A million plant and animal species are going extinct—and capitalism is to blame

More than 500,000 land species no longer have enough habitat left to survive long-term.
More than 500,000 land species no longer have enough habitat left to survive long-term.
Image: AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara
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Global capitalism is, indeed, destroying the Earth.

A blockbuster UN report on global biodiversity details how economic systems are driving a million species toward extinction—and imperiling the survival of humanity.

The crux of the report is that incessant economic growth is fundamentally at odds with the survival of life. Its 40-page “summary for policymakers” (pdf) is riddled with examples of why this is so, and one line searingly sums it up:

Economic instruments that may be harmful to nature include subsidies, financial transfers, subsidized credit, tax abatements, commodity and industrial goods prices that hide environmental and social costs, which favor unsustainable production and, as a consequence, can promote deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl, and wasteful uses of water.

The complete Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report, written by 400 scientists, is to be released later this year. It will be hefty: A draft of the report leaked to some press last week was 1,800 pages long.

Capitalism is the problem

Our economic system currently ignores the many ways that natural systems prop up the generation of food and wealth. Simultaneously, our economic systems are killing off swaths of the natural world. The complete disregard of those natural systems is possible mainly because the economic benefit of “ecosystem services” nature provides is not included in our calculations of the the cost of doing business. What is lost, economically, from destroying nature is missing from balance sheets. Eventually the losses will bring the system crashing down, the summary implies.

Take bees, for example: Pollinators like bees provide a massive, free service to the food economy. They are responsible for 75% of crop cultivation each year. Climate change, chemical use, habitat destruction, and the homogenization of food crops from many species to just a few are all causing cataclysmic pollinator declines. Without them, food systems will eventually fail.

Our economic math is all wrong: The value of global agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, according to the report. But modern practices like fertilization and monocultures degrade soils. Globally, that has reduced the productivity of 23% of Earth’s land surface, putting as much as $577 billion in  annual global crop value at risk from pollinator loss.

The report calculates that annual global fossil-fuel subsidies from governments of $345 billion actually result in global costs of $5 trillion, when one includes the role fuel extraction plays in reducing nature’s contributions to the world economy. (Half those costs are related to coal, a third to oil, and a tenth to natural gas, per the report.)

When nature is counted as a legitimate entity propping up much of the economy, the losses are astounding. Thanks to our interdependence with the natural world, its decline is our decline.

Virtually no place has been left unharmed

Human activity has touched virtually every system on Earth. Around 75% of land and 66% of oceans have been “significantly altered,” according to the report summary. Much of that is due to agriculture. A quarter of all ice-free land on Earth is used to graze cattle. In total, crop and livestock operations use more than 33% of land surface and 75% of its fresh water.

One million species are headed for extinction, “many within decades,” according to the report. Unless dramatic action is taken, 40% of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals will disappear. More than 500,000 land species that no longer have enough habitat left to survive long-term will go extinct unless habitats are restored.

We are moving in the wrong direction

The worldwide raw-timber harvest, which drives deforestation and habitat loss, has risen by 45% since 1970, according to the report. Meanwhile, urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.

A third of all marine fish stocks were overharvested in 2015; another 60% were fished at the maximum sustainable level. Just 7% were harvested at levels lower than the maximum. The global plastic pollution crisis ravaging marine species has increased tenfold since 1980.

Humans are dumping as much as 400 million tons of toxic sludge—containing heavy metals, solvents, and other industrial waste—into the world’s waters each year. Agricultural fertilizers running off farmland and into waterways have transformed 400 ocean areas totaling area larger than the UK into “dead zones” devoid of enough oxygen to support marine life.

The Earth is set to continue down a path of life-imperiling destruction barring “transformative change,” according to the report. That “transformative change” must clearly take place in the way that the human economy values—or, rather, devalues—nature.