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On Monday, I wrote about a sweeping new United Nations report warning that humans were destroying Earth’s natural ecosystems at an “unprecedented” pace.
The findings were sobering: As many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, hunting, pollution and, increasingly, climate change. Almost everywhere you look, nature is vanishing before our eyes.
But the report, which was written for world leaders and policymakers, also wrestled with another big question: Why should anyone care about the loss of nature? Why should countries take drastic steps, as the report urges, to halt the decline in biodiversity?
The scientists and experts who wrote the report spent a lot of effort trying to frame biodiversity loss as an urgent issue for human well-being. Natural ecosystems, they explained, provide invaluable material services to people, from mangrove forests that protect millions from coastal flooding to wild insects that pollinate our crops. When we destroy nature, they concluded, we undermine our own quality of life.
That’s a compelling argument, and it’s one that many conservationists and ecologists have emphasized in recent years. There’s now an entire field of research around “ecosystem services;” scientists try to quantify in dollar terms all the benefits that nature provides to humanity, in order to make an economic case for conservation.
It’s worth noting that some ecologists have long been skeptical of this line of thinking, and have countered that it’s simply wrong to drive other species to extinction even if they’re not crucial for economic growth or humanity’s survival. And the new report does acknowledge that nature also has a spiritual or inspirational value that can often be “difficult to quantify.”
But it’s been 27 years since the first global treaty to protect biodiversity, and the world’s nations are still faltering in their efforts to halt the decline of natural ecosystems around the globe. That helps explains why the authors of this latest report felt they had to appeal more forcefully to humanity’s own naked self-interest.
“Life on Earth is an intricate fabric, and it’s not like we’re looking at it from the outside,” Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the report and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina, told me. “We are threads in that fabric. If the fabric is getting holes and fraying, that affects us all.”
Is Climate Change Reshaping Politics? Australia Offers Clues
I almost drove on the wrong side of the road.
It was my first time getting behind the wheel in Australia. Actually, it was my first time in Australia. I went there because I wanted to know whether a year of extreme weather, a hallmark of climate change, would have any influence over how country votes in national elections on May 18.
The answer to that question is important not just for Australia. What happens there could offer important lessons for politicians elsewhere on how to manage public anxiety over climate change.
I relied entirely on the kindness of strangers. I spoke to farmers, ranchers, feed shop owners, scientists, politicians, aspiring politicians and ordinary men and women who made room for me at the pub. They showed me their land. They told me their stories. They offered me coffee and lunch at their kitchen tables. They patiently answered my questions, and then they referred me to their friends, so I could drive to their homes and ask them more questions.
This generosity is the oxygen that good journalism depends on, and I am deeply grateful to have been on the receiving end.
I drove through a majestic forest, past miles and miles of grazing land and through small, rural towns. The land changed color the farther west I continued, from first-flush green to brown to ocher. At one point, a flock of red parrots flashed through a grove of eucalyptus trees and took my breath away. A billboard promised to make Australia great again; a road sign informed that I had entered the Shire of Bland.
Asanka Brandon Ratnayake, a photographer born and raised in Melbourne who was assigned to work with me, ultimately kept me from driving on the wrong side. “Speed limit,” he also occasionally warned.