Visualizing Extinction

Visualizing Extinction

How Long Can the World’s Most Endangered Species Last?

This week, the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly opens in New York, where high on the agenda will be progress on combating biodiversity loss—or more accurately, lack thereof.

In 2002, governments from around the world convened in Rio de Janeiro to draft the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This international binding treaty, which has now been ratified by 192 states sets 2010 as the target date to achieve a “significant reduction in the rate of loss of biodiversity for reducing poverty.”

Clearly, as this visualization by graphic designer Derek Kim illustrates, the 2010 target has not been met. In a Biodiversity Outlook 3, a comprehensive CBD report issued in May, scientists round up the sobering data: Across biodiversity’s three main components—genes, species, and ecosystems—we continue to see multiple indications of continuing decline.

  • Diversity: Nearly 25% of plant species are estimated to be threatened. Amphibians face the greatest risk, while corals systems worldwide are deteriorating most rapidly. In fact, nearly all species which have been assessed for extinction risk—i.e., “Red-Listed”—are still moving closer to extinction.
  • Population: Total numbers of vertebrates on the planet—except for humans—continue to plummet. Nearly 1/3 of the global abundance is estimated to have disappeared between 1970 and 2006.
  • Habitat: Natural ecosystems continue to decline in extent and integrity. Although we’ve made significant progress in halting loss of tropical forests and mangroves, other habitats seem to be bearing the brunt: freshwater wetlands, sea ice habitats, salt marshes, coral reefs, seagrass beds, and shellfish reefs are all showing serious deterioration.
  • Genes: Genetic diversity continues to decline—especially in agricultural systems. Just one type of cattle breed, for instance—the Holstein-Friesian—dominates the world livestock market. Few people pause to consider the importance of so-called “agrobiodiversity,” yet maintaining crop and livestock diversity is essential to a maintaining a resilient global food supply.
  • Humanity’s ecological footprint in 2010 exceeds the biological capacity of the Earth by a wider margin than at any point in history.

Why have we been so ineffective at stemming this tide of biodiversity loss? The reason is closely akin to the reason we’ve been impotent in combating climate change—just as nearly everything we do requires energy, most of our activities also destroy either organisms or their habitats. Just consider the five principle pressures driving biodiversity loss: habitat change, invasive species, pollution, population, and overexploitation—as E.O. Wilson likes to say, “HIPPO.” This means that everything—from the cars we drive (pollution), to the cargo we import (invasive species), and the children we bear (population), put drive these biodiversity loss numbers higher.

Given those sobering statistics—and our seeming inability to stem the tide of further loss—the global community will be convening again next month in Nagoya, Japan to reassess the CBD targets. Scientists of all stripes, political and business leaders, NGO’s, and indigenous groups will all be in attendance—and we will be following the story closely. We will be discussing potential solutions to biodiversity loss, including sexy strategies like realigning markets to reflect environmental externalities, and seemingly tedious ones like “ecosystem-based management” of land and sea. We will also be highlighting the emergent importance of social diversity—traditional ways of knowing and indigenous practices that help keep biodiversity intact, and which, reciprocally, keep society vibrant.

Restructuring economies and financial systems, overhauling modern agriculture, designing new energies and infrastructures less damaging to the atmosphere—none of this will be easy. Indeed, combating biodiversity loss stands to be humanities most draconian challenge yet; many scientists say it far exceeds even the climate challenge, because the causes (including global warming) are many, the consequences are equally complex.

There are widespread thresholds, amplifying feedbacks
and time-lagged effects leading to “tipping
points”, or abrupt shifts in the state of biodiversity
and ecosystems. This makes the impacts of global
change on biodiversity hard to predict, difficult to
control once they begin, and slow, expensive or impossible
to reverse once they have occurred —Global Biodiversity Outlook 3

Yet in the meantime, we’d like to offer that at the basis of many of these problems is our inability to comprehend—to visualize—what biodiversity is, how it functions, and how it ultimately affects us.

Many people, for instance, still largely think about biodiversity as the polar bear on the ice floe, or the panda on the WWF logo. Yet biodiversity underpins the entire functioning of our planet, from the soil and water cycles, to the regulation of our climate, to the food, fiber, and fuel we consume on a daily basis.

Kim’s infographic lucidly depicts one key part of biodiversity: the loss of species. Here we see the world’s most endangered species, their evolutionary relationships, and how many years they have left if no action is taken to prevent their extinction.

So we’d like to raise the challenge: How would we visualize more complex concepts like global genetic diversity, the interplay between cultural and biological diversity, ecosystem services, or tipping points?

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Promarketer's picture

Exceptional article! Thanks to you and to Derek Kim for the analysis/visualization. I detect in your tone my own incredulous frustration with our collective ability to raise the awareness/concern/caring by our own species to sufficient critical mass that moves us beyond lip-service dismissal.

I believe that the three most influential global resources (government, industry and financial)are intimately aware of this evolution, and spend infinite resources, rather than on solution actions, but on concealing and downplaying the numbers in defense of their own agendas.

How to counter this? Perhaps by better utilization of our instant/infinite web and social networking engines. How about apersona on Facebook, check-ins on FourSquare, and Tweets from displaced and impacted biologic and cultural entities?