Frogs and toads were so much a part of my growing up. As a child in what was then still Calcutta, I grew up with the croak of frogs in the monsoons, the nights filled with their mating calls and ribbons of their spawn in the shallow pools by the roadside, in parks and backyards. But all is silent today: the creatures of my childhood are extinct or driven to miniscule obscure reserves.
The vultures too are gone and sparrows are rapidly disappearing, as open spaces are consumed by row upon row of apartments, vast slums, miles of roads and factories. Expanding humans are driving all other species to the brink.
It is frightening to learn that the loss that I have experienced in my lifetime could well be the tip of a far larger catastrophe. It could be the precursor to the massive, irreversible extinction of many life forms on this earth.
A recent assessment on biodiversity has revealed that the average pace of extinction in recent times has risen several hundred times over the last 10 million years. At this rate, scientists fear the earth will lose a million of its existing eight million insect, plant and animal species soon, some in a matter of decades. Mankind is staring at a mass extinction.
This prediction is the core of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report prepared for the United Nations by 450 experts and approved by 132 nations. The main report runs into 1,800 pages, while a much shorter summary for policy-makers details what needs to be done to avert the planetary calamity ahead of us.
This UN report, since its release on May 6, has sent shockwaves across the civilised world and highlighted the extent of human induced environmental damage. Releasing the report to the UN, Robert Watson warned that changes wrought by decades of pillaging and poisoning forests, oceans, soil and air threaten society at least as much as climate change.
The earth has experienced five major mass extinctions in its history, beginning with the Ordovician extinction 445 million years ago, the Devonian extinction 376-360 million years ago, the Permian extinction 252 million years ago, the Triassic extinction about 200 million years ago and ending with the Cretaceous extinction about 66 million years ago.
The previous mass extinctions were caused by natural factors such as ice ages, rapid global warming, oxygen depletion, volcanic and seismic activity and asteroid hits. In each event, some spanning thousands of years, the planet lost about 75 per cent of species. After the last global wipeout, dinosaurs disappeared and mammals triumphed. No one knows for sure what will survive the impending catastrophe.
The mass extinction the UN report predicts is caused not by natural processes but mostly by industrialised farming and fishing. The demands of feeding the world’s seven billion plus population is wreaking havoc.
The report says crop production has surged 300 per cent since 1970 and today one-third of all land as well as 75 per cent of all fresh water is used to make food. Similarly, 93 per cent of marine fish stocks are either overfished or fished to the limit of sustainability.
While we extract, we pollute as well, dumping 400 million tonnes of toxic waste into oceans and rivers each year. The report estimates that 75 per cent of land, 40 per cent of oceans and 50 per cent of rivers are severely degraded.
This is the second global report that warns of terrible times ahead. In October 2018, the UN’s climate science panel, highlighting global warming, urged radical changes to limit temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now we are faced with the loss of biodiversity along with climate change.
Humans cannot remain unaffected by the profound changes they are wreaking on their planet. It’s inevitable that there will be a rebound. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality-of-life worldwide,” said the chairperson of the report, Robert Watson.
Mankind now knows that our planet is rapidly running out of time but can it change? Scientists feel that the immediate steps required include “reducing meat consumption, halting deforestation in tropical countries, discouraging luxury consumption, slashing perverse subsidies and adopting the concept of a low-growth economy”.
Mr Watson, who introduced the report, admitted that the resistance from vested interests is likely to be “fierce”, but the only solution was to introduce “transformative change” in the way we produce and consume almost everything, especially food.
Sadly, the world appears unprepared for radical change, especially one that requires reversing the basic postulate of high growth, consumer driven development. Moreover, there is the issue of inequality.
The report itself highlights the dark side of mankind’s remarkable ascension: the stark inequalities in the global population both among and within countries. One finding points out that in Europe and North America, humans now consume several times the recommended intake of meat, sugar and fat for optimal health, while 11 per cent of the world population is undernourished with more than 820 million people facing food insecurity in Africa and Asia alone.
This inequality is only widening with per capita GDP already 50 times higher in wealthy nations than in poor ones. As the poor scramble to lift themselves out of under-consumption and appalling living conditions, the pressure on resources and the environment in only going to intensify. To satisfy this huge and growing need, economies will most likely continue to use the very methods that this damning UN report indicts.
Unfortunately, the current state of the world suggests that no matter how calamitous the threats, the world’s still growing seven billion population is in no mood to accept inequality, junk the allure of consumerism or eat less.
The frogs, toads, vultures and sparrows of my childhood have died or are disappearing because of the pesticides and chemicals used to grow ever increasing amounts of food. Many of the poor and hungry in this country probably haven’t seen or heard about the long-gone creatures and neither do they care.
Mankind like a runaway boulder is careening down a steep slope. Those propelling the descent are both the wretched of the earth and the overfed rich, neither of whom could care less about the warnings of a bunch of obscure scientists and doomsday experts pontificating in plush air-conditioned halls. Only those who can recall a better, gentler world will lament....