3Qs: Depletion of Earth’s natural resources threatens biodiversity

Ear­lier this week, the World Wildlife Foun­da­tion released the annual Living Planet Report. The report’s find­ings include a nearly 30 per­cent decline in bio­di­ver­sity — the variety of all the living things on the planet — since the 1970s. We asked Matt Bracken, an assis­tant pro­fessor of biology whose research at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center focuses on the bio­di­ver­sity of marine ecosys­tems, what this report means for the planet and our future.

 

Matt Bracken, an assistant professor of biology whose lab is located at Northeastern's Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass., uses an interdisciplinary approach to evaluate the linkages between marine communities and ecosystems. Courtesy photo.

What are the main findings from the foundation’s report?

The 2012 Living Planet Report details current human impacts to natural systems and the consequences of those impacts. The growth in human population — 7,013,583,761 and growing as of Sunday afternoon — is placing enormous pressure on the goods, services and functions that the Earth’s natural systems provide. We are using natural resources much more rapidly than they are being regenerated; current rates of use are one-and-a-half times the sustainable rate. These ecosystem goods and services include foods that we eat, medicines that keep us healthy and products that we use for industry and construction. Human impacts, including habitat destruction, overexploitation of natural populations, climate change, invasive species and pollution, threaten biodiversity and ultimately our own quality of life.

 

How can the findings impact future behaviors?

We need to think carefully and critically about how much we are consuming and how our behaviors affect the planet. The biggest contributor to humans’ “ecological footprint” — the resources we use relative to how quickly they can be replaced — is carbon emissions, which represent 55 percent of our impacts on natural systems and contribute to changes in the global climate system. Virtually everything we do requires the power or energy — transportation of people and goods, heating and ventilation systems, lights, manufacturing — and we need to minimize our use of non-renewable fuel sources.

Why is biodiversity important and how is the decline affecting global ecosystems?

Biodiversity — the variety of living things — is declining globally. The foundation’s report highlights a 28 percent decline in what it calls the “Living Planet Index,” which evaluates changes in the abundances of 2,688 vertebrate species —  mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish — worldwide. As species decline in abundance and become functionally extinct, the unique roles that those species play in their ecosystems are lost. My own research highlights the consequences of changes in biodiversity. My colleagues and I have found that declines in biodiversity result in loss of the goods, services and ecosystem functions that we and other species rely on for our health and well-being.

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