Our world stands at a crossroads. We face existential threats that demand urgent action, from the climate crisis to the risk of nuclear war. In 2020, we need to make a bold, collective, and positive choice to work together to secure our common future, and not retreat into tired dogma, failed policies, or defeatism. It’s an interesting time for humanity: we are a vast global population facing unprecedented environmental challenges, yet we still have the time and the capability to prevent extreme outcomes, such as runaway climate change and wildlife extinctions.
Anthropogenic changes of the biota and human hyper-dominance are modulating the evolution of life on our planet. Humankind has spread worldwide supported by cultural and technological knowledge, and has already modified uncountable biological interactions. While numerous species have been extinguished by human actions, others are directly favored, such as alien species, hybrids, and genetically modified organisms. These biodiversity shifts have generated new interactions among all living organisms in anthropized or anthropogenic ecosystems, with the consequent establishment of novel evolutionary pathways. Thus, humans have created a strong evolutionary bias on Earth, leading to unexpected and irreversible outcomes. In this new Epoch that is modulated by human culture and technology, a drastic reduction of the current biodiversity is expected to occur, followed by the expansion of anthropogenically-favored organisms in all habitats
Human beings have drastically impacted the Earth’s surface and promoted striking ecosystem and biodiversity alterations. Habitat destruction and pollution, species extinction, biotic homogenization, and gene exchange between species are some of the many ways nature is currently changing.
Wildlife biodiversity and abundance are experiencing unprecedented declines, with every ecosystem subject to multiple anthropogenic threats. The same primary threats (habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change) threatening terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems are also affecting oceans, yet the extent of damage impacting oceans and the diversity of strategies to protect it is disconcertingly, and disproportionately, understudied considering the capacity of the ocean to support life.
Human-caused biodiversity loss is significantly outpacing rates of evolution and adaptation in natural populations. Under such rampant biodiversity loss, genetic variation that took millions of years to evolve is disappearing, and with it, the potential for remaining populations to adapt to rapidly changing environments. The rate of extinction is currently tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the last 10 million years. Since 50,000 years ago, the mass of wild mammals on the planet has declined by a factor of six, today, the mass of domesticated livestock and poultry vastly outweighs that of wild animals and birds.
A lot less is known about many other species, some of which are, undoubtedly, vitally important to ecosystems. Very little is known about invertebrate species, for example: soil invertebrates are not included in assessments, and changes in invertebrate diversity often go unnoticed. Invertebrates are thought to be experiencing even more rapid change than other groups, thanks to their short lifespan and complex life cycles; many species may even go extinct before their discovery. Yet invertebrates are central to the functioning of a wide range of ecosystems – the majority of pollinators are insects, for example, and invertebrates living in the soil are crucial for nutrient cycling. Their disappearance has direct impacts on food security.
Even less is known about microorganisms or microbes, which make up the majority of life on earth. These occur in virtually all habitats and are fundamental to biogeochemical cycles and the health of plants and animals.
Microorganisms, in particular phytoplankton, soak up a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and play an important role in the carbon cycle. Soil microbial diversity is important for plant health and plant growth, and researchers know that plant diversity has a positive effect on soil microbial diversity (likewise a decline in plant diversity leads to a decline in microbe diversity).
Over the next 30 years, the human population is expected to grow by 3 billion and per capita resource consumption is also expected to rise. Such precipitous growth increases the urgency to identify radically new methods to maintain Earth’s ecological health. While conventional conservation measures are important strategies that help stem the severity, these strategies alone cannot completely stem the tide of environmental threats. The pace and scale of these threats demand immediate innovation in how they are handled. Rapid advances in genomics and biotechnology can provide the technological basis for innovations to complement and potentially transform marine conservation strategies and provide a means for ecosystems to persist and evolve.
This is not just a philosophical or moral problem: these profound changes to the fabric of life have considerable impacts on human well-being. Ecosystems provide us with resources for fuel, medicine, food, and clean water, all of which depend on complex, biodiverse systems for their healthy maintenance. About three quarters of food crops, including cash crops like coffee, rely on animals for their pollination, for example. Yet recent years have seen a 75% decline in insect abundance, including pollinators. The very soil that we use to grow our food has seen a decline of 10–15% in organic content over the last decades.
Addressing the challenges linked to a deteriorating web of life and the consequences for human well-being requires urgent action that tackles the root causes of environmental decline.
The traditional approaches to conservation are unlikely to work by themselves: creating an isolated protected area, for example, or working to conserve one single species, may ignore the complex interrelations between ecosystems and social patterns across huge scales. The environmental and ecological problems we face are systemic: a mixture of physical, chemical, biological, and social change that all interact and feed back on each other.
The future of biodiversity conservation will have to take into account all the direct and indirect human drivers of biodiversity loss, from economics to governance, and also needs to consider tele-coupling: the impact of local decisions and actions on other parts of the world. Keeping the web of life from unravelling, and meeting the environmental and societal goals for the next decades, requires rapid action that addresses the challenges synergistically and in a concerted fashion.
We need to address the root causes of environmental destruction, transforming society and governance, and rethink our values. It require purposeful -intentional- transformation. Most importantly, we need to transform how we humans relate to each other and to nature. Transformation needs to bring human enterprise of all sorts back into alignment with the realities of what this planet can sustain. Purposeful transformation is hard. The innate complexity of the world means that the course of a transformation cannot be entirely planned or driven; there are always unexpected events.
Importantly, transformations literally break down existing systems in the process of creating new ones; the hard reality is that there is stubborn resistance by people unwilling to relinquish the comfortable and familiar.
Human history has undergone a few major civilizational transformations. In the Neolithic Revolution, starting about 11,000 years ago, humans developed agriculture; the Industrial Revolution, starting just 200 years ago, developed fossil fuels and machinery. The Digital Revolution is upon us now. These developments have allowed for explosions in human capabilities: innovation has allowed us to leave our planet and reach the moon, develop systems of art and architecture, create complex social systems – global trade, democracies, the United Nations – and reach new levels of understanding about our universe. The changes we need to make are huge; transformational.
We need entirely new ideas about how to incentivize businesses, measure progress, value diversity, and acknowledge the importance of social equity.
Ideally, the Next Revolution supports a new humanism of enlightenment and awareness, while depressing totalitarianism. It could enable human self-realization, enhance human agency, increase societal capabilities, empathy, and other social skills, and cultivate societal cohesion – instead of devaluating human skills, removing human responsibilities, reducing human control over technical systems, or eroding human self-determination.
Either way, new horizons of human development and human civilization are clearly emerging. The key challenge for the international community – researchers and society alike – is to develop a common vision for human-nature focused, sustainable development. Finding a critical mass of change-makers to move a system forward in a variety of ways, while including all relevant voices in the process. Instead of rational and linear planning, these change agents have to nudge things in the right direction, recognizing the inherent complexity of the system and the transformation process. How can change-makers orchestrate that, or help to guide the process?
Purposefully -intentionally- transforming our societies is difficult, complex, and messy by its very nature. There is no blueprint or simple solution. Experimentation and failure are part of the process. But history provides evidence that it is possible to purposefully change deepseated structures, mindsets, assumptions, and operating practices.
A lot of work lies ahead.