A recent meta-analysis conducted by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the Zoological Society of London, and several key contributions from researchers from Standford and Cambridge universities, has found that Earth’s ecological well-being is vastly more endangered than previously accepted.
When looking at representative populations of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles, they found that global populations had dropped roughly 52% since 1970, meaning that at population number 100 individuals in 1970 is now likely to be less than half as big (based on trends from 10,360 populations).
The largest loss was found in freshwater species: a frightening reduction of 76% in only 40 years. Landgoing and sea-faring species also did not do well, seeing a reduction of about 40% (39%) in the last 40 years, so 1% per year. This is roughly comparable to the findings of the University College of London, which published a study in July (2014) showing that invertebrate populations (like insects) had declined 50% in the last 35 years.
At the same time that natural populations are declining, so are the services that humans are able to obtain from their environment (like clean air, water etc). Costanza et al’s 2014 meta-analysis found that we are losing approximately $20 trillion a year in ecosystem services. Collectively, we are reducing nature’s capital at an astronomical cost to future generations.
We are reducing our own ability to survive on this planet, and doing so primarily to benefit an ever-smaller number of ultra-rich (which dropped from 85 people to 67 people having as much wealth as half of the world population). These 67 individuals live primarily in the same nations where biodiversity has stopped sinking: the high-earning nations (10% increase in biodiversity), who are in the very words of the WWF study, exporting their ecological footprint to developing nations.
So although the developing nations are benefitting the least from the ecological devastation, they are footing the bill in terms of diversity loss (58% reduction) and ecosystem services.
So while our ecological footprint continues to increase past the current worldwide level of 1.5 (meaning we would need 1 and a half Earths to provide for our current use), our existing ecosystems offer up an ever-decreasing slice. We are burning the candle on both ends.
According to the WWF study, approximately half of our global footprint is based on our increasing carbon footprint: which taxes ecosystems both in terms of temperature and acidity. Essentially every facet of our current set of social values are taking an ever-bigger bite out of what the planet offers to us all (not just humans). We are marching towards “creating” a biosphere that can only support human life, and it is questionable how long humans can even survive in such a situation.
The key, according to the authors, is to decouple an increasing standard of living from an increasingly large ecological footprint: we have to learn to live more efficiently with the planet. Smaller cities, importing less food from more ecologically viable agriculture, protecting ecosystems that are still function, all while consuming less power, would represent a good model. But public support for such a model is unlikely until more people understand the ecological situation we current find ourselves in.
The alternative is, unfortunately, a dramatic collapse of the current biosphere state and the resulting dissolution of any coherent international system. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is unfortunately likely a highly accurate one. These negative trends will only continue until we collectively force them to change, and that entails more than simply using less water: we need systemic changes in addition to increased personal responsibility.