Saturday, July 3, 2010

Apocalypse now

Biodiversity is going downward fast. What are we going to do about it?

Now that the climate change policy is limping forward again after some media outlets retracted their criminally lazy and uninformed coverage far too late to do anyone any good. Now that international scientific work of the IPCC has been validated and cleared all over again in all its essentials ... perhaps we can get down to where we should have been a decade ago- addressing our fossil carbon addiction and its planet-wide perils.

Another international consortium got together (pursuant to a 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity) to publish a paper on the state of worldwide biodiversity, and the news is not good. Human pressure on environments is going up, biodiversity is going down, and human conservation responses, though significant, are not sufficient to alter the trend. Here is the summary figure:

The state (of biodiversity) graph may not seem so terrible, with declines in our lifetimes (since 1970) of about 18% in aggregate over all the dimensions (many studies, over 5,000 populations) the group measures. But zero on this graph is really zero- no biodiversity. One species: humans. That is not a happy thought to contemplate. I can not really comment on their other axes, but their aim is to present trends happening over the last forty years as holistically and globally as possible. 

For one component ....
"The index was calculated using time-series data on 7190 populations of 2301 species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish from around the globe."

One would have to note that the effect of humans on the environment hardly started forty years ago, either. Many of the most famous extinctions happened long before, such as the Dodo, the passenger pigeon, Stellar's sea cow, and on back to the extraordinary megafauna of pre-human North America.

Here are some more detailed components that are worrisome:

For me, biodiversity is the core issue with climate change and all the other harms we are doing to the biosphere. If the sea rises and cities are swamped, we can move and rebuild. But when species go extinct, that is pretty much forever. With DNA technology we may eventually be able to bring species back in some form, but what, frankly, would be the point? Without rich ecosystems, they would be just as stranded as before. Whether the atmosphere and rocks heat up is of no concern. But the fate of life on the planet- that is of great concern.

The root cause of this decline is obviously human overpopulation multiplied by economic development, integrated over lack of insight, foresight, and moral responsibility. Our powers as humans have become vast, and unexpectedly we have come up against ecological limits and harms that tax our powers of conception. That is why scientists have been in the lead sounding the alarm bells- they both love nature intensely, and have the capacity and tools to conceive of what is going on. 

But no one individually can divert this train to tragedy. We have to take collective action to avert collective disaster. What we do collectively is a moral question- do we sacrifice today (carbon tax, larger wild land reserves, a ban on ocean fishing, birth control) so that we and future humans (not to mention other creatures) can exist in a more harmonious and beautiful world?

Indeed, just to give an idea of the scale of the current downturn, this is the overall employment level since 1950, courtesy of BLS:

There have been pauses in employment growth over this time, but never the kind of course reversal we saw over the last few years. Note that this data is more informative than "unemployment", which ignores anyone discouraged enough to not be looking for work, and many other questionable corrections. And here is a ratio of employment to population. Note that the current level has declined to near the 1950's to 1970's levels, when the proportion of women employed was much lower than today. 

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