Time to save our most endangered species: us

As the WWF releases a new report on the state of the planet, WWF-New Zealand's CEO says we need to start acting like our lives depend on fixing our mess

Humans are undeniably the most dangerous species on Earth. We are one of the only species who actively works against our own self-interest by killing off our host. Well, us and viruses. But given how 2020 is turning out, is this really something we should aspire to?

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have managed to achieve extraordinary things - the power of flight, antibiotics, the moon landing, the internet - but these aren’t our only achievements. We’ve also significantly altered 75 percent of the planet’s ice-free land, polluted and overfished our oceans, destroyed more than 85 percent of our wetlands, and left one million species threatened with extinction. WWF’s Living Planet Report reveals that between 1970-2016, there’s been a 68 percent decline in monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish.

It gets worse: freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened on earth and are seeing the starkest population declines of any biome (84 percent). Wetlands are disappearing three times faster than rainforests. Up to one fifth of wild species are at risk of extinction during this century due to climate change alone and that’s even with significant mitigation efforts. Nearly two billion tonnes of food is wasted each year with a quarter of the calories produced going uneaten. Oh, and climate change is projected to contribute to half of the arabica coffee (ahem, the world’s most popular coffee) population being wiped out by 2088.

It doesn’t fare better in 100% pure New Zealand: 76 percent of our fresh water fish are threatened with extinction, more than 4000 of our native species are endangered, two-thirds of our rivers are unswimmable, and only 10 percent of our wetland habitats remain. Our entire marine environment is under threat, and we’ve only just started developing a strategy to protect Aotearoa’s forests.

We have warned for decades we are writing cheques our planet can’t cash. Now, the alarm sirens are screaming. The way we feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles continues to fundamentally change our planet beyond the point it can sustain us. It’s leaving every single species on Earth vulnerable, particularly to disease, climate change, food security, and habitat loss. If we don’t do something now, those changes will be permanent. Then it won’t just be plants and animals suffering, it will be us.

We are smarter than a virus. Ostensibly, we are supposed to be the smartest species on the planet. So, why are we so continuously stupid? 2020 may be the year Mother Nature put us in time out, but it can also be when we stop being stupid and finally put our brains and opposable thumbs to good use: fixing our mess.

Since 1970, global GDP has increased four times, the extraction of living materials from nature has tripled, and population growth has doubled. Yet, we act like we don’t need to compensate for that. Instead, we spend more of the Earth’s natural resources than it can regenerate in a single year, every year for the last 50 years. I have never lived in a time in which humans lived within Earth’s ecological boundaries. No business or government could survive operating in this kind of deficit. Neither can nature.

Our economies are embedded within nature, but nature is not reflected within our economic bottom line despite the staggering economic value of biodiversity. Take for example, what has happened since Covid-19. Whether it was due to land conversion, illegal wildlife trade, or the interaction of species at a food market, Covid-19 was able to spill over into the human population. Since then it has sickened nearly 30 million globally, killed over 800,000 people, shuttered businesses, raised unemployment, affected supply-chains, and cost trillions of dollars world-wide.

In Aotearoa, biodiversity is collapsing all around us. In the Hauraki Gulf, for example, crayfish and snapper have all but disappeared, kina have taken over, and the seabed is suffocating under sediment and plastic because of increased land run-off and the overharvesting of fish. Many of our local beaches are unsafe for swimming. Of course, the wider consequences of this behaviour is more than just not being able to frolic in the surf. It is lack of food security, job losses, and erosion of the mauri of our environment and ocean which makes it harder to express kaitiakitanga.

It is shocking we do not place a value or even recognise our health, wealth, and security depend on nature. Failure to halt nature’s decline now will cost the global economy at least $479 billion a year - some $10 trillion by 2050. But it’s not just businesses and governments that need to change. It is all of us.

In this generation we have all been, in one way shape or form, Madonna - material girls, living in a material world - but we can stop eating and shopping our way into disaster by 'Bending the Curve'. Through modern computing power, we know people can ‘bend the curve’ from a downward trend of biodiversity loss to an upward trend. How? By combining ambitious conservation efforts with the transformation of modern food production systems and consumption patterns. It is up to us.

It’s all about choices. Not just about the big things, like buying an electric car or solar panels. It is the everyday, mundane, choices we make - using a reusable water bottle, eating your leftovers, meatless Mondays, public transport, shopping/eating locally, and walking to the dairy - that matter. Each one of you can commit to a New Deal for Nature and People: halving the footprint of production and consumption, zero loss of natural habitats, and zero species extinctions. You can hold businesses accountable with your wallet. You can hold governments accountable through your ballot.

WWF’s Living Planet Report lays out the roadmap of what we can all do to fix the mess we are in. No more excuses. If not now, when? In 2036, when it’s too late to stop global warming? In 2050, when plastic in our oceans is predicted to outnumber fish? In 2088, when half of the arabica coffee population is predicted to be extinct? Or when the next Covid, SARS, Ebola, or AIDS virus emerges?

I say now. Together, we can build a future where we live in harmony with nature. Together, we can bend the curve so we can pass on a better world than we inherited. Together, we can stop being the most dangerous species on Earth. Together, we can decide to act like our lives depend on fixing our mess. Oh, wait. It does.

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