magnitude’, with extinctions seen over the past 126,000 years trivial in comparison to possible acceleration over the rest of the next century. Studies like this highlight the realities of human induced environmental chaos on our planet. However, the issues of biodiversity loss within a recent timescale are also well documented, providing a direct insight into how rapid this destruction can be, especially post-industrialisation.

Known for inspiring parts of modern-day environmentalism, Rachel Carson’s classic publication: Silent Spring (1962), was an early indicator for the destructive nature of unregulated human action. The focus here was on DDT pesticides which have historically led to significant environmental damage. Furthermore, loss of biodiversity is evident across the British Isles. For example, according to Plantlife, UK wildflower meadows have declined 97% since the 1930s, resulting from land use change and intensification of farming practices.  

UK wildflower meadows have declined 97% since the 1930s, resulting from land use change and intensification of farming practices.  

So, what are these human actions causing biodiversity loss (or in other words, destruction of natural capital)? The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has outlined the need to change terrestrial and marine usage, reduce exploitation of organisms, limit climate change, and curb pollution threats. However, these could be seen, by many, as the symptoms of ineffective socio-economic and political frameworks not benefiting people or the planet. It is easy to pin responsibility on an individual, yet sweeping habitat loss extends much further. Far too often when we say human actions, it implies everyone equally contributing to the problem. Yet this is far from the truth. We need to understand that industry plays a significant part, particularly those that capitalise on exploitation of finite natural resources. 

However, without collective efforts, social action, and international collaboration, I fear that change will be stunted and we risk the further indiscriminate loss of natural capital sacrificed for short-term economic expansion (usually benefiting a few). Biodiversity provides so many wonders and services essential for long-term human survival. Until natural capital, ecosystem services, and environmental justice are accounted for and valued across society and in our economic and political systems, I am convinced that continued biodiversity loss is inevitable. 

This might sound apocalyptic, but there is a glimmer of hope. Encouraging and listening to the next generation is fundamental, and it was great to recently see the restart of Greta’s ‘School Strikes for Climate’ post -lockdown, and in the UK, the Private Members’ Bill ‘Climate and Ecological Emergency bill’ gaining traction. We are surely at a tipping point in our collective natural history, so let’s start to listen and take action to reverse these scientific predictions before it is too late. We do not want to deepen what scientists are already calling the 6th mass extinction event. 

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Last modified: 24th September 2020

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