A week ago, a report was released by the United Nations’ IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) group that garnered a lot of attention by the media, even making it onto late night talk shows. This report stated that one million species are on the verge of extinction due to human activities and climate change. That’s 1,000,000 different organisms. Think about that. We are in the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. The major difference this time is that a species (us) is causing the extinctions to happen (as opposed to a major asteroid impact, for example, when we lost the dinosaurs).
Jimmy Kimmel had some “fun” with this news, asking people on the street if we should save the Homo sapiens. I’m sure the interviews were cherry-picked for optimal entertainment, but sadly none of the people in the interviews he showed knew that Homo sapiens are humans. You should watch the video before reading on. Warning: there are some cringe-worthy moments.
People in this video bring up some commonly held opinions/ideas. One is that if someone hasn’t heard of a species then we can obviously live without it. Why save the Homo sapiens if we haven’t noticed them before this? The answer is simple. Biodiversity provides us with ecosystem services.
Ecosystem services include things like making oxygen that we need to breathe, filtering water, sequestering carbon, making soil so we can grow food, decomposing waste, and so on and so on. Imagine if we didn’t have bacteria or fungi. Our planet would look like the Earth portrayed in the Pixar movie Wall-E. There’s a great review article in PNAS journal that details many of these services. It was published in 1995, so it’s old now by science standards, but still relevant. There was also a movement in the 1990s to place value on these ecosystem services, a nod to the sad fact that, at the end of the day, it all boils down to money. A paper published in 1997 estimated that biodiversity provided us with $33 trillion worth of ecosystem services. In other words, if we had to do all the work that nature just does normally, we’d have to spend an awful lot of money. An update was published in 2014 estimating the value of ecosystem services at $145 trillion dollars. When we lose biodiversity, we lose money. That should have been the title of the UN report. Then maybe people would be more worried.
So, what can the average person do about this crisis? Buy less stuff. To make stuff, natural resources are mined or harvested. These practices destroy habitats and decimate populations. Eat less meat. The number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon forest is animal agriculture. Land to graze animals and land to grow monocultures to feed animals. Nearly 70% of the food that is grown in the U.S. is used to feed animals, not humans. Imagine if we grew crops to feed humans directly? We’d be able to let land go wild again. I’d love to see a day when natural habitats are expanding, not being destroyed. Also, try to avoid palm oil. Palm oil plantations are the biggest driver of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Africa. Palm oil is in MANY things. This shift came after the uproar over trans fats (unsaturated fats that have saturated). To assuage public panic about the unhealthiness of trans fats, companies replaced them with palm oil, which is naturally saturated. So, really the same thing. But it’s cheap and “natural”. And it keeps fats solid at room temperature. The World WIldlife Fund has an informative page listing some palm-oil containing products and a list of sneaky names that palm oil hides behind. It’s super hard to avoid palm oil. I just found a vegan butter to replace the palm-oil containing margarine that I use on occasion. Now I have to work on everything else. I recommend learning more about palm oil and deforestation and then write letters to companies urging them to find alternatives. Recently a student found a lab based in Somerville that is working on developing a synthetic palm oil in the lab using microbial fermentation. Demand change as a consumer. Remember the tuna boycott of the 1980s? That proved that consumer demand can make a big difference. Eventually these companies will come around. Hopefully before the rainforests are all gone.