Human pressure on nature has soared since the 1970s. We have been using more and more natural resources, and this has come at a cost.
If we lose large portions of the natural world, human quality of life will be severely reduced and the lives of future generations will be threatened unless effective action is taken.
Over the last 50 years, nature's capacity to support us has plummeted. Air and water quality are reducing, soils are depleting, crops are short of pollinators, and coasts are less protected from storms.
Prof Andy Purvis, a Museum research leader,has spent three years studying human interactions with nature. Alongside experts from more than 50 different countries, he has produced the most comprehensive review ever of the worldwide state of nature, with a summary published in the journal Science.
It was coordinated by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent body that provides policymakers with objective scientific assessments about the state of knowledge regarding the planet’s biodiversity.
The latest report paints a shocking picture. We are changing nature on a global scale and the impacts of our actions are being distributed unequally.
'It was terrifying to see how close we are to playing Russian roulette with the only world we have,' says Andy. 'But it's also been inspiring, because there is a way out of this.
'What has given hope to the many scientists who worked on this report has been the way the public are fully aware of the dangers and want action. We just need to make sure the politicians remember that too.'
Nature feeling the squeeze
Since the 1970s, Earth's population has doubled, and consumption has increased by 45% per capita.
The world is increasingly managed in a way that maximises the flow of material from nature, to meet rising human demands for resources like food, energy and timber.
As a result, humans have directly altered at least 70% of Earth's land, mainly for growing plants and keeping animals. These activities necessitate deforestation, the degradation of land, loss of biodiversity and pollution, and they have the biggest impacts on land and freshwater ecosystems.
About 77% of rivers longer than 1,000 kilometres no longer flow freely from source to sea, despite supporting millions of people.
The main cause of ocean change is overfishing, but 66% of the ocean's surface has also been affected by other processes like runoff from agriculture and plastic pollution.
Live coral cover on reefs has nearly halved in the past 150 years and is predicted to disappear completely within the next 80 years. Coral reefs are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.
The number of alien species - species found outside their natural range - has risen, as humans move organisms around the world, which disrupts and often diminishes the richness of local biodiversity. This, combined with human-driven changes in habitat, also threatens many endemic species.
In addition, fewer varieties of plants and animals are being preserved due to standardisations in farming practices, market preferences, large-scale trade and loss of local and indigenous knowledge.
Nature also benefits humans in non-material ways. We learn from it and are inspired by it. It gives us physical and psychological experiences and supports our identity and sense of place. But its capacity to provide these services has also diminished.
What's causing it?
The loss of ecosystems is caused mainly by changes in land and sea use, exploitation, climate change, pollution and the introduction of invasive species.
Some things have a direct impact on nature, like the dumping of waste into the ocean.
Other causes are indirect. Those include demographic, economic, political and institutional arrangements underpinned by social values, and they interact with one another.
For example, vast areas of land managed by Indigenous Peoples are experiencing a decline in ecosystems at a slower rate than everywhere else. But the rights of Indigenous Peoples are being threatened, which could result in faster deterioration of these areas. This would have a detrimental impact on wider ecosystems and societies.
Trading overseas has increased by 900% since the start of the post-industrial era and the extraction of living materials from nature has risen by 200%.
The growing physical distance between supply and demand means people don't see the destruction caused by their consumption.
'Before the Industrial Revolution, people had to look after the environment around them because that's where they got their products from,' says Andy. 'If they didn't look after it, they would face the consequences.
'Now with globalisation, we have massive environmental impacts a long way from where we live. But we are insulated from these impacts, so they are abstract to us.'
Overseas trading also creates and increases inequality. The pressure for material goods comes mostly from middle and high-income countries and is often met by low to middle-income countries.
For example, Japan, US and Europe alone consumed 64% of the world's imports of fish products. High income countries have their own fisheries but most of these have collapsed. Fishing now takes place in previously unexploited or underexploited fisheries, most of which belong to low-income countries.
'With the massive increase in trade, there is no longer that imperative to make sustainable choices,' says Andy. 'We can overexploit natural resources somewhere else in the world and the magnitudes of our choices are invisible to us.'
What does the future hold?
The report analysed in detail how the world will look under three very different scenarios.
- Global sustainability: the whole world shifts towards sustainability by respecting environmental boundaries and making sure economic development includes everyone. Wealth is distributed evenly, resources and energy are used less, and emphasis is on economic growth and human wellbeing.
- Regional competition: there is a rise in nationalism with the focus mostly on domestic issues. There is less investment in education, particularly in the developing world. High-income countries will continue exporting the damage, resulting in some strong and lasting environmental destruction for future generations to deal with.
- Economic optimism: the world puts faith in new and innovative technologies that are still to be invented, which help us cope with environmental problems. Emissions will continue, but with the idea that technology will mitigate them. There will be stronger investment in health and education, and global markets are reasonably integrated with shared goals.
Combating the loss of ecosystems is going to be complex and will require a nexus approach. This means thinking about how different components of the problem such as nature, politics and socioeconomics all interact with one another.
An example of a nexus approach would be to reduce biodiversity loss by changing how we farm, while at the same time making sure people have enough food, their livelihoods are not undermined, and social conflicts are not aggravated.
The way to avoid some of these issues may be to focus on regenerating and restoring high-carbon ecosystems such as forests and wetlands. Similarly the need for food could be met by changing dietary choices and reducing waste.
Switching to clean energy is an important step which would allow other changes to happen more easily. Obtaining coal and gas involves destroying vast amounts of land and seascapes as well as polluting the environment beyond extraction.
But in order to achieve this fully, the world needs to revaluate current political structures and societal norms, which tend not to value nature. One way of doing that is by improving existing environmental policies and regulations, as well as removing and reforming harmful policies.
'I hope people can see that this is not a drill,' says Andy. 'This really is an emergency and I hope they act on it.'
The Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have decided that the IPBES Global Assessment Report will form the scientific and technical evidence base for the intergovernmental negotiations in 2020, to agree on a global biodiversity framework for the next decade and to replace the Aichi Biodiversity Targets that expire next year.
IPBES Chair Anna Maria Hernandez concludes, 'This new article makes it even more clear that we need profound, system-wide change and that this requires urgent action from policymakers, business, communities and every individual.
'Working in tandem with other knowledge systems, such as Indigenous and local knowledge, science has spoken, and nobody can say that they did not know. There is literally no time to waste.'
How are humans causing life on Earth to vanish? ›
What's causing it? The loss of ecosystems is caused mainly by changes in land and sea use, exploitation, climate change, pollution and the introduction of invasive species. Some things have a direct impact on nature, like the dumping of waste into the ocean. Other causes are indirect.Can the Earth survive without humans? ›
Unless we modify our collective behaviour and reduce our ecological footprint, it is possible that our activities will also lead to our own extinction. However, life on Earth would continue without us and biodiversity would return.What will cause human extinction? ›
For the latter, some of the many possible contributors include climate change, global nuclear annihilation, biological warfare, and ecological collapse. Other scenarios center on emerging technologies, such as advanced artificial intelligence, biotechnology, or self-replicating nanobots.How humans affect the environment? ›
Impacts from human activity on land and in the water can influence ecosystems profoundly. Climate change, ocean acidification, permafrost melting, habitat loss, eutrophication, stormwater runoff, air pollution, contaminants, and invasive species are among many problems facing ecosystems.How human extinction would change the Earth? ›
The decades following human extinction will be pockmarked by devastating oil spills, chemical leaks and explosions of varying sizes – all ticking time bombs that humanity has left behind. Some of those events could lead to fires that may burn for decades.How much longer will Earth last? ›
Four billion years from now, the increase in Earth's surface temperature will cause a runaway greenhouse effect, creating conditions more extreme than present-day Venus and heating Earth's surface enough to melt it. By that point, all life on Earth will be extinct.Why can't humans live forever? ›
Normally, as time passes, our cells undergo changes: Our DNA mutates, cells stop dividing, and harmful junk—by-products of cellular activity—builds up. All these processes together cause us to age.How many years does humanity have left? ›
How much time on Earth do we have left? The upshot: Earth has at least 1.5 billion years left to support life, the researchers report this month in Geophysical Research Letters.What are 3 ways humans cause extinction? ›
- Exotic species introduced by humans into new habitats. ...
- Over-harvesting of fish, trees, and other organisms. ...
- Global climate change, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. ...
- Pollution, which adds chemicals, heat, and noise to the environment beyond its capacity to absorb them.
Humans impact the physical environment in many ways: overpopulation, pollution, burning fossil fuels, and deforestation. Changes like these have triggered climate change, soil erosion, poor air quality, and undrinkable water.
What is the biggest human impact on the environment? ›
Global Warming and Climate Change
Among the most critically impactful ways that humans have affected the environment is our extraction and consumption of fossil fuels and their attendant CO2 emissions.
Some human activities that cause damage (either directly or indirectly) to the environment on a global scale include population growth, overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution, and deforestation.What causes the most damage to the environment? ›
Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions.What will happen if we keep on destroying our environment? ›
Food shortage as the lands become barren and the oceans become fishless. Loss of biodiversity as whole species of living things disappear due to deforestation. Pollution will eventually become unmanageable and affect our health. Rising temperatures may be too much for all living things on the planet.Why should people protect our environment? ›
Healthy ecosystems clean our water, purify our air, maintain our soil, regulate the climate, recycle nutrients and provide us with food. They provide raw materials and resources for medicines and other purposes.What would happen if all humans vanished? ›
If every human disappeared, homes would decay, animals would fend for themselves, and cities would revert back to nature. There would be no more pollution or hunting, but also no more farms or pets. Scientists would be able to find evidence of humans after 15-20,000 years.Will extinction affect humans? ›
Sadly, the extinction crisis and nature loss do affect people. And though the consequences land with disproportionate impact on some—especially communities of color and low-income people—it will leave nobody truly unaffected.How will be the Earth in 2050? ›
By 2050 , the world's population will exceed at least 9 billion and by 2050 the population of India will exceed that of China. By 2050, about 75% of the world population will be living in cities. Then there will be buildings touching the sky and cities will be settled from the ground up.Will we run out of drinking water? ›
While our planet as a whole may never run out of water, it's important to remember that clean freshwater is not always available where and when humans need it. In fact, half of the world's freshwater can be found in only six countries. More than a billion people live without enough safe, clean water.Is it too late to save the planet? ›
Global average temperatures have risen and weather extremes have already seen an uptick, so the short answer to whether it's too late to stop climate change is: yes.
Can anyone live forever? ›
Mathematically, that means the highest ages in a big enough population would be infinite — implying immortality. But in reality, there's no chance that anybody will beat Methuselah's Biblical old age record of 969. The lack of a mathematical upper bound does not actually allow a potentially infinite life span.Will humans evolve again? ›
Finally, Homo sapiens appeared. But we aren't the end of that story. Evolution won't stop with us, and we might even be evolving faster than ever.Can you live a longer life? ›
“We've had a significant increase in lifespan over the last century,” says Dr. Marie Bernard, deputy director of NIH's National Institute on Aging. “Now if you make it to age 65, the likelihood that you'll make it to 85 is very high. And if you make it to 85, the likelihood that you'll make it to 92 is very high.Will humanity survive the next 100 years? ›
Yes, almost certainly, but the factors that determine the outcome are so immensely complex that our blunt and instrumental efforts are almost meaningless. The only thing that makes a difference is the combined impact of all individual animals including humans.What species will dominate after humans? ›
Humans have certainly had a profound effect on their environment, but our current claim to dominance is based on criteria that we have chosen ourselves. Ants outnumber us, trees outlive us, fungi outweigh us. Bacteria win on all of these counts at once.Are we in a mass extinction? ›
The planet has experienced five previous mass extinction events, the last one occurring 65.5 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs from existence. Experts now believe we're in the midst of a sixth mass extinction.Are humans to blame for animal extinction? ›
Human population size - predicted extinctions rate with 96 percent accuracy. Human land occupation ("total area occupied by humans, including all major landmasses and islands") – predicted extinctions with 97.1 percent accuracy. Global temperature – predicted extinctions with 63.6 percent accuracy.When did humans start destroying nature? ›
According to this model, and the charcoal record where it is available, a relatively small number of humans began to transform most of the planet's land surface at least 3,000 years ago.What is killing the earth? ›
The five biggest threats to biodiversity are: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of natural resources; the climate crisis; pollution and invasive species. The extinction of animals, insects, plants, and all living things has huge knock-on effects.Are humans the greatest threat to the environment? ›
Related. NEW YORK (21 October 2022) – Human-induced climate change is the largest, most pervasive threat to the natural environment and societies the world has ever experienced, and the poorest countries are paying the heaviest price, a UN expert said.
How can we save our environment? ›
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Cut down on what you throw away. ...
- Volunteer. Volunteer for cleanups in your community. ...
- Educate. ...
- Conserve water. ...
- Choose sustainable. ...
- Shop wisely. ...
- Use long-lasting light bulbs. ...
- Plant a tree.
The list of issues surrounding our environment go on, but there are three major ones that affect the majority of them overall: global warming and climate change; water pollution and ocean acidification; and loss of biodiversity.How much damage have humans done to the earth? ›
Scientists have revealed that humans have already damaged as much as 97 percent of the Earth's surface ecology, and that only three percent of the planet's land remains "ecologically intact" with untouched habitats and healthy populations of the original flora and fauna that reside there.How long would it take the Earth to recover without humans? ›
They estimate it would take "somewhere between 3 and up to 7 million or more years to get back to the pre-extinction baseline," explained Jens-Christian Svenning, a professor of macroecology and biogeography at Aarhus University in Denmark, and a colleague of Faurby's who has worked on the same body of research.Can humans survive on any other planet other than Earth? ›
Essential elements of life- oxygen, water, air, etc. - are lacking on other planets. However, scientists are still searching to look for signs of life on other planets. Therefore, humans can survive on other planets only if they possess essential elements of life.What if life never existed? ›
Without life, Earth might be similar to Venus. There would be no oxygen, but abundant carbon dioxide, which could create a runaway greenhouse effect, evaporating the oceans. There would also probably be sulphur and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, resulting in sulphuric and nitric acid rain.What would happen if humans suddenly disappeared? ›
If every human disappeared, homes would decay, animals would fend for themselves, and cities would revert back to nature. There would be no more pollution or hunting, but also no more farms or pets. Scientists would be able to find evidence of humans after 15-20,000 years.How long would it take for all signs of humanity to disappear? ›
Traces of human activity could linger on to infinity. Vegetation, storms, fires, frost, rust, earthquakes and burrowing animal activity would erase most of our visible traces within a thousand years, but the ruins of some massive concrete structures might remain for millennia.How many people is too many for the world? ›
Ripple, William E. Rees and Christopher Wolf, stated that environmental analysts put the sustainable level of human population at between 2 and 4 billion people. Geographer Chris Tucker estimates that 3 billion is a sustainable number.How many times did life start on Earth? ›
IN 4.5 billion years of Earthly history, life as we know it arose just once. Every living thing on our planet shares the same chemistry, and can be traced back to “LUCA”, the last universal common ancestor.
Will humans ever leave the solar system? ›
"It's very unlikely," Matteo Ceriotti, an aerospace engineer and space systems engineering lecturer at the University of Glasgow in the U.K., told Live Science in an email. However, as Ceriotti explained, "unlikely" does not mean it's "impossible," and suggested a way it could theoretically be done.What is the safest planet to live on? ›
Besides Earth, Mars would be the easiest planet to live on. Mars has liquid water, a habitable temperature and a bit of an atmosphere that can help protect humans from cosmic and solar radiation. The gravity of Mars is 38% that of the Earth.Who is the first human on Earth? ›
The First Humans
One of the earliest known humans is Homo habilis, or “handy man,” who lived about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The temperature and atmosphere of the earth make life comfortable for the organism. Earth is at an adequate distance from the sun which gives us heat that is neither too hot nor too cold. Earth has enough amount of water, food, and air for the survival of living organisms.How rare is being alive? ›
Dying is nothing special – that reality is corroborated by math. But your being alive is nearly impossible. That probability is the same as if you handed out 2 million dice, each die with one trillion sides… then rolled those 2 million dice and had them all land on 439,505,270,846.