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The Half-Life of Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 30, 2014

I don’t know about you, but I can remember 1970.  I was a freshman in college then, and the idea that half of the Earth’s wildlife has disappeared in my adult lifetime fills me with shame.  It makes me think of Wordsworth*, with a twist:  Getting and spending we lay waste their powers.

Here’s the press release on the new report from the World Worldlife Fund:

Between 1970 and 2010 populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent, says the 2014 Living Planet Report released today by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This biodiversity loss occurs disproportionately in low-income countries—and correlates with the increasing resource use of high-income countries.

In addition to the precipitous decline in wildlife populations the report’s data point to other warning signs about the overall health of the planet. The amount of carbon in our atmosphere has risen to levels not seen in more than a million years, triggering climate change that is already destabilizing ecosystems. High concentrations of reactive nitrogen are degrading lands, rivers and oceans. Stress on already scarce water supplies is increasing. And more than 60 percent of the essential “services” provided by nature, from our forests to our seas, are in decline.

“We’re gradually destroying our planet’s ability

to support our way of life,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of WWF. “But we already have the knowledge and tools to avoid the worst predictions. We all live on a finite planet and its time we started acting within those limits.”

The Living Planet Report, WWF’s biennial flagship publication, measures trends in three major areas:
• populations of more than ten thousand vertebrate species;
• human ecological footprint, a measure of consumption of goods, greenhouse gas emissions; and
• existing biocapacity, the amount of natural resources for producing food, freshwater, and sequestering carbon.

“There is a lot of data in this report and it can seem very overwhelming and complex,” said Jon Hoekstra, chief scientist at WWF. “What’s not complicated are the clear trends we’re seeing — 39 percent of terrestrial wildlife gone, 39 percent of marine wildlife gone, 76 percent of freshwater wildlife gone – all in the past 40 years.”

The report says that the majority of high-income countries are increasingly consuming more per person than the planet can accommodate; maintaining per capita ecological footprints greater than the amount of biocapacity available per person. People in middle- and low-income countries have seen little increase in their per capita footprints over the same time period.

While high-income countries show a 10 percent increase in biodiversity, the rest of the world is seeing dramatic declines. Middle-income countries show 18 percent declines, and low-income countries show 58 percent declines. Latin America shows the biggest decline in biodiversity, with species populations falling by 83 percent.

“High-income countries use five times the ecological resources of low-income countries, but low income countries are suffering the greatest ecosystem losses,” said Keya Chatterjee, WWF’s senior director of footprint. “In effect, wealthy nations are outsourcing resource depletion.”

The report underscores that the declining trends are not inevitable. To achieve globally sustainable development, each country’s per capita ecological footprint must be less than the per capita biocapacity available on the planet, while maintaining a decent standard of living.

At the conclusion of the report, WWF recommends the following actions:

1. Accelerate shift to smarter food and energy production
2. Reduce ecological footprint through responsible consumption at the personal, corporate and government levels
3. Value natural capital as a cornerstone of policy and development decisions

* Here’s the Wordsworth poem, which all this brings to mind:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

One Response to “The Half-Life of Wildlife”

  1. It is actually difficult to accept the assertion that half of the Earth’s animals are gone. It’s like the doubt one feels upon learning of the death of a loved one. There must be some mistake, what is the source of this news?

    The report seems reasonable. Species decline is not news, it’s just that “half” is so large. Imagine what’s happened since 1800. Perhaps 60% or 70% are gone.

    I agree with you Richard; it’s shameful; it’s a gut-wrenching shame.

    The authors of the report make the standard positive spin, but frankly, it is difficult to believe that “political will and support from businesses” will come in time to stop the decline. I’m not saying we should give up, but I believe it is clear that something major has to change before we begin to respect our fellow creatures.

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