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Stephen Leahy writes, "Protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth's life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use."

Laborers at a rare-earth mine in China's Jiangxi province. (photo: Reuters)
Laborers at a rare-earth mine in China's Jiangxi province. (photo: Reuters)

All of Earth's Systems in Rapid Decline

By Stephen Leahy, Inter Press Service

04 August 11


rotecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth's life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.

Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050, a new study estimates.

The size and number of protected areas on land and sea has increased dramatically since the 1980s, now totaling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometres of land and two million square kilometres of oceans, a new study reported Thursday.

But impressive as those numbers look, all indicators reveal species going extinct faster than ever before, despite all the additions of new parks, reserves and other conservation measures, according to the study published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

"It is amazing to me that we haven't dealt with this failure of protected areas to slow biodiversity losses," said lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"We were surprised the evidence from the past 30 years was so clear," Mora told IPS.

The ability of protected areas to address the problem of biodiversity loss - the decline in diversity and numbers of all living species - has long been overestimated, the study reported. The reality is that most protected areas are not truly protected. Many are "paper parks," protected in name only. Up to 70 percent of marine protected areas are paper parks, Mora said.

The study shows global expenditures on protected areas today are estimated at six billion dollars per year, and many areas are insufficiently funded for effective management. Effectively managing existing protected areas requires an estimated 24 billion dollars per year - four times the current expenditure.

"Ongoing biodiversity loss and its consequences for humanity's welfare are of great concern and have prompted strong calls for expanding the use of protected areas as a remedy," said co-author Peter Sale, a marine biologist and assistant director of the United Nations University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

"Protected areas are a false hope in terms of preventing the loss of biodiversity," Sale told IPS.

The authors based their study on existing literature and global data on human threats and biodiversity loss.

When asked about the 2010 global biodiversity protection agreement in Nagoya, Japan to put 17 percent of land and 10 percent of oceans on the planet under protection by 2020, Sale said it was "very unlikely those targets will be reached" due to conflicts between growing needs for food and other resources.

"Even if those targets were achieved, it is not going to stop the decline in biodiversity," he said.

One reason for this is "leakage." Fence off one forest and the logging pressure increases in another. Make one coral reef off limits to fishing and the fishing boats go the next reef.

Another reason protected areas aren't the answer is that fences or patrol boats can't keep out the impacts of pollution or climate change.

Finally, the pressures on the planet's resources are escalating so quickly that "the problem is running away from the solution," he said.

The loss of biodiversity is a major issue because it is humanity's only life-support system, delivering everything from food, to clean water and air, to recreation and tourism, to novel chemicals that drive our advanced civilization, said Mora. Right now the dominant strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity is with protected areas.

"That's putting all our eggs in one basket," he said. "A major shift is needed to deal with the roots of the problem."

The ever-expanding footprint of humanity is the primary cause of global biodiversity loss. When the world's population was five billion people in 1985, the amount of nature's resources being used or impacted became more than the planet could sustain indefinitely according to many estimates, said Mora.

The world population, currently at seven billion, is well beyond Earth's ability to sustain. By 2050, with a projected population of 10 billion people and without a change in consumption patterns, the cumulative use of natural resources will amount to the productivity of up to 27 planet Earths, the study found.

Sustaining the current seven billion people on the planet requires a major shift in resource use. At present, the average U.S. citizen's ecological footprint is about 10 hectares, while a Haitian's is less than one. The planet could sustain us if everyone's footprint averaged two ha, Mora said.

If there are more people, then there are simply fewer resources available for everyone, so population control will be needed along the lines of "one child per woman," he said.

"I'm from Colombia, it blows my mind that some governments in the developing world pay women to have more children," he added.

Hardly anyone is focused on the pressing need for a major shift, said Sale.

"The awareness of the public about this is shockingly low," he noted. What is needed is for humanity as a mass to change direction, he said.

"But can we find the hook, the lever that's needed to make that happen?" Sale asked. your social media marketing partner


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+20 # MERC|R-11:18 2011-08-04 19:28
Is this going to affect the price of gas? Oh dear... Someone needs to do something! {Sarcasm}
+35 # Activista 2011-08-04 20:10
"average U.S. citizen's ecological footprint is about 10 hectares, while a Haitian's is less than one.."
US consumerism/mon ey culture and militarism is killing the planet. And we are forcing this "democracy" on other nations.
+16 # not radical enuf 2011-08-05 01:10
I recommend the book, Radical Simplicity, by Jim Merkel, an engineer who did the math for us. His numbers confirm this: Usable land divided by population gives a five acre "share" for each person. That's for everything; food, water,resource extraction - everything. American use an average of 25 acres per person. Which means someone somewhere is only getting 2. Or one. When you look at it that way, our American lifestyle is a type of theft. Poverty and suffering in other parts of the world are directly related to our gluttonous consumption here.
+29 # policymaven 2011-08-04 23:00
Though this is the most important article you published today, there is very little response in the way of comments. One can easily conclude that we US citizens don't care, or are we just too deep in denial? I suggest it is the latter, as most Americans are economically terrified, and still do not grasp the profound implications of their actions that are causing irreversible planetary harm.
+9 # Bill Holcomb 2011-08-05 00:19
In my 80-plus year, the world population has MORE THAN TRIPLED! People, this can't continue! As far as I am aware, the Sierra Club is the only major environmental group that is working for population control.
+5 # blindspotter 2011-08-05 01:38
Peter Sale is right to ask for a lever; we're talking about shifting paradigms not the incremental and piecemeal solutions of the past. Please count me among the 'hardly anyone' focused on the pressing need for a major shift.

Here is the link to my paper proposing a set of levers (I call them policy switches) designed to be used in combination for humanity as a mass to change direction. The effect would be to make the entire planet a protected area and in doing so allow the economy to generate real value and society to attempt 'global security'.

Biodiversity loss, population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use, would be managed within the new paradigms established by all policy switches together. However biodiversity is linked strongly with switch 5 (reversing humanity's 'belonging' relation with the Earth - which belongs to which?). Switch 3 allows the economy to reverse all those problems, by implementing cradle-to-cradl e globally within markets. Profits and economic growth would come from reducing resource flows and 'joining them up' in cycles.

Population is linked with achieving all facets of security for everyone which is the point of each of the switches. Switches 6 and 7 deal with inequality in access to all forms of wealth, so families do not need more children to overcome inaccess.
+3 # Activista 2011-08-05 13:08
Great work - like

4. Rapid global disarmament can be launched by switching from Gross Domestic Product to ‘Gross Peaceful Product’, that omits weapons-related transactions.
Wonder how much USA Gross Peaceful Product is - negative?
+17 # Fiona Lowther 2011-08-05 04:27
It isn't denial; it's a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. The aboriginal peoples of the Earth seem to be the only ones attempting to live in harmony with nature -- and their efforts are being destroyed by corporate greed that shears off the tops of mountains, poisons the waters and destroys the rain forests that are the lungs of the planet. Either this generation will die fighting that corporate greed or the next generation and its children will die from the effects of that greed.
0 # blindspotter 2011-08-06 13:01
Yes Fiona it is indigenous harmony with the Earth that we must relearn. Here's the link to the piece of the paper suggesting how this can be done as international policy, Hope this helps.
+8 # Don Richardson 2011-08-05 05:34
The Earth can support perhaps 1 billion people at a decent standard; I favor 500 million for some wiggle room. This means a drastic reduction in births OR a great increase in deaths. Nature may help do that: new epidemics are waiting in the wings. It appears we can have peace and security OR we can have politicians, BUT NOT BOTH. We must ignore the pro-child religions and mandate one child families. Draconian? Hardly.
And protected conservation areas must increase by a factor of 10 or more. This is just for starters. And, Oh: gas actually costs $15/gallon but is subsidized down to $4. We are a nation of psychotics--out of touch with reality.
+2 # Activista 2011-08-05 13:13
"Earth can support perhaps 1 billion people at a decent standard"
I grew on less than 10% of US standards - and was O.K.
"gas actually costs $15/gallon but is subsidized down to $4. " probably even more when we factor in $trillion per year spending on militarism ..
+7 # soularddave 2011-08-05 05:50
I'd like to see an article that explains exactly what one U.S. person "footprint" should look like.

I live in the Midwest, have no air-conditionin g, drive less than 3 miles to work, and have never created a child. I *think* I'm helping, but really have no idea. There's room for more cutbacks like more insulation, growing food, and more recycling, but I don't know what is more effective.

More ideas, please!
+2 # John Hoaglund 2011-08-05 13:58
"More ideas, please." I have a book that charts an energy / economic course out of the woods, or at least demonstrates how natural resources are "energy resources" and should be valued thus in a new economy. Understandably, self promotional links get deleted here, but I offer a free ebook. I want the ideas forwarded, not myself...Entrop y Happens. It was written with the frustration noted by chris connolly below: "I live in a county that characterizes discussion about clean water as radical left-wing job killing non-topic."
+6 # handmjones 2011-08-05 06:37
We know. We care....but we are groping and hoping for a solution that makes us feel good but doesn't really hurt. Thus the popularity of the off carbon solution to all our problems.
+6 # Activista 2011-08-05 13:19
President Carter started to point US to reality - and how we dispatched him - especially after his book -
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid
+12 # chrisconnolly 2011-08-05 10:33
We are a selfish short-sided species. I live in a county that characterizes discussion about clean water as radical left-wing job killing non-topic. Talk of conservation measures is poo pooed as wanting to take us back to the caves. I have been talking about environmental issues for 40 years and at this point have lost all hope that humanity will ever recognize that degrading our life supporting eco-systems is akin to crimes against humanity. I truly feel sorrow for my grandchilren's futures. When we allow processes like fracking to proliferate even in the face of the threat of polluting huge swaths of ground water there is no hope for us to overcome the behemoth of big money influence.
+4 # Activista 2011-08-05 13:26
I have the same experience - yuppies at the City Council see ONLY money/profit.
And I agree with you - "degrading our life supporting eco-systems IS akin to crimes against humanity"
To fight for the environment requires change of Homo Destructor to Homo Sapiens.
+4 # Josippie 2011-08-05 12:17
Human evolution has brought us to a stage where we seem to have a much greater ability to consume than to foresee. I suppose our brain development, as a whole, is lagging behind what it needs to survive in our current form. I wonder what the next stage of our species will be like.... It's depressing, but I'm doing the best I can, to meet the challenge of climate destruction --- the immolation of my Earth Home.
+1 # BLBreck 2011-08-06 19:19
We egotistical humans consider ourselves the smartest species, yet most of us seem have the emotional maturity of a two year old, "Mine! Mine!" We have orchestrated our own extinction and the earth will breathe a sigh of relief when we are gone. I would certainly like to see humans get their heads out of the place where the sun don't shine and see the light, but I fear we are a failed evolutionary experiment. This doesn't mean I won't continue to work to raise awareness and against those who continue to think we can multiply like a parasite and kill the host, but I fear that those who are aware are far out numbered, and shouted down, by those who can only see what profits them, with no thought to the future. Every time I hear the cry for growth, I cringe. I sure wish their were some people that could/would write articles with the steps to shift the current paradigm, instead of just alliterating the problem. I do feel that at this point the only avenue is to take to the streets in numbers that will force the media to cover events so more will pay attention.
0 # blindspotter 2011-09-14 06:54
Can offer these articles about steps to shift the current paradigm, 'Mine, mine' is addressed in switch 5. Growth is switch 3. The problem is not growth which is just a technical activity measure; problem is the underlying paradigm of how we say we try to get growth. Paradox is that calls against growth have for decades blocked discussion about the paradigm - hence it hasn't changed!

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