Green Heron swallowing White Perch at Black Bayou. Life in the wetlands has suffered disproportionally severe losses since the 1970s.

Green Heron swallowing White Perch at Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge. Life in other wetlands has suffered disproportionally severe losses since the 1970s.

The Living Planet Report 2016 confirms that alongside extinction, i.e. biodiversity loss, the loss of wildlife in terms of absolute numbers is extremely alarming. The Title Risk and Resilience In A New Era sums up the contents very well.

I heard about the Living Planet Report 2016 on the BBC News this morning. The report is compiled from a joint study of global data by London’s Zoological Society (ZSL) and the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF). This figure of 58% is the estimated average percentage of population decline of creatures from a study of 3700 vertebrate species on which sufficient data has so far been collected with clear points of comparison between 1970 and 2012, and so is not entirely representative, but the scientists have made allowances for this in their calculations.  Wildopeneye therefore respects their figures as informed estimates and a reasonable framework upon which we can join a discussion.

After all, as Ecologist E.O. Wilson reminded us in his book The Diversity of Life, we still don’t know the number of species on Earth to an order of magnitude, tens of millions or 100’s of millions. Many things are being killed off before they can be studied, but this particular report is focusing on the wildlife that we do know about.

Perhaps that makes the quantitative basis of the report scarier. We don’t know the whole picture.

 

Many scientists now believe that we have transitioned from the Holocene to a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene. Ours is an age where human influence can be said to be truly global in extent. While this is good news in terms of facility and speed of communications, the improvement of amenites and services, international cooperation, the development of science and technology, respect for human rights and availability of exotic consumerables, it has been punishing for many of the other organisms with which we share planet Earth because of:

  • Habitat destruction and fragmentation
  • Pollution
  • Climate Change
  • Over-exploitation from hunting, trapping and fishing

This history is nicely encapsulated on p.91.

“The global economic growth generated through our current economic system has reduced poverty and given rise to significant improvements in standards of living (World Bank, 2013). However, this GDP-growth-focused economic model has led to severe wealth inequality as well as culturally entrenched aspirations for material consumption. It has encouraged growth well beyond our basic needs and beyond what can be supported by the carrying capacity of a single Earth (Hoekstra and Wiedmann, 2014).”

Creatures in freshwater habitats such as wetlands, rivers and lakes are thought to have been worst impacted with an appalling average 81% population decline since 1970 according to the report. Russia’s Lake Baikhal is an infamous example of over-exploitation.

The report states on p.34 that “almost half (48 per cent) of global river volume is already altered by flow regulation, fragmentation, or both. Completion of all dams planned or under construction would mean that natural hydrologic flows would be lost for 93 per cent of all river volume (Grill et al., 2015).”

Ninety-three per cent of all river volume? Thank God for waterways like Bayou Bartholomew which still enjoys natural course, banks, and a super biodiversity- over 40 types of clam alone.

The report details major non-human population losses across the board, in the arctic, in grasslands, forests, freshwater and in the world’s oceans.

On page 36 the report states that “we are on the edge of a sixth mass extinction.” Saying “Recent studies suggest probable extinction rates at present are up to 100-1,000 extinctions per 10,000 species per 100 years, which is much higher than the long-term rate of extinction (excluding the episodes of crisis in Earth’s history) – the background extinction rate (Ceballos et al., 2015; Steffen et al., 2015a). ”

I’d say that here the report is pulling its punches, as Louis Leakey noted in his book of the same name, we are in the midst of the Sixth great extinction period- he noted the precipitous loss of first  Northern and then South American megafauna. I don’t mourn the loss of the axe-beaked flightless predatory birds completely, as they terrify me, but giant sloths must have been very impressive!

Unless you really think that “less is more”, in terms of ecological quality I think we are looking at three major indicators:

  • the overall number of species
  • the population figures for the species
  • the distribution patterns in terms of: a) natural age demographics for species* and b) the geographical location (range) of species

All three are looking hammered, and this increases the importance of the efforts being made for protection of habitat, eradication of wildlife and forest crime and toward sustainable development as a preferred path. This is the ongoing fight for greater resilience.

It is feared that the loss of  this wildlife from our environment carries negative consequences. It was  in Charles Darwin’s study of soil fauna that the relationship between numbers of creatures and productivity was first scientifically voiced in the UK. It is likely that this correlation is well known to indigenous peoples as it is to E.O. Wilson because he is now thinking in terms of 50% set aside of habitat for human activity systems so that our non-human life support system can survive to support us. For more on this please see his web page about Half Earth.

If you think that set-aside isn’t necessary, please note that there have been long periods of Earth’s pre-history where the then impoverished ecology wouldn’t have sustained humans at all, also there are some deep forest species that have zero tolerance for any modern human intrusion.

In the Report’s introduction Johan Rockström, Executive Director Stockholm Resilience Centre writes:

“… the Anthropocene shifts our world on its axis. This single word encapsulates the fact that human activity now affects Earth’s life support system. It conveys the notions of deep time – the past and future – and the uniqueness of today. Beyond geology and Earth system science, it captures the profound responsibility we now must shoulder. It provides a new lens to see our human footprint and it communicates the urgency with which we must now act. The dominant worldview of infinite natural resources, of externalities and exponential growth, is at an end. We are no longer a small world on a big planet. We are now a big world on a small planet, where we have reached a saturation point. Unsustainability at all scales, from localized deforestation to air pollution from cars, hits the planetary ceiling, putting our future at risk. Fifty years of exponential growth has accumulated to such an extent that we have reached Planetary Boundaries – and crashed through them.”

Johan goes on to write (my emphasis in bold):

“The conclusion is stark: the planetary stability our species has enjoyed for 11,700 years, that has allowed civilization to flourish, can no longer be relied upon. Yet, I am optimistic for our future. In the 20th century we solved some of the biggest challenges in our history. Many diseases have been eradicated. Child and maternal health is improving. Poverty is decreasing. And the ozone hole is beginning to stabilize. However, to make greater progress will necessitate brave new innovations and shifts in thinking to enable collective action across the world. In short, we need an urgent transition to a world that works within Earth’s safe operating space. What the Anthropocene teaches us, and which is articulated in detail in the following pages, is the need for a grand transformation. The Living Planet Report provides the necessary thought leadership and vision to put the world on a sustainable trajectory based on systems thinking – and starting with the food and energy systems. I am confident this will contribute to the momentum to move from talk to action to ensure a resilient Earth for future generations.”

That’s good. We need to focus on our species’ key strength – adaptability to change. There’s some good news in the report about Europe’s large carnivores (excluding Russia and Ukaraine),

” The comeback of large carnivores shows that with political will supported by a forward-looking legal framework and a wide range of committed stakeholders, nature can recover.”

Also it is very encouraging what the Koreans have acheived in Seoul Climate Leadership on page 72. Well done, indeed! They reduced oil imports by $1.5 Billion and created 34,000 new jobs. See how it was done.

Systemic “four level” thinking with regard to planning is likely to prove very valuable. On p.92 the report talks about how traditionally planners have reacted primarily to events and sometimes to patterns, but thinking things through at two other deeper levels, Systemic structures and Mental models enables systemic planning that can be far more effective in the long term, the report argues.

An interesting example of recovered land that had been badly degraded is documented on p.94 with regard to the Loess Plateau, a cradle of Chinese civilization.

“The crucial step toward restoration was the understanding that, in the long run, safeguarding ecosystem functions is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services. It therefore made sense to designate as much of the land as possible as ecological land. This also led to a counter-intuitive outcome: concentrating investment and production in smaller areas was found to increase productivity. It’s a clear illustration of how functional ecosystems are more productive than dysfunctional ones. The work on China Loess Plateau shows that it is possible to restore large-scale degraded ecosystems. This helps us adapt to climate impacts, makes the land more resilient and increases productivity. The Loess Plateau also shows that valuing ecosystem function higher than production and consumption provides humanity with the logical framework to choose to make long-term investments and see the positive results of trans-generational thinking. (Source: Liu, 2012; Liu & Bradley, 2016)”

That is very encouraging news. So, from Loess we have learned that in terms of land given over to production, when backed up with more land set aside, less can yield more!

Section 4 of the report A Resilient Planet For Nature And People (apart from perpetuating the eroneous mindset that we are somehow separate from nature in its title) details how pursuing Sustainable Development Goals is the key to facing the dual challenges of our time despite the fact that we have exceeded some boundaries already, it’s not too late, much can be saved.

“The 21st century presents humanity with a dual challenge: to maintain nature in all of its many forms and functions and to create an equitable home for people on a finite planet.”

All in all, I am grateful for this information, even the bad news, I think this is a fascinating and very well presented report, giving clear guidance to our future path and much cause for hope!

See Andy Luck’s short films page for his movie Life – Changing World which treats the topic of adaptation for survival in this changing world.

 

*Juvenalization of species comes from selective hunting for “the big ones”. This weakens the population by removing the fittest individuals from the breeding pool and in many cases reduces overall fertility by removing the more productive females, i.e. larger fish lay many, many more eggs than smaller ones.