Nature is not just nice to have, it sustains our very existence.
Transcript of the talk I gave at Extinction Rebellion Berlin’s ‘alternative’ press conference on the launch of the IPBES report.
Today the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services or IPBES launches a global assessment of the state of nature. The findings are stark; we are already in the sixth mass extinction and are eroding the life support systems of this planet. Drastic and devastating consequences will be seen in my lifetime unless we change course. This is an existential crisis every bit as dangerous as climate breakdown, and intimately connected to it in multiple ways. The IPBES report is set to be every bit as shocking as October’s IPCC report on climate breakdown. Solving the climate crisis alone is not enough; if we keep destroying nature, we will go down with it.
On a personal level, I am deeply saddened by what we are doing to the beautiful world we live in. Habitat loss, pollution, overhunting, and climate change are turning once vibrant places humming with life into dead zones. Earth is the only planet we know of that supports life, and we are fortunate to share our home with such a dazzling array of other species. All the living things on this planet, plants, animals, and humans, share a common ancestry — evolutionary biology shows that we are all branches on the same tree of life. It is immoral that we are now destroying other branches.
Restoring nature is a moral imperative, and also a survival strategy. The IPBES report makes clear that by destroying the rich web of life around us we are cutting off our own life support systems. Nature is not just nice to have, it sustains our very existence. The oxygen we breathe is produced by trees. The crops we eat grow in soil that is teeming with tiny creatures. The water we drink is filtered by plants and falls from clouds that are, in many places, created by the breathing of great forests. The living systems we depend on are complex webs of interconnected life, and if we punch holes in those webs as fast as we are doing, the point will come where they can no longer support us. The IPBES report suggests that that point may be soon; far too soon for those of us who are young today.
As an undergraduate student, I studied the previous mass extinctions on Earth, and I cannot adequately express my terror at the thought of living through one. The end-Permian extinction, thought to be caused by greenhouse gas emissions from volcanoes, nearly wiped out life altogether. The oceans became acidic dead zones full of decaying marine creatures releasing toxic gases as they decomposed without oxygen. Acid rain decimated the plants on land. Nearly all the trees died. The only things that thrived were those that ate decaying matter. It took millions of years for life to recover after this mass extinction, and I for one do not have that long to wait.
The IPBES report makes it clear that if we solve just the climate crisis or just the biodiversity crisis, we solve neither. Fortunately, many solutions address both problems. Conserving the forests we have and restoring forests on a massive scale would absorb carbon and allow animals and plants to flourish. Protecting the ocean from dredging and trawling would stop the release of greenhouse gases from the sea floor, and conserve marine life too. Restoring peatlands would both absorb carbon, and absorb water from the extreme weather events caused by climate breakdown. The solutions are there. All we need to do is act.
The report concludes that we need rapid transformations in the way that we live, especially regarding our overconsumption in rich nations. And despite fear-mongering tales to the contrary, transformative action on the climate and ecological crises can enhance our wellbeing. We know that the system of working a job we hate to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t care about, is contributing to an epidemic of anxiety and depression. We know that distributing resources more equally would help us to live within our means, and grant us happier societies. And we know that the things we hold dear — family, connection, community, purpose — are not dependent on extracting more and more from a planet that has no more to give. The IPBES report says that we must stop relying on dollar signs as our only way to measure human happiness, and instead unite in the common purpose of saving the life on this planet.
Living systems have tipping points beyond which there is no return. We see this in once abundant seas that have been fished to death, and in polluted land where nothing will grow any more. But there are social tipping points too, and this report must be the point where we start to change. We know that people want action to save nature. Polls show that Europeans believe neither their country nor the EU is doing enough to protect our planet’s life support systems. They are right. Here in Germany 60% of people think that we need to put the environment before economic growth. It is time for governments to catch up with their citizens. We are tired of words, and we want to see real changes. The time to act is not tomorrow. It is right now.
We must, with a ferocious and informed urgency, start to reweave the web of life. Because there is no thought more devastating than that the legacy of humankind will be nothing but a dead planet.