The authors of a sweeping United Nations report on species in danger of extinction faced the same question I often do in reporting: Why should anyone care about the loss of nature?
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On Monday, I wrote about a sweeping new United Nations report warning that humans were destroying Earth’s natural ecosystems at an “unprecedented” pace.
The findings were sobering: Millions of acres of wetlands and rain forests are being cleared away. As many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, poaching, pollution, the transport of invasive species and, increasingly, global warming. Almost everywhere you look, nature is vanishing before our eyes.
But the report, which was written for world leaders and policymakers, also wrestled with some big questions: Why should anyone care about the loss of nature? Why should countries take drastic steps, as the report urges, to halt the decline in biodiversity?
These are questions I had been pondering in reporting the story. Climate change has become a major environmental issue, garnering quite a lot of media attention. But the decline in the diversity of plant and animal life around the world tends to get considerably less coverage, even though it is a major issue in its own right.
One possible reason for the disparity is that the effects of global warming are more apparent to many people. Record-breaking heat waves, deadly wildfires, rising sea levels — those are all tangible things that we can see fairly easily. But it is harder to notice if there are, say, fewer insects around than there were 30 years ago. And it is even harder to explain what that might mean for most people’s daily lives.
“People don’t see that species are vanishing, because many of those species are not visible,” said Dirk S. Schmeller, a research professor at the National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse in France. And the variety of ways that biodiversity loss can affect people, he said, “is so complex that people can have difficulties in grasping the links.”
So, as if mindful of that conundrum, the scientists and experts who wrote the report spent a lot of effort trying to frame biodiversity loss as an urgent issue for human well-being.
Natural ecosystems, they explained in extensive detail, provide invaluable material services to people, from mangrove forests that protect millions from coastal flooding to wetlands that help purify our drinking water to insects that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. The loss of wild plant varieties could make it harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops to cope with threats like increased heat and drought.
In other words, they concluded, when we destroy nature, we undermine our quality of life.
That’s a compelling argument, and it is one that many conservationists and ecologists have emphasized in recent years. There is now an entire field of research around “ecosystem services,” in which scientists try to quantify in dollar terms all the benefits that nature provides to humanity, in order to make an economic case for conservation. That argument got a lot of play in our article.
Now, it is worth noting that some ecologists have long been skeptical of this line of thinking, and have countered that it is simply morally wrong to drive other species — and there are millions on this planet, many still undiscovered — to extinction even if they are not crucial for economic growth or humanity’s survival. And the new report does acknowledge that nature also has a spiritual or inspirational value that can often be “difficult to quantify.”
But it has been 27 years since the first global treaty to protect biodiversity, and the world’s nations are still faltering in their efforts to halt the decline of natural ecosystems around the globe. That helps explains why the authors of this latest report felt they had to appeal more forcefully to humanity’s own naked self-interest. Though it remains to be seen whether this approach persuades world leaders to pay closer attention.
“Life on Earth is an intricate fabric, and it’s not like we’re looking at it from the outside,” Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the report and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina, told me. “We are threads in that fabric. If the fabric is getting holes and fraying, that affects us all.”
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Brad Plumer is a reporter covering climate change, energy policy and other environmental issues for The Times’s climate team. @bradplumer