The State of Biodiversity: Reflections on the Living Planet Index and the Short History of Modern Environmental Progress

by Galen Guerrero-Murphy on September 4, 2012

Green Turtle

With so much doom and gloom surrounding biodiversity and environmental issues, I was pleasantly surprised to find some glimmers of hope in this year’s Living Planet Report (PDF, 16.2MB). The Report, prepared by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the European Space Agency, and the Global Footprint Network, summarizes changes in the health of biodiversity over time since 1970 (measured through the “Living Planet Index”) and also provides an estimate of our growing, global ecological footprint.

Overall, the news is somber. The global Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures changes in the abundance of 9,014 populations of 2,688 vertebrate wildlife species around the globe, shows an approximate 30% decline in relative, global species abundance between 1970 and 2008. This is bad news for biodiversity.

Living Planet Index 2008

Living Planet Index (LPI), WWF & ZSL, 2012

Additionally, the report concludes we are using the equivalent of 1.5 Earths to support our daily activities, which is otherwise known as our Ecological Footprint. In other words, we are using Earth’s renewable resources at a rate far exceeding their natural regeneration, which, if continued, will eventually lead to their depletion.

But not all is grim. Let’s take a closer look at some of the hopeful results.

Growing Abundance of Temperate Species, Species in the Palearctic Realm & Species in High Income Countries

The Living Planet Index offers some positive news for temperate wildlife species. While the global index of species abundance has declined, the abundance of temperate species has increased since 1970.

(Temperate regions lie between tropical and polar latitudes, and include the United States, Europe, northern Africa, and most of China.)

Specifically, temperate terrestrial species abundance increased by 5%. Temperate freshwater species abundance increased by 36%. And temperate marine species abundance increased by 53%. This is based on observed changes across 1,518 temperate wildlife species. Good news!

Surprising to me, the data also indicates species abundance in the palearctic biogeographic realm grew by 6% since 1970. This region includes northern Africa, all of Europe, the northern Middle East, most of China, and Japan.

Additionally, total species abundance in high income countries increased by 7%. This includes 70 nations around the globe, including the United States, most of Europe, Australia, and others.

How Did This Seemingly Good News for Biodiversity Come About?

The Living Planet Report states with good reason that one possible explanation for growing abundance of temperate species is that most habitat destruction and alteration in temperate regions occurred prior to 1970, the first year of measurement. Thus, the growing abundance of species in these regions is not necessarily indicative of a healthy state of temperate biodiversity. Rather, all we can conclude is that the state of biodiversity in these temperate regions has improved some since its terribly dismal state in the mid-20th century.

Now, while it is true that massive land conversion had mostly occurred prior to 1970 in temperate regions, this general explanation doesn’t offer much as to why temperate marine species are fairing better, nor does it explain how increases in temperate species abundance occurred alongside the slow, perpetual expansion of the human-built environment.

So what else has happened? Well, the Index’s starting time period of measurement (1970) happens to coincide with the birth of the modern environmental movement.

The Birth of Modern Environmentalism

September 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her groundbreaking work is often heralded as the trigger that started the modern environmental movement. Her book explored pesticide use and environmental harm, and it resulted in the emergence of a truly new and widespread awareness of and distaste for chemical agents. She wrote:

…the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm–substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germs cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.

WWII Soldier Applies DDT to His Friend

In an effort to prevent malaria, a World War II soldier applies a healthy dose of DDT to his friend. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Posing questions just as relevant today as they were in 1962, Carson wrote:

How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought threat of disease and death even to their own kind?

And:

The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

Good question…

In 1970, eight years years after the publication of Silent Spring, the United States National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law. NEPA requires to this day that the environmental impact of federally led or authorized projects be reviewed and minimized in the US and abroad.

Several months later, the US government formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

And then…

1970 – Clean Air Act (amendments)
1970 – Resource Recovery Act
1972 – Clean Water Act
1972 – Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act
1972 – DDT Banned (with rare exceptions)
1973 – Endangered Species Act
1976 – Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
1977 – Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act (amendments)
1980 – CERCLA (Superfund)
1986 – SARA (Superfund amendments)
1990 – Clean Air Act (amendments)

…plus much, much more. Environmental laws and regulations have emerged at the federal, state and local levels to protect our water, our air, and our land from risky, irresponsible, or short-sighted behavior. And it is worth emphasizing that bipartisanship in the US has made such environmental progress possible, with NEPA being signed into law and the formation of the EPA occurring under, yes, Richard Nixon.

Similar policy trajectories in temperate regions can be observed across the globe.

These policy measures have no doubt had a incredibly beneficial effect on the state of biodiversity within their spheres of influence. It is no coincidence that temperate species abundances have increased since 1970. Such environmental progress has come about only through persistent, progressive, and precautionary policy advocacy and rule making, which has stimulated environmentally-preferable technological advancement, more benign human development, and environmental stewardship.

An Urgent Call for Further Action

The point? Environmental policies and regulations have played a critical role in improving the state of biodiversity, including our own species’ health (humans are, after all, members of biodiversity!). Substantial achievements have been made. Yet much more must be done.

For instance, according to the Living Planet Index, tropical species abundances since 1970 are estimated to have declined by an astoundingly dismal 61%. And while temperate species abundances have been slowly increasing, we still see countless species facing the threat of extinction.

Businesses and governments (…people in leadership roles) have a unique responsibility to help align human progress with biological and ecological preservation. And no single institution can tackle the environmental issues of our day on their own. Thus, calls to abolish the EPA or draw down environmental regulations are foolish and counterproductive to flourishing economies. So, too, are notions that businesses have no part in stewarding positive change.

Modern environmentalism is still in its infancy, especially in developing nations and tropical regions, but we know a good deal about what must be done. Global regulatory responses are needed to ensure environmental regulations in one region don’t result in the “offshoring” of impacts to other regions (the US is terribly guilty of this behavior, and I wonder how this must have contributed to the divergent trends in tropical versus temperate biodiversity…). They are needed to address the unique economic and environmental challenges of nations, and to ensure tropical habitats do not continue to be degraded and depleted through perverse and exploitative economics.

Fifty years after Silent Spring, bold and steady commitment to environmental health has brought about real change. But we need more, now more than ever! This is easier said than done, yet it is certainly within our collective grasp.

Thumbnail photo by Kjersti Joergensen via Shutterstock.com.

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Jane September 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm

All of the “rules and regulations” made by “environmental help agencies” are an absolute waste if they are not enforced. This needs to start in Washington and abided by “our elected politicians”!!!!

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Galen Guerrero-Murphy September 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Jane, thanks for your comment. So much of my job as an environmental consultant is to make sure environmental rules and regulations are implemented or abided by in the US. From my vantage, they are working as designed for the most part, and they’re doing a lot of good. The question I ask, however, is how can we improve and enhance them to work better–to be more effective and pragmatic–and to progressively support the possibility of sustainability.

There’s a lot of talk about limiting the scope of our environmental regulators and regulations for the sake of the economy–this is irrational back-peddling on the short yet impactful legacy of environmental improvement and advancement (which has had tremendously positive impact on the economy). Consider the recent controversy stemming from attempts to regulate greenhouse gases, despite what we know of the risks posed by climate change and the recent history of great success we’ve had in regulating air pollutants, such as in the Acid Rain Program (controlling sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) or protection of the ozone layer (controlling CFCs and other ozone depleting substances).

Ever-expanding environmental regulation is integral to the short history of modern environmentalism, a multi-partisan movement. Now, it is true that environmental regulations can cost some industries, causing money to move around in the economy (but it doesn’t disappear). And that money is way too powerful right now, creating an overhyped “down with environmental regulation” attitude in the big-money-controlled media and among many of our politicians. But when we consider all stakeholders, environmental progress reduces total cost in the economy and ensures a healthy future for all citizens and our cohabitants on Earth. And with our perseverance, progress shall continue.

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Mark January 29, 2013 at 7:29 pm

There is some discussion in California regarding updating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which was also birthed in 1970 (and signed into law my none other than Ronald Reagan!). The logic for an update, which I think makes sense (I’ll explain why) is that at the time that CEQA was enacted, it was essentially THE environmental law. Since then, there are many state and federal environmental laws that work to protect environmental resources (i.e.: endangered species act, clean water act, clean air act). This is also apparent from the progression of laws that you list after NEPA was enacted. So why update CEQA? Whereas there are many benefits that CEQA provides, not least of which is the public involvement that is required, you also end up with significant and unnecessary overlap with the other laws (not to mention the local agency plans and policies) which provides no benefit toward environmental protection, but rather creates more layers for a project to dig through and more opportunities for legal challenges. Environmental groups are concerned about updates that would weaken environmental protection (partially because of the fear that certain unnamed groups push to “abolish” agencies and environmental laws), but I think if done correctly and with good intentions, the law can be made to work better without putting the environment at risk.

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Galen Guerrero-Murphy January 31, 2013 at 10:13 am

Nice, thoughtful comment. I certainly agree that more efficient yet effective law is needed, and I share your perspective that the vast complexities and overlapping systems in current legal systems and bureaucracies do not necessarily afford MORE protection and can actually do the reverse. I haven’t followed the CEQA update discussions–I’ll have to look into it.

You might be interested in the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s (CELDF) efforts to build power at the local level. There’s a recent article in The Nation that I highly recommend reading, view it here. CELDF co-founder, Thomas Linzey, states in the article, “In many ways, the regulatory process is intended to exhaust communities, because it does not recognize—and neither does the broader structure of the law recognize—that communities have any power to make those fundamental decisions about energy or transportation or agriculture.” Citizens could delay but not stop projects; the law was “merely regulating the rate at which the environment was being destroyed.” Food for thought. We want simple, yet effective law that balances the interests of all stakeholders, and I wonder how further decentralizing (fragmenting) the regulatory system could help and how it might create unintended consequences. A future post…

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