Our favourite natural historian returned to TV screens in the UK at the weekend, with what has been heralded as a landmark new production. Extinction: The Facts presented by Sir David Attenborough, did not mince its words, offering a very real, often terrifying look at the state of our planet today.
As its name suggests, the hour-long film addressed the questions of why one million out of the eight million species on earth are now threatened with extinction (spoiler: it’s because of the actions of one species – humans); and what that means for the planet today and in the future.
Having watched the programme, we encourage you to do the same on iPlayer if you live in the UK (where it is currently available). No doubt the film will eventually be available overseas, although we have not been able to confirm that as yet. So in the meantime, if you’d like to get the low-down on what has been called a ‘surprisingly radical‘ documentary, or if you just like spoilers, we’ve curated some of the most eye-opening facts and quotes from the programme right here.
And if the realities of the damage already done to the biodiversity of the planet makes you want to take action, we’ve included some suggestions on the simple steps we can all take to help protect the planet and the species on it, at the end of the article.
(Note: All facts and quotes included in this article are taken directly from the BBC Documentary ‘Extinction: The Facts’, presented by Sir David Attenborough.)
“We’re facing a crisis, and one that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate, it even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases, such as Covid-19. It’s never been more important for us to understand the effects of biodiversity loss. Of how it is that we, ourselves, are responsible for it. Only if we do that, will we have any hope of averting disaster.” – Sir David Attenborough, Extinction: The Facts
Extinction: The Facts, a summary of what we learned
1. This is not a future crisis. It’s happening now.
Species of plants and animals are already going extinct, because of what humans are doing to the planet. Since 1500, 570 plant species and 700 animal species have gone extinct. Now, one million species out of eight million species on earth are threatened with extinction. The biggest issue is the rate of extinction. While the disappearance of species from Earth is ongoing and rates of extinction have varied over time; historically, extinction has happened over millions of years, but now, it’s happening over tens of years. In fact, it’s happening 100x faster than the natural evolutionary rate, and it’s accelerating.
2. Extinction is happening everywhere. And to everything. And it has a huge ripple effect.
From the Amazon, to Africa, to the Arctic, we are losing species of insects, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and more. And the consequences of these losses has a massive ripple effect. When you look at biodiversity, ecosystems, food chains – everything is interconnected. When you remove or damage one part of that well-oiled machine, the rest of it malfunctions. When it comes to the biodiversity machine, all parts, from the tiniest ant, to the tallest tree, to the largest whale, to the tallest branch, they are all necessary for it – and the planet, and us humans – to survive.
For example, at least 10% of insect species are at risk of extinction. The ripple effect from that loss will impact on the food chain for hundreds of thousands of other species that rely on insects to survive, as well as the loss of pollinators to ensure crops can grow. A 10% loss of insect species will effect three quarters of the world’s food crops.
Under the ground, 30% of lands globally have been degraded, which means a loss of diversity in the soil – the consequences of while could be catastrophic, as it means food production is already being impacted.
25% of our plant species are at risk of extinction. That impacts the air we breathe. the level of co2 in the air, how clean our water is. Trees are vital to intercept rainfall and hold the ground together with their roots. Where we lose trees, we gain landslides.
“All of biodiversity is interlocked on a global scale and all parts of that system are required to make it function. We tend to think that we are somehow outside of that system, but we are part of it. And we are totally reliant on it.” – Prof. Kathy Willis, Plant Scientist, University of Oxford
3. There are eight million species on planet earth, but only one species is responsible for the extinction of others: humans.
There are many ways we humans royally mess up our own home:
- Poaching. Any animal, it seems, can be bought for the right price. From rhinos, to pangolins, they are purchased as status symbols or for fantasy medical purposes.
- Over-fishing. At any one time, 100,000 trawlers are operating in our seas. The seas have been decimated of fish. Losing the smaller species of fish, like cod, has a ripple effect to the larger fish and sea animals that prey on them and depend on them for survival.
“We’re simply moving our footprint on destroying nature to another country.” – Extinction, The Facts
- Consumerism. Although population growth does have some impact on biodiversity, it is the demand for consumption that has a greater effect on the planet. The world’s developing countries have a higher population growth; but it is the developed countries, which have a lower population growth, but a higher demand for consumption, that are putting a strain on nature’s resources. Many of the products we use are produced in an unsustainable way and in places that don’t have the same environmental laws and regulations that a country such as the UK has.
“The average person in the UK consumes nearly 4x the resources of the average person in India. And in the US, it’s about 7x as much.” – Extinction: The Facts
- Climate Change. This will be the biggest threat faced by species. The Paris Agreement states that all governments should try and limit climate change to no more than 2’C. All calculations show we’re on track for a 3-4 degree rise in temperatures. Increasing temperatures force some species to move to cooler locations. Eventually, they run out of places to go.
Could reporters stop asking if political leaders “believe” in climate change and start asking if they understand it instead
— Megan Collins (@megancollins) June 2, 2017
- Destruction of habitats. 90% of the wetlands around the world have already been lost. 75% of land that is not covered by ice has already been converted. Mostly to feed one species – humans, and often humans from the other side of the world to where the clearance has happened. We are unwittingly supermarket-shopping our way into disaster, with cheap food and access year-round to a variety of food (rather than seasonal, locally grown produce). Research shows the main drivers of biodiversity loss are soy (the majority of which goes into animal feed, particularly chicken feed), cocoa, coffee, palm oil and beef. Livestock accounts for 60% of the total mammals on earth, humans 36% and wild animals just 4%.
- Humans are behind every single pandemic, so stop blaming the bats. It is human impact on the environment that drives emerging diseases. Not just wildlife trade and animal markets – which are an ideal environment for viruses to spread, due to the density of highly-stressed animals in proximity to people (when stressed, animals shed viruses at a higher rate); but also because of our daily intrusion into wildlife habitat. Forests have thousands of viruses that we haven’t come into contact with yet. Deforestation and construction that encroaches into those forests exposes humans to those viruses. And before you know it, we’re in another pandemic. In fact, according to the documentary, it is estimated that there will be five new emerging diseases affecting people every year.
“31% of all emerging diseases have originated through the process of land use change.”- Extinction: The Facts
Ok, I’m angry, sad, terrified and feeling helpless. Is there anything I/we can do to help save the planet and prevent species extinction?
We feel you. But have hope, because the answer is YES!
Extinction: The Facts gives examples of where change has happened in the past, with positive outcomes: like the replacement of CFCs in aerosols and refrigerators, with an alternative that didn’t create a hole in the ozone layer in 1996; or how governments in three East African countries collaborated with conservation organisations and local communities to save the mountain gorilla, which only a few decades ago was on the brink of extinction.
The documentary identified a number of changes that need to be made, and we have added to those the actions individuals can take towards each one below.
1. Reset the way we run our economies. We’re coming out of a global pandemic and into a global recession. But research has shown that investment in projects that are good for the environment, can also provide a strong way out of the depression with quick, labour-intensive actions that have powerful and positive economic outcomes.
What can I do?
- Write to your local representative or MP. Don’t be fooled into thinking your voice doesn’t count – one hand-crafted letter from one constituent is important (they want your vote), a handful shows there is an issue they need to address and more than a dozen will show them that urgent action is needed. Tell them what you are concerned about, what has moved you to write, include facts about the issue (you can take some from this article), ask them to represent you and be part of the solution by taking action, then tell them what action you want them to take. Always end by thanking them for their time. If you’re stuck for words, a quick Google search on ‘template letter to mp about environmental concern’ will bring up a goldmine of resources, but try to edit the templates to personalise them a bit for greater impact. You can also call your MP, arrange to meet with them, or organise a petition for greater impact.
- Use your vote. Vote for the party with the best policies on climate action. You can read their manifestos, but also look at their historical actions on the issue – have they done the things they said they would? Do you trust they will deliver on their promises in the future? Your vote matters. You matter. Use your vote.
“We’ve wasted 20 to 30 years when the governments of the world, working with the private sector, could have done a much better job conserving biodiversity. If we’d have acted more seriously, many species could have been saved and we would not be facing such serious threats as we are seeing today.” – Sir Robert Watson, Chair, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
2. Reduce food waste. The documentary called out that “we need the best of the private sector to show they can make a profit and still preserve nature” by producing affordable food without expanding any further into the forest, reducing the amount of chemicals used in food production and stopping the degradation of soils. The other part of the food puzzle is waste. 40% of the food that is produced is wasted, a lot of that is farmed fruit and vegetables that never make it to the store, because they don’t ‘look right’.
What can I do?
- Buy wonky fruit and veg! Retailers are cottoning on to the fact that people are starting to care more about the environment, and less about what their carrot looks like. Places like Imperfect Market and Wonky Veg Box cheerlead wonky fruit and veg, and even deliver it to your door!
- Ask your local supermarket to stock wonky fruit and veg. Write to them, call them, post on social media. Like writing to your MP, show your local supermarket this is what you care about, as one of their customers.
- Prevent food waste. Buy only what you need, planning your meals ahead for the week can help. Learn how to use the whole fruit/veg/meat/fish/jar/packet – you’d be surprised what is edible and delicious (like celery leaves) that we tend to just chuck in the bin (Sarah Wilson has some great tips in her book Simplicious Flow). Doing this not only prevents food waste, but it will also save you money on your weekly shop.
- Start a compost. Turn organic and biowaste into delicious, nutritious soil for your garden. Stay tuned to Earth Collective, because we’ll be sharing a how-to-compost guide really soon! (Make sure you’re on our mailing list to be notified when it’s published).
3. Dramatically change the damage we do from production and consumption. Here is where we mere consumers can make a really big impact, simply by being careful with our purchase choices.
What can I do?
- Consume less. Consume mindfully. Vote with your wallet. When you go to make a purchase, ask yourself some questions:
- Do I want this, or do I need it?
- Where was it produced?
- How was it produced?
- Who produced it?
- How were they paid?
- What materials were used in producing this?
- How did it get to where I am buying it from? How will it get from there to my home?
- Was it produced sustainably and ethically?
- What ingredients were used? Are they safe for people and the planet?
- Does the business selling this to me have a transparent and accessible sustainability policy? (and if not, write to them to ask why)
- Does the business selling this to me have any certifications to verify fair labour and eco-practices?
- Eat seasonally, buy local. It can be hard in modern life – especially in big cities – to find a traditional grocer or farm shop that sells locally sourced products. But if you focus on eating seasonally, you’re more likely to choose fruit and vegetables that have been grown in the country you live in. If you shop at a supermarket, you’ll find the labels on the fruit and veg, or on the boxes they are contained in, will give you their country of origin. If it’s not possible to find all locally-grown produce, try to choose the option that has travelled the fewest miles to get to you.
- Pay it forward. Teach the next generation about the connection between humanity and nature. Get them in the garden and spend time learning about how food is grown. Don’t have a garden? Try herbs in pots indoors. Get them outside into nature, to see insects on leaves and worms in soil. Get your hands dirty and have fun learning together!
That was a lot, we know. Take a breath and just know that by reading this article all the way to the end, you are already part of the positive change, because you care. The world needs more people like YOU. So keep going, we got this! As a collective, we are stronger.