The State of the Natural Planet in 2016: less important than Great British Bake Off?

On 27th October, the Living Planet Report 2016 was released. The report itself was alarming, but the reaction to it, even more so. The report revealed some startling figures and a scientific idea that could fundamentally alter our worldview – that we are now entering a new geological era. Yet by 28th October, it was old news. The morning after the report’s release, we had already moved on to reading about Skype sex scams, Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing and whether a photograph had papped Tom Hanks or Bill Murray. What’s causing this disconnect between humans and nature, and how can we bridge the gap?

Taking stock: the state of the natural planet

The Living Planet Report (LPR), written by WWF in collaboration with Zoological Society of London (ZSL), provides a science-based analysis of the health of the natural planet. It is based on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures biodiversity abundance levels on 14,152 monitored populations of 3,706 vertebrate species. An average LPI decline of 58% was reported, with declines of 38%, 81% and 36% in terrestrial, freshwater and marine populations respectively (Figure 1). The report also predicted that by 2020 we would see an average decline in species populations of 67% [1].

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Figure 1: Declines in LPIs. Lines show index values and shaded areas represent the 95% confidence limits surrounding the trend. Data obtained from the LPR.

The current threats faced by the natural world include climate change, overexploitation, habitat loss or degradation, invasive species and disease, and pollution. The major threat to both terrestrial and freshwater populations was found to be habitat loss or degradation, whereas, marine populations were most severely affected by overexploitation.

This year’s report focussed on risk and resilience in a new era – the Anthropocene. Scientists believe we have now entered this new geological epoch as a direct result of human activity. This poses risks, both to wildlife and to humans, and will require a more resilient planet, where human development is decoupled from environmental degradation.

Public reaction: the good, the bad and the ugly

While some read the report and immediately asked what they could do to help, others chose to criticise the findings. This criticism was valid, although the media must also take some of the blame for misleading headlines. The report states that “on average, populations of vertebrate species declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012”, however BBC’s headline read “World wildlife ‘falls by 58% in 40 years’”. Some may interpret this as meaning we have lost 58% of the world’s species to extinction, when in fact the report only ever refers to declines in the LPI, and hence, population abundances. This should encourage readers – in general if species are not completely vanishing, there is still the possibility to take action to reduce these declines.

Summing up wildlife loss in just a single number is also somewhat sweeping, although likely designed to grab the public’s attention. The 58% decline reported is an average of the Terrestrial, Freshwater and Marine LPIs, which range from 36%-81%. These numbers are arguably too different to result in a representative average. While the authors state they used the best data available from across the world, there are significant gaps. The data used is primarily from western Europe, with information from South America and the tropics distinctly lacking. Such skewed data may not be reflective of the global pattern.

But the worst reaction of all? Public apathy. The morning after the report was released, the LPR only featured in one major news website’s ‘Most Popular’ section, and even then, it was in 7th place behind Great British Bake Off and the Tom Hanks/Bill Murray debate. It was not a trending topic on Facebook, Twitter, nor did it feature in the main stories on the BBC, Telegraph or Independent websites (Figure 2). Does this mean green fatigue has reached an all-time high?

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Figure 2: The most popular articles and trending topics on the BBC website, the Independent website, Twitter and Facebook the morning after the report’s release. Screenshots taken on 28/10/16.

Mind the gap: society’s disconnect from the natural world

Many environmentalists believe that we have become distanced from nature, and in doing so we have lost our understanding and appreciation of the natural world [2]. How can we hope to protect something we no longer know and love? Studies have shown people are increasingly less likely to have direct contact with nature in their everyday lives and this ‘extinction of experience’ can discourage positive emotions towards the environment [3]. As well as causing a cycle of disaffection toward nature, our alienation from the natural world has led to deteriorating public health and well-being [3].

Another problem with our perception of the natural world arises from shifting baselines syndrome (SBS), and this is particularly an issue in children. Each generation accepts as a baseline the health of the natural planet that occurred at the beginning of their lifetimes, and uses this to evaluate changes (Figure 3). Long-term changes to the environment are unrecognised and our expectations of ecosystem health are increasingly lowered [4].

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Figure 3: The Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Credit: Dr Daniel Pauly, UBC Fisheries Centre.

These factors coupled with a “they don’t care, so why should I?” mentality mean many people show an increasing apathy, or even denial, towards environmental concerns, and this state of mind may well be the silent killer that seals the fate of the natural world.

Bridging the gap: can a cause become a solution?

We have seen unprecedented technological development in recent decades [2]. This is frequently blamed for societal disconnect with the natural world, as people would now rather play Angry Birds on their smartphone than go outside and see actual birds (Figure 4).

kid-using-iphone

Figure 4: Children spend more time indoors playing on smartphones than they do outside interacting with nature. Photograph by Alamy. Source: Mail Online.

However, could our love of apps now be the very thing that re-connects us with nature? There are an increasing number of apps available that allow users to identify species, record sightings and learn about the conservation status of threatened species. For example, ZSL’s ‘Instant Wild’ app (Figure 5) allows users to view live photographs and identify species from conservation sites around the world, while Birdguide’s ‘Bird News Anywhere’ app provides up-to-date information on rare bird sightings and tips for finding them in the wild.

instant-wild

Figure 5: A screenshot of the ‘Instant Wild‘ app that encourages citizen scientists to identify species from conservation sites around the world.

If anything can be learnt from the ‘Pokémon GO!’ craze, it is that people are still willing to be active and go outdoors. Perhaps similar augmented reality technology could be used to get society going in search of local wildlife. And maybe after seeing the natural world through a screen, they just might start to take an interest in its protection.

Got any suggestions? Feel free to leave a comment with what you think is the best way to re-connect society with the natural world! 

References

  1. WWF (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.
  2. Seppelt R & Cumming GS (2016). Humanity’s distance to nature: time for environmental austerity? Landscape Ecology, 31(8), 1645–1651.
  3. Soga M & Gaston KJ (2016). Extinction of experience: The loss of human-nature interactions. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14(2), 94-101.
  4. Klein ES & Thurstan RH (2016). Acknowledging Long-Term Ecological Change: The Problem of Shifting Baselines. Perspectives on Oceans Past. K Schwerdtner Máñez & B Poulsen. Springer Netherlands, 2016. 11-29.
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