On Monday, the United Nations released a report declaring that up to 1 million plant and animal forms of life are on track to become extinct within the next several decades, as a result of human activity. “Grave impacts on people around the world are now likely,” the report dryly summarized. As Robert Watson, the British scientist in charge of the report, explained, “We are indeed threatening the potential food security, water security, human health and social fabric” of our lives.
Translation: We are killing off the life that makes human life possible. Unless we change our ways fast, our existence is going to become increasingly precarious. And not surprisingly, we’re not approaching this fast-coming catastrophe with anything near the urgency it needs.
Biodiversity is all life on Earth, from blue whales to the flies that buzz about us. It’s the fish and large mammals many of us eat, but also the flora that protects the streams and oceans, and the microorganisms we cannot see but are vital for the health of the planet. Many species are in increased jeopardy as a result of human actions such as industrial agriculture and claiming wetlands for real estate development. As a result, an ever increasing number are likely to die off within a matter of decades.
This is separate from the impact of climate change, though climate change does worsen the situation by causing even further damage to the ecosystem. As The Post’s Darryl Fears put it, “The warming climate is a major driver that is exacerbating the effects of overfishing, widespread pesticide use, pollution and urban expansion into the natural world.” All that, in turn, also kills off unique forms of life.
Yet the report also makes it clear this predicted mass biodiversity extinction is not inevitable. We can still avoid much, if not all, of this. Current economic incentives often favor nature destroying activities that make species extinctions more likely, but different government and financial policies could discourage the actions that are causing the biodiversity apocalypse, while promoting more life sustaining undertakings.
The U.N. report makes clear this is a worldwide problem, and the United States is hardly the only country to blame. Still, we are the world’s leading power, and it’s incumbent on us to set the example. If we won’t do the right thing, what hope is there anyone else will?
But good luck with that. The Trump administration is doing its darndest to ensure the future is as horrifying as it possibly can be. President Donald Trump has repeatedly denied the reality of global warming, is yanking the United States from the Paris climate agreement, and is attempting to roll back stringent auto emissions rules. The administration’s stance on the threat facing living species is all too similar. It’s looking to strip key provisions of the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, funding to enforce the act is a fraction of what it needs to be, and the Trump administration is proposing cutting it significantly further.
Many of these policies are cheered on by big business, which detests any regulations that impede short-term profits. But voters are part of the problem, too. Americans agree that protecting and securing our environment is a high priority, but we also assert that we need to grow the economy. Many are also infected by a collective societal weariness. Even as many millennials rally around the concept of the Green New Deal, which would address some of the issues raised by Monday’s report, all too many of their elders who should know better refuse to recognize the urgency of the situation. Every time a politician of either political party makes fun of the Green New Deal, calls it unrealistic or makes a no-nothing comment about it, they are making it more likely that our future will be dire indeed.
Yes, it’s human nature to get obsessed by the trivial and the immediate. We live in the present and do not make sacrifices for our own future well-being easily, never mind the well-being of future generations. But if we do not attempt to save our planet’s biodiversity, it will eventually take apart our economy as more and more of us are forced to struggle for survival. To refuse to take meaningful action to address that reality is an expression of contempt for the future. It’s a giant insult to all of humanity, but especially our children and grandchildren who will be forced to live with the consequences of our current inaction.
Helaine Olen is a contributor to Washington Post Opinions and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.