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Planet Earth's nine lives: Our planet's limits

Life in Danger - BiodiversityInformationWhat is biodiversity?Short for 'biological diversity' it means the immense numbers of different living things on our planet

This is the big one!

The world is full of animals and plants. There are millions of them. You see them all the time in wonderful wildlife programmes on the TV so how can there possibly be a problem?

In fact there are two problems:

Problem 1: animals and plants are going extinct very much faster than normal. I'll explain why shortly. You will probably have heard of many creatures which are on the edge of becoming extinctInformationExtinction is foreverExtinct doesn't just mean dead – it means gone for ever. The well known ones are usually pretty, cuddly or large with big teeth. These are the 'charismatic' speciesInformationWhat are species?A 'species' is what scientists call one particular type of any sort of life, whether it's you (human), me (penguin), or any type of life be it animal, plant, fungus or microbe and get lots of publicity; the celebs of the natural world..

The other uninteresting or tiny ones, which are just as important, get ignored or forgotten or people simply don't yet know they exist.

Problem 2: all species tend to be part of webs of life, called ecosystems. If part of the web is damaged, then the whole thing can come tumbling down. The importance of these ecosystems is that they provide life-supporting services for people. There are many examples and humans are only just becoming aware of them and their importance – just as many are being damaged or destroyed.

One of the easiest ecosystem services to understand is pollination, mostly done by bees. Wild bees pollinate most of the world's food crops. No bees, much less food for people – and bees are in serious trouble.

"The annual monetary value of pollination services in global agriculture could be as high as $200 billion" FAO

This is why I wrote a guide called Life in Danger – because much of Life IS in danger. Species are becoming extinct so fast that it's like a sixth version of the five well-known mass extinctionsInformationThe biggest mass extinctionThis was around 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian geological period. Over 90 percent of life died. I'm sure you'll know about the last big extinction: it killed off the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, probably because of an asteroid hitting the planet. But this sixth extinction is not natural: it's being caused by humans and, unlike an asteroid impact, humans should be able to stop it.

Nobody is doing it on purpose – it's just that people are only just beginning to realise how powerful they are and what terrible things they do to other life without thinking about it. So why's it happening?

  • People are taking over more and more land for farming, roads and cities
  • People are cutting down natural forests, destroying not just the trees but all the myriads of living things which live there (think orang-utans, gorillas and lemurs to name just three 'cuddly charismatics')
  • People have brought in alien species (think rats – everywhere, even on remote islands, cane toads and rabbits in Australia and kudzu vine in the USA) which kill or swamp (outcompete) native creatures
  • People are poisoning species on land and in water (think coral reefs, sometimes called the rainforests of the oceans) with pollution and chemicals used in farmingInformationDead zones caused by excess nitrogen are an example which I've mentioned in my 'Nitrogen overload' page
  • People are hunting all kinds of creatures for food or sport (this especially applies to fishing)
  • People are changing the climate so that many species of plants and animals can no longer live where they used to. There's nowhere for them to go so they die

Species are always dying out and becoming extinct. This has been true since life began. Scientists reckon that the normal rate of extinction is around 10 extinctions every year for every million species.

Since humans have started their damaging practices, the extinction rate has shot up to 100 times that rate and seems to be increasing even more. The scientists suggest that people need to bring down this rate to something like between 10 to 100 extinctions for every million species each year. This would be a planetary boundary.

That’s still a lot, you might think, but better than what's happening now. People can do something about this sixth extinction by reversing as many of the bad things as possible on that list I've just given you (above). Not easy, I agree, but it can be done by you clever humans, working together for the good of yourselves as well as all life.

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