Scarier than Halloween: the loss of 60% of animal life on the planet
Like millions of other parents, I took my kids out Trick or Treating last night. I saw some great costumes, tricked out houses and mobs of kids going door to door in a neighborhood that I have become fond of. But as I was watching the kids collect candy, and as I was pulling our wagon built of plastic and a few metal pieces, I could not help but think of something truly scary.
According to The Living Planet Report 2018, published by the World Wildlife Fund:
Populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have, on average, declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014, the most recent year with available data.
The Earth is estimated to have lost about half of its shallow water corals in the past 30 years.
A fifth of the Amazon has disappeared in just 50 years.
Globally, nature provides services worth around $125 trillion a year, while also helping ensure the supply of fresh air, clean water, food, energy, medicines, and much more.
I've seen a few scary movies, read of a few scary crimes and seen some close calls in my life. But that...that decline of animal life on the planet is scary. That is the impact of human civilization on our ecosystem, our home, Earth.
I'm actually surprised that anyone can put a number to the value of the rest of the life on the planet to us. $125 trillion seems low to me, considering that worldwide gross domestic product is estimated to be around $75 trillion as of 2016. At the same time, it is humbling to see that nature is still outperforming humanity in nearly every respect, despite it's decline by our own hand.
As scary as those numbers are, the WWF does provide some guidance, a plan, if you will, for us to live in harmony with the rest of the planet. We need a plan because the planet is bigger than us humans. The planet gave rise to us humans, and I would hope, that we'd be smart enough not to kill off the life support system that sustains us.
I see at least three reasons for hope outside of all the dire news and beyond the plans provided by the WWF, and at the same time, I thank the WWF for raising the alarm. The first hope I have is this: the growth of human population has been slowing down. Yes, the human population is still growing, but the demands we place on the environment will inevitably reduce our capacity to reproduce. This is the reason we are stewards of the Earth. If we don't take good care of this planet, our only home, we will be hard pressed to make our own home somewhere else - or the planet will flick us off.
According to this report from Slate back in 2013, its dated but the data is good, it took more time to go from 6 billion to 7 billion people than it did to go from 5 billion to 6 billion people. From the article:
A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.
That article goes on to state that we could reach our peak of 9 billion around 2070 and that by 2300, our population will decline to about 1 billion. Birth rates are falling worldwide because of one thing, according to Slate: we're educating girls. When girls are educated, we have fewer babies. I really do hope it's that simple.
Before humans came along, most animals knew how to manage their populations to keep themselves in balance with their environment. Humans are really the first animal that doesn't know how to do that. So there are two major forces at work reducing our population: our impact on our environment, and the education of girls.
There is something else about life that gives me hope for the planet. Some of you may remember a huge nuclear accident at a place called Chernobyl in Russia. A poorly designed nuclear power plant had a meltdown and was evacuated, and it has been deserted by humans for decades. But now, the area around the idle plant is teeming with life.
Life tends to flourish when we leave. Just do a search for ghost towns to find plants crawling over the buildings we leave behind. If the worldwide human population declines in the manner that scientists tell us it will, then the rest of the life on the planet will very likely recover. This is another reason for my hope for humanity.
There is one more thing that gives me hope. Life on this planet is bigger than us. There was a study done some years ago that found a certain bacteria that eats hydrogen. This bacteria lives in the crust, eating hydrogen arising from water that reacts with the heat and the rocks in the crust. In that report, they estimated that the mass of that hydrogen eating bacteria is greater than that of all of the other life on our planet. That's life that so far, has not been touched by humans.
I have other examples, but there are only so many hours in a day. I still hold out hope despite how we've polluted the planet with plastic, oil and coal. I still hold this hope despite the way we're clearcutting forests. I still hold this hope despite how we're covering the planet with concrete and asphalt. I believe that we will be able to transcend the problems that we create, given enough time, peace, love and understanding.
I suppose that as we develop the skill of empathy for each other, we may also develop empathy for the animals living alongside us. I don't think that's an option for us. For humans to develop the skill of empathy for all of the other life on this planet is not an option, that is a requirement for our survival.