Jay Burney

Chair, WNYEA Habitat and Natural Resources Working Group

A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, released just this week –“2012 Living Planet report”, states that the biodiversity of the planet is in rapid decline. The report assesses that in the past 40 years we have lost 30% of our biodiversity and that the health of our oceans, forests, rivers, lakes, and ecosystems is plummeting rapidly. This may be a conservative assessment.

The report says that we are using our resources at an alarming rate and that by the year 2030 we will need “two complete earths” to meet our demands.

Because of very effective outreach campaigns, most people that hear about this, especially most people in the United States focus almost exclusively on the effects of energy production strategies on climate change. Renewable energy production is considered by many to be a panacea to address human caused climate change. 

Energy and climate change is certainly a major factor but it is not the unique causation of the collapse of our ecosystems.

We have no doubt that human created climate change, stimulated in part by release of greenhouse gasses affiliated with fossil fuels is real.  But if we fix that, and that is a big if, we will still be rushing headlong into an unsustainable future that will be continued to be characterized as a collapse of the biological systems that sustain life on earth.

Strategies surrounding energy production is more of a symptom of the deeper human ailment, which is metastasizing, in our global, regional, and local ecosystems.

The Holocene Extinction

Biodiversity is fundamental to our planets and our human species survival.

Biodiversity can be described as the collective gene pool aggregated into species that protect, defend, and sustain all life on the planet.

Our loss of biodiversity is alarming. Many scientists are now referring to our contemporary times as part of an ongoing Holocene extinction period. This is being described as the sixth recognized extinction episode in the history of planet earth. Many think that this extinction period will rival or exceed any previous extinction episodes.

Conservative estimates by many scientists now believe that we are loosing species at a rate 100 times what would be considered sustainable.  This is defined as the comparative rate at which new species emerge as old species disappear.

Edward O. Wilson, the highly respected Harvard biologist, estimates that the extinction rate is currently between 1,000 and 10,000 times the sustainable rate.

According to the Word Conservation Union’s Red List- a data base measuring the global status of Earth’s 1.5 million scientifically named species, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, one in three conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of imminent extinction. At a minimum 40% of all species on earth are in jeopardy including 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants.

Estimates are that between 27 and 270 species are erased from existence every day, including today.

Wilson predicts that by 2100 half of all species on earth will have vanished forever.

There are numerous causes of our decline in biodiversity. These include climate change issues which both cause and are affected by biodiversity loss.  It is important to note that there are other major causes outside of the effects of climate change. 

Habitat and ecosystems collapse and degradation are influenced by such sweeping issues as overexploitation of all of earth’s natural resources, agricultural practices focusing on monocultures, and human introduced invasive species.

Much of this has to do with our political philosophies focused on both population issues and economic development. 20 years ago the world’s environmentalists were focused on overpopulation. Today, you hear hardly a word about this issue.  Instead our culture has been lead down a path focusing almost exclusively on economic growth. Much of this growth includes finding ways to profit from feeding the world and exploiting and commodifying natural resources. These economic growth strategies do not focus on ecology, nutrition, or justice.  The same can be said about our energy strategies that hardly focus on conservation.

This all has a lot to do with our cross-cultural anthropocentric focus that the earth is here to serve humans. Instead we should be thinking about how the human species can contribute positively within ecosystems.  Humans evolved as a healthy part of an ecosystem.  What happened? Politics? Religion? Unless we get our minds straight, evolution and nature will deliver us to a future that will include rebalancing the natural systems of the planet,  with our without us.


Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Healthy Ecosystems      

The release of atmospheric greenhouse gasses and the resultant climate conditions do contribute to species loss.  Biodiversity is effected by, but its decline is not exclusively defined by climate change. It is important to know that other man induced actions are much more consequential, immediate, and catastrophic. 

The wholesale eradication of forests, the destruction of our oceans, the indiscriminate embezzlement of our fresh water resources, and our unregulated urban sprawl, have changed our living planet. We are creating a biological and uninhabitable desert.

Much of this destruction is due to socioeconomic agents that work on the basis of treating the environment as an economic externality instead of the basic building block of living systems, - a real source of wealth.


The Benefits of intact and healthy ecosystems

The loss of habitat and biodiversity does contribute to climate change.  For example, loss of forests, wetlands, and ocean life, once profoundly productive sinks for C02 for instance, contribute to the instability of our fragile atmosphere.  The loss of ecosystem resources and services include the cleansing of the atmosphere and air, the cleansing of drinkable waters, and the moderation of climatic conditions, necessary to sustain life. These ecosystem services are directly engaged with the biodiversity of life ranging from molecular water, soil, and sediment organisms right on up to the higher species.

We do not seem any longer to think about real conservation strategies. The United States refuses to participate in such things as the Convention on Biological Diversity and resists such strategic opportunities as the Safe Chemicals Act. Why- economic influence plays the tune that we force the world to dance to.  You may not even know that the United States is a world leader in creating the worldwide ecological plunder that is leading us into our own destruction. Then again, you may know.

Clearly the extinction of biodiversity has many complicated causes but the result will be transformational and specific. This transformation will probably occur in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children. Unless we find a way to holistically address our issues, and focus more on the root causes and not just the symptoms, we will not survive as a robust species.

It is redundantly clear that the use of the term “sustainable development”, at least in our global culture, is an oxymoron. Where do we go to find a winning strategy?