Our Planet's Health Card

The Intergovernmental Science Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (IPBES)i, an intergovernmental organisation consisting of 130 countries, has recently issued a report on the condition of nature—in particular animal and plant species and their habitats– as a consequence of human activities especially over the past 50 years. Entitled the ‘Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystems’, it gives “status and trends of the natural world, the social implications of these trends, their direct and indirect causes and, importantly, the actions that can be taken to assure a better future for all”. It is a sobering document on the extensive damage of the natural world caused by humankind which in turn has made a calamitous impact on many human communities. The report is a clarion call for action by governments and societies and should be taken seriously for the planet’s future.

From their evolution homo sapiens tried to shape the planet’s environment. That had an adverse impact on many species which increased as human capacities did. However, till the industrial revolution, humans could not extensively alter the planet’s physical environment, especially the atmosphere.  Physical changes— for instance, the coming and the waning of the ice ages— were not on account of human doings. But this began to change with the spread of the industrial revolution and the increasing use of hydrocarbons in the last century.

The 20th century also witnessed the explosive growth of the human population because of the control of a large number of diseases. A hundred years ago, at the time of the great Spanish flu pandemic, the planet had 1.8 billion human beings. Fifty years later in 1970 this number had doubled to 3.6 billion and now, again after a passage of 50 years it has more than doubled to 7.6 billion. Also, as the world became more connected most human groups, irrespective of their immediate resource availability and development stage began to aspire for the affluence levels of those who were at the top of the pyramid in both these aspects. This desire was qualitatively different from banishing poverty. Also, the world’s economic models, set by the advanced countries, began to be based on ever greater consumption. The result of all these factors was greater human intrusion in the habitats of other species through changes in land and water bodies uses, a process that is extensively now going on too. This has had disastrous consequences for the diversity of the natural world and which is essential for human welfare as this report reminds policymakers again and again.

Among other reasons for changes in the natural world are climate change and pollution. The difficulty is that some leaders of affluent countries continue to stubbornly refuse to accept the reality that climate change is being caused by human actions. This was vividly seen when President Donald Trump decided to take the US out of the Paris Climate Accords. As the US is, in per capita terms, the world’s largest polluter and as it possesses technology to mitigate its impact and also to help humans adapt Trump’s move adversely affected the global effort to control the rise of planet’s temperatures. The irony is that even with unprecedented forest fires which can be attributed to climate change, and which are currently devastating large areas of the US West Coast States, Trump is still unwilling to admit the facts regarding climate change.

Some of the statistics given in the IBPES report are startling. Human activity has “significantly altered 75% of land surface” and “66% of the ocean area is experiencing cumulative impacts”. A million plant and animal species face extinction. It is true that species have become extinct since our planet began to sustain life. It is believed, for example, that dinosaurs became extinct some 65 million years ago, long before homo sapiens walked the earth. The dinosaur event was perhaps caused by a meteorite strike which led to the collapse of the ecosystems which sustained them. But now the changes are caused by human actions and it is in the power of human beings to adopt policies to retard change which is damaging the planets potential to sustain biodiversity.

This report underlines the importance of the adoption of policies that will preserve bio-diversity and the ecosystems that sustain it. Human communities which live closer to the natural environment such as forests inherently understand importance of bio-diversity and ensure the health of the ecosystems that sustain it. This is not so with communities living in urban areas. As urbanisation is rapidly taking place the world over more and more human beings will not live in an environment where the understanding of the significance of biodiversity and the maintenance of healthy habitats will be derived from their life experience. Hence, innovative ways will have to be found to educate them in the proposition that there is no dichotomy between man and nature; that man is an integral part of the natural world and is dependent on it. This instruction has to especially target children so that they imbibe correct ideas from the very beginning about the need for sustainable development.

Global leaders will also have to give priority to the planet’s health as a whole. This would require a shift from thinking in narrow national terms and that shift will necessarily have to begin with the affluent countries. They will have to agree to share power and prosperity with the poorer countries. Unfortunately they are unwilling to do so till now despite all their assertions of commitment to global welfare. They would do well to read the IPBES report.