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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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One of the best ways to learn about the ecological crisis is through the reports issued by collaborations between many international scientists. These offer a global and diverse perspective on just what is happening at each corner of the globe, as well as a synthesis of the many different articles published each week on the climate and biodiversity loss.

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The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has 123 member countries, and in 2019 released their 1,000-page report on the state of Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Part of the reason why these kinds of reports don’t appear in the news in most countries is simply because they are too large and too complex for any journalist without ecological training to understand. Even with the summary at the beginning, they tend to be filled with ecological terminology and scientific language which isn’t easily accessible for a wide audience.

What is the report about exactly? It’s a collaboration between different governments on the recent changes in the systems of planet Earth, caused by human activity. They look into what the causes of the changes to the Earth’s systems are, why and how the systems are changing, and what this might mean for us going forward. Instead of studying one particular ecosystem by a beach or in a field somewhere, this study brings together research and experience from across the planet to see what is going on, on a global scale. Much of the research has been done since the 1970’s, when world governments first became aware of just how bad things were getting.

The main idea is to see the trends over the past 50 years, and what these trends might mean for the next 30 years, between now and 2050, if we continue down the current path. The researchers also examine other possible scenarios based on popular approaches to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss at the global scale.

The good aspects of this report are its specific emphasis on indigenous and local knowledge systems, its inclusion of diverse perspectives and worldviews, and a gender-diverse team of scientists and researchers. Together they seek to explain the connections between humans and nature, and the impact that human beings are having on Papatūānuku Mother Earth.

The main conclusions

Over the past 50 years, the human population has doubled, the global economy has grown fourfold, and at the same time, ecosystems are increasingly struggling to keep up with this level of development, and are at risk of collapsing in every country on the planet, even with land managed by indigenous peoples. Biodiversity is projected to continue to decline, and human demand for natural resources is projected to increase.

The percentage of species of each type threatened with extinction
Red shows percentage of species critically endangered; the blue line shows the percentage of species threatened. Source: Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019.

The factors that have caused these changes in Earth’s systems have been changes in land and sea use (for forestry, agriculture, etc.), direct exploitation of organisms, such as hunting, fishing, etc., climate change caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, pollution both of the atmosphere and the soil and water systems, and what they call the ‘invasion of alien species,’ animals and plants that are not normally found in a particular landscape but have been brought in by humans and have taken over that landscape. All of these factors are directly related to human use of natural resources – both in order to meet our needs, and in some cases in attempts to sequester carbon into the ground, which also causes ecosystem disruption.

The direct drivers of natural decline
The different drivers of disruption to ecosystems and biodiversity. Land and sea use change and direct exploitation are the key causes of biodiversity loss. Source: Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019.

This disruption of ecosystems threatens their stability – if you start rocking a rowing boat side to side, you have a greater chance of capsizing – which is exactly what is happening here. Only, once we have capsized, or completely disrupted the systems that feed us and meet our needs, we have no idea how to restore them.

Another problem is that we are losing variety in our species of plants and animals, which is also threatening the ability of these systems to combat the other changes that are happening around them. This is called a loss of genetic diversity, and more generally, a loss of biodiversity. As a result, agricultural systems are less and less able to resist pests, pathogens, and the ravages caused by climate change.

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Progress made so far and trends for the future

The report has a frank and alarming conclusion regarding how we are currently faring with regard to biodiversity and ecosystem services: “Goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”

What they mean here is that if we continue as we are, adding small modifications to systems in place and pulling economic levers to solve the problem, we will not meet the Sustainable Development Goals (for 2030) nor the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (from 2020). Current ecological decline is projected to undermine progress made in 80% of the Sustainable Development Goals. We cannot solve the current problems by doing more of what we are doing now: it simply won’t work; we will just go backwards.

A table showing ecological progress on natural metrics
Current trends in the different measures of ecosystem health and biodiversity on the planet. Almost all indicators are in decline. Source: Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019.

These international and diverse scientists, using research published internationally, support transformational change. By transformational change, they mean “a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

This is much more than just letting the emissions trading scheme do its thing. It’s also much more than increasing conservation efforts, and planting more trees. Systemic changes at the economic and social level means reorganising our systems of production and agriculture, it means consuming less and producing less waste, and ultimately, it means abandoning our “current limited economic paradigm of economic growth.” Growth cannot lead us forward and confront the ecological crisis, if we want to save our biodiversity and our ecosystems; the very systems that enable us to live on Earth.

What about the other projected scenarios? The authors state, “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.”

One of the major problems of technological development is the enormous amounts of energy and resources it requires to put into place. Even development such as renewable energy like solar and wind power are incredibly resource-hungry, and the only solution to reverse this ecosystem decline is to decrease our energy and resource consumption, not provide more energy in supposedly sustainable ways.

The most effective ways to change

There are many ways in which we can address the ecological crisis. The report states that according to many other studies done internationally, the following are effective ways to create large-scale changes:

  1. Promoting alternative visions of a good life
  2. Lowering total consumption and waste
  3. Unleashing widely-held values of responsibility towards the Earth, to create new norms for sustainability and action
  4. Addressing inequalities on the social/economic levels
  5. Ensuring inclusion of diverse perspectives including indigenous people in justice claims and conservation efforts
  6. Accounting for the environmental degradation caused by economic efforts, both locally and abroad
  7. Ensuring environmentally friendly technology, innovation and investment
  8. Education, sharing and generating new knowledge, and maintenance of different indigenous knowledge systems.

Lack of knowledge and resources is still a very large problem and barrier to acting further to stop biodiversity loss. There are still a lot of knowledge gaps, and areas where we simply don’t know enough, or don’t have enough certainty about the effects of current human action, and potential solutions, to be able to evaluate and design new courses of action.

Recent additions the report

In November 2022, some of the authors of the main report published a follow-up article about which factors were causing the greatest damage to ecosystems and resulting in the greatest loss of biodiversity: “The direct drivers of recent global anthropogenic biodiversity loss. The report looks at the research published after 2005, to provide an overview of the factors which are having the greatest impact.

Current discussions in New Zealand and on a global level focus almost exclusively on climate change, but as the report shows, climate change is the third most important factor causing ecosystem disruption.

Land and sea use change, mainly in the form of rapid expansion and intensifying management of land used for growing crops or keeping animals, was the number one contributor to ecosystem and biodiversity decline. The second greatest cause was direct exploitation of land, through fishing, logging, hunting, and the wildlife trade. These factors had a significantly greater impact on biodiversity loss than climate change.  

The article concludes that “combatting climate change will not be enough to prevent or possibly even slow the loss of biodiversity.” They return to the need for transformative change, by tackling the root causes of biodiversity loss, which are not just economic, but demographic, socioeconomic, and technological, as well as governance structures that keep these systems in place.

The relative size and importance of biodiversity factors
The relative importance of factors causing ecosystem disruption and biodiversity loss. Image source: Pedro Jaureguiberry et al. (2022) "The direct drivers of recent global anthropogenic biodiversity loss"in Science Advances 8:45.

What next?

The report is sober reading. It spells out the potential decline of the very systems that support life on Earth. If we lose the insects that pollenate our food crops, the water cycles that regulate and clean our water, and the plants that are resistant to pests and environmental changes, then we have very, very little chance of surviving as a population of 8-12 billion human beings. This is a serious and quite depressing conclusion.

All is not lost, however. It is still possible to conserve the biodiversity that we have – each and every plant and animal species is important, and the faster we can stop destroying ecosystems and begin to allow them to restore themselves, the more likely we will be able to continue as humans.

One of the things that you can do, if you’re really interested in gardening, is to ensure maximum diversity of plants in your garden, including heritage varieties of foods like tomatoes and beans, as well as planting flowers and cover crops to provide homes for insects and microorganisms to grow. This should be done in consultation with a local ecologist, who can tell you the best way to make your local area as biodiverse as possible.

For those who work in corporate environments, we should be asking ourselves, which of the levers for change above are we promoting and actively participating in, in our workplace and through our business? Are we lowering total consumption and waste? Are we looking after indigenous knowledge systems? Are we promoting alternative visions of the good life, that don’t mean more and more consumption, but something else? Are we accounting for the negative impacts of our business on the environment, and then trying to minimise this impact?  There is a lot to be done, but if each community, each business, and each person begins to change, then the transformative structural changes that need to take place will be much easier to put into place.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
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