A special insight on species extinction

A UN-backed prediction of mass extinctions also suggests a revisioning of the ‘good life’ away from material-based economic growth.

A couple walks through a forest near Frankfurt, Germany.

Last week in Paris, more than 100 nations signed onto a massive study on the future of the Earth’s ecosystem. The study’s key forecast, based on years of research: About an eighth of plant and animal species face extinction, many “within decades.”

Yet beyond the shock of this “grim” estimate, the report also offered ways to regain an equilibrium between humans and nature. Its first recommendation: transform humanity’s diverse “visions of a good life.”

Different societies, it acknowledged, have differing ideas of how much either material or spiritual “components” determine the quality of existence. The report suggests people adopt a vision that does not “entail ever-increasing material consumption.”

Progress itself, in other words, must be redefined from “the current limited paradigm” of economic output – which has grown fourfold since 1970 while world population has doubled.

“Business as usual is a disaster,” said Sir Robert Watson, co-author of the study and chair of the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Instead, people must start to factor in the nearly immeasurable contributions of the natural world into concepts of wealth, such as the inspiration it provides and its support of individual identity. “The diversity of nature maintains humanity’s ability to choose alternatives in the face of an uncertain future,” the study states. This so-called natural capital, while difficult to quantify, can be a foundation for slowing the extinction of species.

The approach already has a strong foothold. More than 15% of land is protected from most human activity. In addition, indigenous people remain a model for conservation. About a quarter of land or water is under the care of indigenous peoples, much of it in better ecological shape than other parts of the world.

The report is the UN’s first comprehensive overview of biological diversity. It comes ahead of a meeting this fall of nations that have signed up for a global treaty on the topic and that seek a consensus on conservation. Mr. Watson says changing the way land and water is used can “help us have a better quality of life.” But first the stewards of the environment must rethink their definition of a rewarding life.

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