Human action is driving some one million plant and animal species to annihilation, according to the most comprehensive assessment ever conducted on life on Earth. Extinction now threatens a quarter of all of Earth’s species — and that estimate is conservative.
That includes the kind of beloved megafauna that are the subjects of traditional conservation efforts. Tigers, for instance, are now absent from 96 percent of their historic territory. But over 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of all reef-forming corals, one-third of all marine mammal species, and 10 percent of insect species face extinction, too, says the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity on Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report summary for policymakers.
Most extinctions go unnoticed. It can take years for scientists to learn that a plant or creature is gone forever. But the consequences of an extinction can be complex. Like a game of Jenga, when one piece is removed, the whole structure is compromised, and eventually, the entire ecosystem can collapse.
This isn’t just a moral issue. Biodiversity loss also poses an existential threat to humanity — one the IPBES says is as massive as the climate crisis . We are already losing the insects that we depend on to pollinate our crops, and the forests that protect millions of people from flooding and that sequester carbon. And yet, the summary says, we are ramping up our death cult-like behavior. We keep over-farming, over-logging, over-fishing, mining, extracting fossil fuels, and emitting greenhouse gases.
But all of humanity isn’t responsible for this ecological collapse. In fact, the very activity that fuels it has been disastrous for billions of people.
Exploiting Nature and People
This mass extinction crisis, the report shows, is fueled by an economic system that prioritizes the growth of profits above all else. In an effort to outcompete their rivals and maximize profits, corporations exploit human and nonhuman life by suppressing wages and externalizing social and environmental costs, depleting the ecosystems and societies on which life depends. “Nature, the wonderfully abundant and diverse wild life of the world, is essentially a free pool of goods and labor that capital can draw on,” Ashley Dawson wrote in Extinction: A Radical History. In an effort to expand at an ever-increasing rate, he says, capital commodifies more of the Earth, “stripping the world of its diversity and fecundity.”
The chief culprit of biodiversity loss is “changes in land and sea use.” Three-quarters of the world’s land and nearly three-quarters of the world’s freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production, says the IPBES. Industrial agriculture wreaks havoc on ecosystems in many ways. Plants and animals are displaced and killed to make room for farms; monocultural practices and pesticides disrupt soil microbes and endanger insects and plants; water is pumped in from lakes and rivers, disrupting aquatic life.
Agribusiness defends these practices in the name of eradicating world hunger. Global crop yields have increased in recent decades, but its gains have come at a cost to many people, and globally, nearly one in nine people are still undernourished. This is felt most harshly in poor nations in the Global South. Two-thirds of people in Asia are hungry, and in “developing countries,” one in six children are underweight, according to the World Food Programme. Meanwhile, farm subsidies for commodity crops like corn and soybeans have created an enormous market for cheap, processed junk foods that can raise cholesterol and increase risk of diabetes.
Agricultural corporations claim to maximize efficiency. But more than a third of the world’s crops go to livestock, even though prioritizing growing crops for human consumption could feed billions of hungry people. Industrial livestock farming is the world’s biggest user of land resources. It produces vast quantities of manure — some 500 million tons from the US alone — that pollutes the air with chemicals like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, and runs off into nearby waterways, contributing to algae blooms which can make drinking water toxic for animals and people. For workers, this pollution compounds with other threats: American meat workers’ risk of serious injury is three times higher than the national average.
Contemporary global agribusiness is controlled by just four major agricultural biotechnology companies. To assert control over the global seed supply chain and ensure maximum yields, these companies strictly limit what can be planted by enforcing monocultural practices. But because monocultures are vulnerable to disease, they rely on herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers that have been linked to cancer and other diseases. The resulting system has been devastating for biodiversity.
While agribusiness profits have soared, farmers’ income has dropped. By raising the prices on seeds, fertilizer, and other products, corporations trap farmers in debt that they are forced to pay off by selling their yields. The creation of “terminator seeds” that make second-generation seeds sterile exacerbates this. This cycle has sparked a long wave of farmer suicides in northern India. Farmers in the United States, where increasingly powerful agricultural corporations are buying up more American farms and suppressing the prices paid to family farmers, face a similar plight.
“Direct exploitation of organisms” through practices like commercial logging and fishing is another major driver of biodiversity loss, according to the IPBES. These practices destroy critical habitats and disrupt food chains. As a result, plants and animals that were once common are now endangered. But the report says these practices are on the rise: the world’s raw timber harvest has increased by 45 percent since 1970, and 55 percent of the world’s oceans are covered by industrial fishing.
These practices also exploit people. The forestry industry displaces indigenous people from the United States to Cameroon to Brazil. Commercial fishing, too, threatens global indigenous populations who depend on fish for food. And in the United States, logging and fishing are also among the most dangerous industries for workers. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries found that they were the two deadliest industries in 2019. For every 100,000 workers, the logging industry saw 135.9 deaths on the job, and commercial fishing saw 86 deaths.
Globally, working conditions are even worse. Thailand’s fisheries, from where much of the United States’ pet and livestock feed is sourced, continue to literally enslave migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar. As fishing stocks have depleted and maritime labor laws have been dismantled in recent years, the industry has reportedly enslaved more people. And it’s not just Thai fisheries. Reports have found that Brazil’s timber industry holds workers hostage in logging camps and forces them to perform life-threatening labor.
The IPBES says the third-biggest driver of the biodiversity crisis is climate change, which is inextricable from the other culprits. Industrial agriculture is responsible for 13 percent of global carbon emissions, making it the second-largest emitter behind the energy sector. Logging has a massive impact on climate change, too, not only because forests actively sequester carbon, but also because incinerating logged trees to generate energy, a practice known as “woody biomass,” emits even more CO2 than burning coal.
Climate disruption, an existential crisis in its own right, is already having an impact on biodiversity. The changing temperature of the atmosphere and oceans “will be accompanied by changes in glacial extent, rainfall, river discharge, wind and ocean currents and sea level, among many other environmental features, which, on balance, have had adverse impacts on biodiversity,” says the IPBES.
The climate crisis, like biodiversity loss, is not everyone’s fault. Over 70 percent of carbon emissions come from just 100 companies. What’s more, the countries that contribute the least to global climate change are by and large the most affected by the devastation it causes. Though the impacts can be seen around the world, the poor and Global South are getting hit first and hardest. When Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi this March, it killed a thousand people, and thousands more are still missing. It was one of the worst cyclones on record, and it wasn’t an aberration. As the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) headline-grabbing report on the effects of reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels (and countless other climate reports) show, if we don’t make radical changes, things will get much worse.
Like the IPCC’s 2018 report, the IPBES has a clear message for policymakers. To avert catastrophe, the world must undergo a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values,” said IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson.
In many ways, we’re on the wrong track. Global carbon levels are reaching all-time highs. The Trump administration is trying to dismantle the Endangered Species Act, will no longer enforce protections for birds killed unintentionally by corporate activity, and is dismantling dozens of environmental protections on air and water pollution.
The report summary is full of grim news, too. Environmental degradation has reduced the productivity of 23 percent of the Earth’s land. Pollinator loss is putting some $577 billion of annual global crops at risk. Hundreds of millions of people are at increased risk of floods and storms because of degraded coastal habitats. Since 1980, plastic pollution has increased tenfold. A shocking 85 percent of global wetlands have been destroyed. And because of all this, the world is already in the midst of its sixth major extinction period. Extinctions are happening at 1,000 times their natural speed, with dozens of species lost each day.
The IPBES advocates for specific policies that could curb mass extinction, including reversing the expansion of monoculture and taking up a localized approach to farming, creating marine reserves and reducing pollution and runoff, and restoring sovereignty to indigenous populations, whose lands have seen slower biodiversity decline. Most importantly, the report concludes, global society must stop prioritizing growth for profit, and instead construct an economy that serves the needs of people and the planet.
This political shift could protect countless human and nonhuman lives from the existential threat of ecological collapse — and its drivers. “By fecklessly consuming the environment, capital is figuratively sawing off the tree branch it is sitting on,” wrote author Ashley Dawson. “Capital’s logic is therefore that of a cancer cell, growing uncontrollably until it destroys the body that hosts it.”
This transformation won’t be easy, but IPBES chair Watson is optimistic. “By its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good,” he said.
If we’re going to survive, we have no choice but to succeed.