Andrew Ahern: We’re not in a climate crisis. We’re in an ecological emergency.


During the beginning of October, nearly every country in the world, absent the United States, gathered to discuss and enact plans to confront our biodiversity crisis.

Unfortunately, this global gathering, called the Conference of the Parties on Biological Diversity (COP 15), did not gain the media or popular attention it deserves. In fact, our biodiversity crisis has largely been ignored in general.

With the biodiversity COP 15 concluding, and the climate change Conference of the Parties (COP 26) scheduled for the end of October, it is a good time to remind ourselves that we are not in just a climate crisis. We are in an ecological emergency.

However much we are moving too slow or even headed in the wrong direction on climate, given that emissions are set to rise over the coming years, we are headed in an even worse direction on biodiversity.

As it stands, between one-third and half of all species on earth are in danger of extinction by the end of the century. Plants and animals are disappearing at about 1,000 time the background rate — the rate extinctions were occurring before the Industrial Revolution (1830). That is about 100 species a year. Many species not in direct danger of extinction are thinning out as well.

Of the nine “Planetary Boundaries,” the essential components of the Earth system that scientists tell us we must not transgress in order to preserve a “safe operating space for humanity,” biodiversity loss is over the “safe” threshold and more than any other boundary, including climate.The circumstances are looking so bleak for biodiversity that some have prompted us to think that we are entering into a sixth mass extinction event.

Biodiversity is not just some abstract flowery nature that upper-middle-class people can and should care about. Humans are a part of nature and depend on other species and ecosystems to provide us a safe and healthy environment. In order to have food from farms, pollinators like insects and birds are essential for helping grow that food. Biodiversity helps control pests and parasites that may otherwise eat our crops, as well.

According to a report released this year by the world’s largest reinsurance company, Swiss RE, 55% of the globe’s GDP depends on high-functioning biodiverse ecosystems. Our economy is functionally the main interaction we have with the globe’s ecology, and therefore highly dependent on it.

More and more evidence points to those who are surrounded by and have access to biodiverse landscapes are happier, healthier and less stressed. Biodiversity and access to nature are environmental justice issues as much as anything else, impacting air quality, exposure to heat, and resilience in the face of extreme weather. Biodiversity is essential for creating pharmaceutical drugs as well. Health, economy and ecology are all linked.

What’s causing our biodiversity crisis does not fly far from home. Scientists have observed at least five major drivers of biodiversity collapse. These include changes in land and sea use, and especially monocrop agriculture. The second is the rapacious need for resource extraction, driven by overproduction and overconsumption. The third is the climate crisis. Pollution, in the form of nitrogen, plastic, among other forms found in our air, water and soils, composes the fourth driver. Invasive species is the fifth.

Like climate change, biodiversity loss is being caused by “human activity.” But not humans in the abstract. On a larger scale, it is the activity of capitalist corporations, aided by governments, who are obsessed with profits and growth. It is the richest individuals who live wasteful lifestyles, and the colonial countries who have offshored their pollution and destruction to poor and developing nations. “Humanity” as such is not to blame for our ecological problems. The way our economic and political systems are structured and who they are designed to benefit bear the brunt of the blame.

Fortunately, solutions abound. Reducing greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels will greatly contribute to reducing biodiversity collapse. In that, we can tackle both our climate and biodiversity crises.

Here in Vermont, farmers can play a major role in increasing the state’s biodiversity. Moving away from monocrop models of agricultural production and toward regenerative forms like agroecology have shown to be majorly beneficial for biodiversity, without increasing costs or losing yields.

Institutionalizing forms of reuse, repair, recycle and thrift, rather than always having to buy “new,” will greatly reduce the amount of materials we need to extract from the earth. This could come in the form of policies such as banning planned obsolescence, right to repair, and setting resource use limits, to name a few.

We live on a different planet than the 18th, 19th or 20th century. It is time to wake up to this reality and act accordingly. We are still in the midst of a pandemic that has made us question our assumptions about the economy, health, labor, and our everyday lives.

This is the opportunity to act with pace and purpose. Trimming around the edges or deadlines decades away endanger my generation and future ones. It’s time to enact bold, comprehensive, and holistic change. Anything less is greenwashing and window dressing., 1 November 2021