photo of nestling red-eyed vireo on ground

With a Million Species at Risk of Extinction from Human Causes, What’s an Individual to Do?


Note: This piece was originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera on May 24, 2019.

The recently released summary of the upcoming UN report on nature describes a biosphere rapidly degrading under the profoundly deleterious influences of Homo sapiens. (Yes, the upright species with the opposable thumbs and magnificent brains.)

Most of us have seen the headlines covering one of the study’s more frightening conclusions – that humans are putting a million animal and plant species at risk of extinction. That’s one in every nine.

The summary’s key messages:

  • Nature embodies biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • Nature sustains and inspires humans.
  • Nature is deteriorating at an increasingly accelerated rate at human hands, and in turn is increasingly less able to sustain and inspire humans.
  • “Transformative change” is required to effectively address this crisis.

The authors define transformative change as “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Transformative change is a rather tall order in a world of conflict and competition, diminishing resources and increasing human population – where one human’s disappearing ice caps and starving polar bears are another’s emerging trade routes.

Spoiler alert: the humans who value nature over wealth acquisition are the only ones who can guide us out of this mess.

The good news, I suppose, is that with one in nine species at risk of extinction, we don’t have to fly to Africa or bus down to the zoo to see endangered animals. They’re right in our backyard! The study essentially asserts they’re actually inside our homes, too – get up close to a mirror to see one.

The assessment’s authors rank the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far. They are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use (2) direct exploitation of organisms (3) climate change (4) pollution and (5) invasive species.

It will not surprise you, reader, that our species is singularly to blame for these adverse impacts … though I do fault prairie dogs, too; more on that below.

I think it was Einstein who said, “Transformative change cannot be achieved by the same ninnies who created the need for transformative change.” Maybe not verbatim. The good thing is that change can happen in a generation. Perhaps we’ll lose only a half million species!

In the meantime, it’s high time for us – each of us – to get right. Those deleterious changes in land use? We’re fattening up animals to fatten up ourselves when we should be feeding our fellow humans. We need to eat lower on the food chain. More plant protein. More local. Same with “the direct exploitation of organisms.” The biggie there is commercial fisheries. Consuming more plant protein covers those first two, and arguably it’s the best thing you can do to combat climate change, not to mention that fewer wild horses and badgers and coyotes and mountain lions will be killed by ranchers and government agents in your name. And we need to buy less stuff. Stuff is not the stuff of happiness.

Now that we are surrounded by endangered species, our everyday actions can effect transformative change. This starts by valuing the wild animals and plants around us. Cherish and support pollinators. Keep cats indoors; better yet, give them access to the elements from inside a screened-in deck or porch. Domestic cats and dogs kill billions of wild animals every year in the United States. Make your windows bird friendly – a billion birds die in this country each year from window strikes. Drive carefully. Animals haven’t adapted to our highways and fast-moving vehicles. Don’t use glue traps – they are criminal, whether they ensnare a target or nontarget animal. If you see abandoned fishing line on your next hike, retrieve it. If you’re tempted to abandon fishing line/gear, just abandon fishing instead, please.

Be ready if you encounter injured, potentially orphaned or distressed wildlife. Downloading our free app. Hug your local wildlife rehabilitator. Hug a hunter, too, if you want to, but let’s modify the funding mechanisms for our state wildlife agencies so those of us who don’t hurt and kill wildlife have much more say in wildlife “management.”

Be humbled. We humans are not that great. We could be, but that would require … what’s the term? Oh yeah, transformative change! Read the nature study summary (bit.ly/IPBESReport) and the 14-page Green New Deal (https://www.brightest.io/green-new-deal).

Oh, and about those prairie dogs – I was just kidding. We have met the destructive pests, and they are us.


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