- Peak Predators
- Peak forests and habitat
- Peak plagues
- Peak pollution
- Peak biodiversity: some truly frightening statistics
1. Peak predators
The Eclipse summary page mentioned that we could soon see a world without large predators like lions and tigers and bears in the wild. Top line predators are like the police force of ecosystems. They regulate the ecosystem, and stop otherwise harmless members of the food web breeding out of control and destroying the place. As journalist George Monbiot describes it, “a ‘trophic cascade’ is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain, and tumbles all the way down to the bottom.” It’s just under 5 minutes, and is a beautifully shot and clearly explained masterpiece.
For more detail please see the National Geographic special Strange Days on Planet Earth, which describes how after we hunted down the last wolf, park erosion accelerated, the river silted up, the beavers left and the river started to bend and move all over the place. We removed the ‘police’, and the ecosystem ran amok. (Watch the hour long Youtube docuentary or read the text summary here.)
2. Peak forests and habitats
Peak wood affected Europe centuries ago. The hunt for wood was one of the driving historical forces that sent the British empire expanding outwards into the New World in the search of timber to build the empire’s navies and fuel the fires of new industries. Demand for timber now means that by 2030 only 10% of our world’s forests will remain. Forests are important as a resource for wood, but rainforests also generate rain, and forests are habitat for many important species and fungi and micro-organisms across the whole range of biodiversity. They are the only home for hundreds of thousands of different critters, and we need them all to maintain biodiversity.
3. Peak plagues
As Strange Days on Planet Earth so clearly showed, everywhere we trade goods and services, we introduce invaders. We bring a walking, jumping, leaping, spreading, blowing, tumbling plague of every beast and pest and insect and weed with us. We have nearly destroyed Australia by introducing rabbits, foxes, pigs, camels, cats, feral dogs, weeds, fish, and of course the cane toad! The more pests we introduce, the weaker the local ecosystem. By the sheer force of our frequent movements, we are creating the one global ecosystem, and the risks of precious local ecosystem services fighting it out to the death are just horrific!
4. Peak pollution
Toxic wastes are building up through entire ecosystems. Some of these leak from plastics, which wash down storm drains into our oceans. The swirling ocean gyres concentrate this plastic which slowly breaks down in the sunlight, and so our oceans are filling up with microscopic plastic garbage that fish and birds mistake for plankton and food. This is also starting to affect the oceanic ecosystem with dire possibilities for food security.
5. Peak biodiversity: some truly frightening statistics
The sneaky thing about the damage to life on earth is that this contest is being lost in ten thousand small local battles rather than one big war. This is both the horror and the hope of the ecological challenge. The sheer magnitude of destruction across our world is terrible, but there is hope in the local environmental battles to save local parks, wetlands, forests, frogs, and everything else.
As the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports:
- 17,291 species out of 47,677 so far assessed are threatened with extinction.
- Of the world’s 5,490 mammals, 79 are Extinct or Extinct in the Wild, with 188 Critically Endangered, 449 Endangered and 505 Vulnerable.
- 1,895 of the planet’s 6,285 amphibians are in danger of extinction, making them the most threatened group of species known to date.
- More than 70,000 plant species are used in traditional and modern medicine.
- Coral reefs provide food, storm protection, jobs, recreation and other income sources for more than 500 million people worldwide yet 70% of coral reefs are threatened or destroyed.
- Biodiversity is essential to global food security and nutrition and also serves as a safety net to poor households during times of crisis.
- Diversity of genes within species, e.g. as represented by livestock breeds or strains of plants, is also important for agriculture and food security. Increased diversity reduces risk from diseases and increases our potential to adapt to changing climate.