Late last week, a study in the journal Current Biology made headlines by finding that 9.6% of global wilderness has been destroyed since the early 1990s with the most significant losses in South America (29.6%) and Africa (14%). The authors rightfully point out the myriad problems associated with these findings, such as the implications for mitigating climate change. When considered with other reports that found we have lost 50% of our wildlife in the last 40 years, the oceans will be overfished by 2048, and the pollinators that we rely on for our agriculture are disappearing, it is clear that biodiversity loss is one of the most pressing issues of our time and has serious implications for global food security, public health and climate change. What this and other studies miss, however, is the historic negligence of developed countries towards nature that led to their early 1990s baseline.
Developed countries have committed more than their fair share of environmental damage throughout their histories. The traditional development trajectory involves the almost complete decimation of local wilderness followed by an effort to slowly restore nature to its former glory. This is the path countries like those in Europe and North America have taken, resulting in, for example, the near complete loss of Europe’s forests and tallgrass prairies in the US.
The problems associated with the traditional development trajectory are largely why there is now a drive towards sustainable development, a method no country has successfully used to reach “developed” status but one which unfortunately must be undertaken by many if we are to stave off further biodiversity loss and habitat destruction.
But developed countries also have plenty of sustainable development practices to incorporate into their infrastructure and policies as their influence drives much of the habitat destruction around the world and yet almost nothing is being done to restore lost expanses of native habitat.
Although steps like the US signing onto the Paris Agreement lend hope that some developed countries are moving in the right direction, other signs, like a decrease in community energy schemes in the UK, a proposal to increase logging in Poland and a failure of land-clearing reforms in Australia are signs of regressive politics on these issues. The primary focus of the new study is on wilderness as a carbon capture system, yet there is an obvious responsibility shift in this approach given that the regions of the world found to have the highest contemporary wilderness loss, such as South America and Africa, also have relatively low carbon emissions. Therefore, it’s not really fair to focus solely on contemporary habitat destruction alone. Large amounts of carbon could be captured by restoring forests in Europe and allowing the American tallgrass prairies to grow back, and these strategies should be discussed more seriously considering the United States and European Union emit a large proportion of global greenhouse gases.
To be sure, the data presented in this new paper are critical if we are to better understand how to slow or stop current wilderness destruction. What the focus on carbon capture misses is that the organisms lost in biodiversity hotspots like Borneo and the Amazon can never be replaced and this is arguably a better justification for focusing conservation efforts in these regions. However, the old conservation dogma of sticking only to “stopping deforestation” seems to be on its way out. Projects like Rewilding Europe and Rewilding Britain are testaments to an emerging way of thinking about conservation that not only aim to stop processes like deforestation but also push back through habitat restoration and increasing the populations of species to their historic numbers.
The call to action of the Current Biology study is to fight harder against wilderness loss and increase the amount of protected areas globally, which are necessary steps to maintain a healthy planet.
However, so as to not discount the role Westerners play in habitat loss, it’s also critical that we take measures like restricting beef and palm oil consumption since the production of both products is a driver of deforestation. We should also invest in ethical, sustainable practices that are too often pushed only on developing countries and become just as passionate about bringing back our own wildlife as we are about saving the rainforests.
What a historic lens and concepts like rewilding allow us to do is to take ownership over the problems we have created both in our own countries and abroad and start to pay reparation to nature. To do so effectively will not be easy, as it will likely require a serious rethinking of our consumerist economic system. However, what these warning signs tell us is that we cannot afford to stall any longer and that action to preserve nature and allow it to prosper must be taken now.
*Collin VanBuren  is a Gates Cambridge Scholar doing a PhD in Earth Sciences and is a member of the Amphibian Conservation Research Symposium Steering Committee. Picture credit: Wikipedia.
- United Kingdom
- 2013 PhD Earth Sciences
- Christ's College
My research and general interests centre around biodiversity and nature. Specifically, I am interested in the functional consequences of biodiversity change. I use functional traits (traits of organisms that are related to how they interact with their environment, such as flat claws for digging) and ecological modelling techniques to measure changes in functional diversity through space and time. My postdoc at OSU seeks to test how small mammal functional diversity changed in the face of climate instability before and after the extinction of large mammals (e.g. mammoths). My other projects aim to test how amphibian communities are structured over large land masses and to quantify the functional impact of amphibian declines due to threats like invasive species.
In my PhD, I researched how sources of variation such as sex or season affects the skin thickness of amphibians to better understand if skin physiology might explain the disproportionately high number of amphibian species threatened with extinction. Before my PhD, I studied the functional traits of fossil species to better understand the ecology of dinosaurs.