The Safe Zone

The 2018 WWF Living Planet Report on the State of the Earth explains how in recent decades we have developed a clearer scientific picture of the complex links between climate, animal and plant life, the land and water habitats and importantly how this sustains human life. Observation and geological evidence have been used to build an understanding of global change, the capacity of living organisms to adapt to change and the systemic risks when this fails.

We now understand the ongoing destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity in the context of longer term and larger scale changes in the whole Earth system. We can see that current levels of decline are not normal. They resemble the five previous catastrophic extinctions in the geological past. This gives us good reason to be concerned about planetary health. It is clear that human activity is causing irreversible changes to the life sustaining processes and resources that we depend upon.

The report identifies what it calls Planetary Boundary Processes within which are red lines that we should not cross if we want to have a healthy, safe and happy existence on this planet. Examples of Planetary Boundary Processes are unsustainable freshwater use, increased flows of nitrogen and phosphorus especially from fertilisers, deforestation, conversion and degradation of wild land by human activity and development, chemical pollution of the atmosphere land and ocean pollution and last but not least hunting, trapping and fishing.

The major cause of climate change and ocean acidification is carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.

The world’s societies need to set limits on human caused disturbances to the tightly linked earth systems processes. Human interference with Earth systems through our patterns of development, consumption and production has crossed all the red lines. The WWF report calls upon humanity to live within a ‘the safe zone’. Human societies can develop and thrive within this safe operating space that also allows for other animal and plant societies to thrive within a functioning and healthy whole Earth system.

Evolution and extinction of species is a normal part of natural selection process taking place over many millions of years. There is however nothing ordinary or normal about what is happening now. All of the five previous mass extinction events, between 444 million to 66 million years ago, were originally caused by geological events that triggered extreme weather, global warming, changes to the ocean and sea water levels, pervasive ocean acidification and other catastrophic phenomena. This transformed the Earth’s life giving ecosystems into death traps and the vast majority of species were not biologically equipped to survive under the new toxic conditions. In the Permian-Triassic mass extinction of 251 million years ago 96% of all species were annihilated.

Although the cause of this sixth mass extinction is different to the previous ones the results will be the same. Let us be clear, had humans, just for the sake of the argument, existed at the time of any of the past five extinctions, we would not have survived.

The sixth mass extinction of species that is taking place now is totally caused by humans. It is unprecedented that one species would proceed to massacre all others on Earth. Human activity has unleashed complex mass extinction processes that are interacting across the globe and are accelerating at speeds that are thousands of time faster than would normally occur in nature. Scientists are deeply concerned that it may soon be too late to avoid large scale changes in ecosystems that may cause disruption and casualties to human society against which we will have no defences.

The data for this latest Living Planet Report is based on 16,704 populations of 4,005 different species. The baseline date is 1970 and the cut-off date is 2014. Current rates of species extinction are 100 to 1000 faster than the natural evolutionary rate. The highest population declines of 89% were recorded in South and Central America. Fresh water species declined by 83%. The core data of animal population losses where validated against other data related to species distribution, extinction risk and community composition. All these results paint the same picture – that of continuing biodiversity loss.

The United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity states “The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. It also encompasses the variety of ecosystems, such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem living creatures, including humans, form a community interacting with one another and with the air, water and soil around them.”

A properly functioning natural world with thriving populations of all species and restored and protected wild habitats is not only not contrary to human prosperity and wellbeing it is in fact an essential prerequisite for it. We humans are one with the natural world and living in harmony with nature would also provide for an equitable distribution of wellbeing across the globe. The Earth’s resources are being plundered with no thought for the type of future we are creating for ourselves. The future does not fall out of the sky, we create it. There is a future worth living for. One that we are proud to leave to our children. There is another future, which is the one we are so determined to have, which will be a veritable hell on Earth.

The WWF report ends with some sobering thoughts. “The evidence becomes stronger every day that humanity’s survival depends on our healthy natural systems, yet we continue to destroy the health of nature at an alarming rate.” Conservationists and scientists around the world are calling for the most ambitious international agreement yet – a new global deal for nature and people – one that provides a blueprint for biodiversity and for people to 2050 and beyond.

“Decision makers at every level from individuals to communities, countries and companies need to make the right political, financial and consumer choices to realize the vision that humanity and nature can thrive. This vision is possible with strong leadership from all of us.” I would have set the vision differently which should be whether humanity can thrive in nature. Let us not be foolish. This is not a question of which of the two will survive – humanity or nature. Humanity is one species in nature. Clearly nature in some shape of form will survive humanity. If you are still thinking on which side you will place your bet you should understand that now or in any future there will only and always be one loser and that is us.  A branch on a tree has never survived the tree.

For all our pomp and ceremony and claim to wisdom there is something fundamentally wrong with human perception. The self-evident facts that we are destroying our own life support system and causing the 6th mass extinction of species does not appear to have captured the attention of the world’s leaders and indeed, I believe, most of the world’s population. “We need to galvanise a cohesive movement across state and non-state actors to drive change, to ensure that public and private decision makers understand that business as usual is not an option.”