The “Great Dying” Has Begun. Only Transforming the Economy Can Stop It.

In their careful way, scientists are calling for an end to capitalism as we know it

Photo: Architect/Getty Images

EExtinction has threatened Earth’s plant and animal life several times over the planet’s multibillion-year history. During the mass extinction event called the “Great Dying,” around 250 million years ago, 96% of all marine species died out — gone forever.

Life is once again headed for total collapse. While coverage of last week’s major Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report on biodiversity loss rightly played up the dire numbers — an estimated 1 million species gone by 2050 — what’s truly remarkable are the solutions the authors offer in response. Ditching the timid pragmatism of technocrats, these scientists are calling for nothing less than the total transformation of the global economy. Producing for profit has failed us, they say, and failed the planet. We need a new system.

Only “transformative change” can stop massive species loss, according to the report’s conclusion. That means overhauling the global economy to prioritize human well-being and environmental sustainability rather than the pursuit of profit. “We’re not addressing the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, which is the way we organize economies, production and consumption patterns, our institutions, and our rules,” says Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers, associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University and a coordinating lead author of the IPBES report. “We need to transform the sheer fabric of our society to become more sustainable.”

Today’s great dying is happening faster than ever before, and its causes are clear: breakneck development, fossil-fueled global warming, industrial pollution, single-crop agriculture. Complex as these processes are, they point to a common culprit: A growth-based economic system bent on wringing cash from nature has exploited the planet’s ecosystems beyond what they can bear. Now, Earth’s fragile life-support system is entering a death spiral that threatens human existence and which no one is prepared to stop.

Evidence of an impending mass extinction has been accumulating for years, but this report paints an especially dire picture of the pace and scale of the crisis. Plant and animal species are vanishing at an unprecedented rate: 1 million of Earth’s 8 million known species could go extinct within 30 years. Biodiversity “is declining faster than at any time in human history,” the report’s authors conclude. And with it, the ecological prerequisites for human life are dwindling: clean air and water, healthy food, stable climates, medicines, and much more.

Efforts to slow the dying have proven woefully inadequate. Governments will miss key conservation targets in the coming years, signing death warrants for countless corals and amphibians and exposing up to 300 million additional people to dangerous flooding as coastal habitats vanish. That’s because governments, businesses, and others have failed to tackle root causes of ecosystem collapse.

“It’s inevitable that you come to conclusions like this, because that’s what the science says.”

IPBES is careful to remain nonpartisan and lays out options, not prescriptions, for policymakers. But the report’s conclusions are “in essence political,” Visseren-Hamakers says. “We’re changing the goals of our society. We want to switch the goal from making profit to living sustainably.”

The authors of the report propose “steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth,” though they “expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo.” Given that growth is the market economy’s animating principle, this is essentially code for overhauling global capitalism and angering some large corporations in the process.

Like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 Special Report on Global Warming, the new study’s frankness is history-making. After years of highlighting piecemeal reforms, the scientific community is now asking us to completely rethink modern society. Not because they’re ideological, but because they’re scientists. They go where the evidence leads.

“It’s inevitable that you come to conclusions like this, because that’s what the science says,” Visseren-Hamakers says.

Of course, the authors also offer less drastic solutions. Deep in the report, they suggest that putting a price tag on “ecosystem services” can help account for and redress the costs of treating nature like a waste dump. It’s an old idea. Factoring nature’s value into economic calculations would eliminate “perverse incentives” to pollute and give companies and governments greater incentive to conserve biodiversity. For example, carbon pricing is designed to account for the value of a stable climate. Factoring environmental costs of carbon pollution into production decisions should discourage, in theory, the use of fossil fuels that, directly and indirectly, degrade ecosystems. Though not particularly ambitious, pricing nature was once widely believed to be a pragmatic response to species loss.

“Fifteen years ago, financialization of nature schemes would have been front and center of a report like this,” says Jesse Goldstein, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The fact that such policies are not front and center marks a historic shift in tone. Pragmatic scientists and policymakers want fast, achievable solutions to urgent problems. And so, for decades, they’ve resisted calling for fundamental changes to the economic system. Even when it’s been clear that economic growth accelerates biodiversity loss, reigning in global capitalism has seemed too drastic, cumbersome, and infeasible to count as a realistic solution to the crisis.

“The overarching language [of the report] says everything’s got to change,” Goldstein says. “But the assumption is that massive, transformative political and economic change takes too much time and that technocratic and technological policy-based solutions are quicker.” But now it’s the pragmatic solutions that seem out of step with the reality of the extinction crisis. Given the deadly seriousness of species extinction, the most ambitious solutions have become the most necessary.

It would be reductive to attribute biodiversity loss solely to modern capitalism. After all, humans have destroyed environments since they learned to whittle sticks into spears and clear forests to make farms. Indigenous peoples in North America wiped out the mastodon long before they could hope to cash in on its hide. But capitalism introduces a totally different set of incentives: Once plant and animal life is viewed as a production input, a cash engine, or an acceptable casualty of profit accumulation, it makes sense to wring revenue from life until it’s gone, especially when competitive pressures reward making a quick buck.

The IPBES report makes clear that today’s great dying differs in kind, not degree, from earlier waves of biodiversity loss. Since 1900, the abundance of major species has declined by 20% globally. And since 1970, as industrial production has exploded, nature’s productivity has plummeted across the board. Species extinction is now “tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years,” the authors write.

In The Sixth Extinction, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert documents the dizzying pace of modern ecological destruction. “Just in the past century, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have changed by as much — a hundred parts per million — as they normally do in a hundred-thousand-year glacial cycle,” she writes. “Meanwhile, the drop in ocean pH levels that has occurred over the past fifty years may well exceed anything that happened in the seas during the previous fifty million.” This past weekend, air temperatures around parts of the Arctic Ocean reached 84 degrees Fahrenheit, while the concentration of CO2 eclipsed 415 parts per million for the first time in human history. No matter how unsustainable our ancestors’ societies were, ours is infinitely worse.

Amid the dying, however, the economy booms. Crop yields have increased 300% since the 1970s, per the IPBES report, and businesses are now extracting 60 billion tons of resources from the earth each year. Those resources run the gamut: oil for cars, timber for buildings, precious metals for our precious iPhones. It might be one thing if biodiversity loss were paying for better lives for everyone — an unfortunate cost of making sure everyone has a safe home, healthy food, and reliable transportation — but trends in wealth inequality tell a different story. America’s richest people have doubled their incomes since the 1970s, while working people have experienced wage stagnation and disproportionately suffered the effects of habitat loss, extreme weather, and food shortages.

Given these trends, “it’s hard to make with a straight face the argument that green capitalism is going to save the planet,” Goldstein added. What seems needed is something far more radical.

The world’s best scientists seem to agree. “The discourse on sustainability is changing,” Visseren-Hamakers says. “It’s now normal to talk about transformation, which is nothing less than a revolution.”

Casey Williams is a freelance writer covering climate, environment, and labor politics. He has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, VICE and more.

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