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Humans pushing 1 million species to brink of extinction, says UN report

A new UN report reveals the extent to which mankind is changing life on Earth. Written by an international panel of experts, it concludes that nearly a quarter of animal and plant groups are at risk of extinction, some within decades. William Brangham talks to one of the report’s authors, the National University of Mexico's Patricia Balvanera, about what’s driving the changes and how to stop them.

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  • William Brangham:

    Mother Nature is under threat from human activity as never before. More species are now threatened with extinction than at any other point in human history.

    That grim assessment comes from a sweeping new report issued by a panel of experts convened by the United Nations. Among its findings, nearly a quarter of plant and animal species are threatened, many within decades. That includes more than 40 percent of amphibian species and more than a third of marine mammals.

    Much of this is caused by human activity, farming and fishing and mining, as well as the use of fossil fuels that contribute to pollution and climate change. It's led to forests being cut down, and agricultural land being degraded, making large parts of the world less able to grow food.

    The report says that more than a third of fish stocks are being pulled out of the oceans at unsustainable levels.

    To better understand what's happening, I spoke earlier today with one of the many authors of the report. Patricia Balvanera is with the National University of Mexico. We spoke from Paris, where the report's findings were issued.

    And I began by asking what she saw as the most striking part of the report.

  • Patricia Balvanera:

    And what is really amazing is not only that a thousand — sorry — a million species are being threatened, but also that the impacts of these laws really trickle down to so many dimensions and to so many people on Earth.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you have been studying this for a while, but do the severity of these results surprise you?

  • Patricia Balvanera:

    So, the report indicates that one million species are being threatened. And we are talking about the wide range of species.

    We have known for a while that, for instance, large vertebrates like lions and elephants, have been threatened. We all have heard about the bears. We recently have information of how insects are declining.

    And I remember, when I was a kid, every time we had a trip in the car, the windshield was full of insects. But this is not true anymore. Why should I care about not having insects?

    Well, a large fraction of our agriculture production depends on these tiny insects that pollinate the flowers and then that produce the fruit. So, almonds, apples, some important contribution to tomatoes depends on these pollinators.

    And we are really not aware of how this is having a huge impact in agriculture productivity, for example.

  • William Brangham:

    This report points the finger very directly at us, at human activity on the planet. Can you give us more detail about what it is that we're actually doing that's driving these changes?

  • Patricia Balvanera:

    Yes, let me give you an example.

    One of the main drivers of change in nature is the change of how we use the land or the sea. So, for instance, we are transforming 75 percent of the land on Earth for production of food, production of crops, production of cattle mainly. And this is 75 percent of the land.

    So what does it mean? We can produce more food. Actually, the value of crops has increased by three times since 1970. But what — we have eroded the potential of nature to support this productivity. And so the land is degraded, biodiversity is degraded, so we will not be able to continue producing food at the same rate, because we have eroded that ability to provide food.

  • William Brangham:

    We know we can address climate change by moving to renewable types of energy, but with things like farming and fishing and mining, can those things be done in a different way that doesn't threaten so many species?

  • Patricia Balvanera:

    There are very different ways to produce food.

    So, today, we use the language of mainstreaming biodiversity into agriculture, into fisheries, into forestry, into tourism. And this means producing food from agricultural fisheries, for example, in a way that we are — is friendly with biodiversity.

    So, for instance, in Mexico, where I come from, there are very diverse crop systems, where you have maize, beans, squash, and up to 10 or 20 species in the same plot. And so this produces probably a slightly lower yield, but a huge diversity of crop foods and also in a much more secure way.

    Even if the climate is drier or colder, there will be many things to eat, even if it's at cost of a slightly lower yield.

  • William Brangham:

    But those activities are done this way now because the people and the nations who do them think it's in their economic interest to do this, meaning that there's going to be big incentives to maintain business as usual.

  • Patricia Balvanera:

    Absolutely.

    So what we were able to show in the report is that the global economy has grown four times, trade has grown 10 times, and that consume — per capita consumption is very unequal. People in more developed countries consume up to four times more than people in least developed countries.

    So there are very strong interests against changing the way we produce, and, very particularly, a large fraction of agriculture production or fisheries or forestry production is in the hands of a few very large corporations.

    But it doesn't mean, by being large, they are not interested in making change. So by talking directly to these very large corporations, it is possible to make some of these changes possible.

  • William Brangham:

    Sir Robert Watson, who was the chairman of this panel, said: "We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide."

    I don't mean to sound overly dramatic about this, but he is describing this as a threat to our very way of life. Do you see it the same way?

  • Patricia Balvanera:

    Yes.

    So the most striking headline is that the life support system provided by nature that is really holding all the needs of humanity and all the organisms living on Earth is deeply threatened. So this means there's a threat to our everyday lives, to our economies, to our well-being.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Patricia Balvanera of the National University of Mexico, thank you very much.

  • Patricia Balvanera:

    It was my pleasure. Thank you so much to all of you.

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