What is a “Planetary Boundary” and why is it important? Link to the introduction article on this topic. The “Planetary Boundaries” is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.
For the biodiversity support system, the choice was to measure this as the extinction rate: How many species disappear every year? Specifically as “species lost per million of species per year“.
Looking into the fossil record, we can estimate the biodiversity loss over time, and look at what is a sustainable/recoverable extinction rate, leading back to the a stable equilibrium with new species forming.
The Earth always loses some species every year, and new ones are formed through cross-overs and mutations. However, when destruction outpaces species forming, we have a problem.
For each Planetary Boundary, there is an indicator with four numerical values (in brackets the numbers for the biodiversity loss):
- pre-industrial value of the indicator (loss of 1 species/million species/year)
- current value (loss of > 100 species/million species/year)
- safe zone value (try to stay inside this value – marked in green in the figure) (10 species/million species/year)
- catastrophe value (if we pass this, we are doomed – marked in red in the figure) (100 species/million species/year)
The Five Extinctions in the past
Elizabeth Kolbert has written about the five prehistorical extinctions that we know, and what is going on today. Five times, during the time of advanced life on Earth, the planetary system has been put out of balance with enormous extinctions as a result.
The most famous one was when the large dinosaurs disappeared some 60 million years ago. Science suggests it was an immense asteroid impact in Yucatan, Mexico. Small mammals and birds survived, and we are one of the species who appeared in the aftermath. (Most species that have walked the face of the Earth, or swam in the Sea are extinct. Some in the five great extinctions, some in the dull periods in between. We humans will also go extinct. It typically takes a million years, and since we have been around for 100,000 years or so, we could have quite some time ahead.)
What is special this time is that it is not a volcano or an asteroid driving the extinction. The “natural disaster” is our civilization.
We are the Terminators. We humans drive species into extinction at the same rate as the Yucatan asteroid.
We kill our fellow Earth-species, one bite at a time.
A handful we really eat away at, like tigers, but most are collateral damage in the chemo-industrial agriculture. We cut the rich forests and plant corn. We strip the prairies, spray herbicides and plant soy.
We bulldoze the creeks and plant wheat.
Mainly as a feedstock for meat factories.
80% of all agricultural lands are used to produce animal feed. On average on the planet, we eat more than 40 kg meat per person per year. 
Most of the feed is produced with pesticides, in devastating monocultures. Most of the feed goes into confined concrete factories where thousands of animals lead a life of misery, until butchering and ending up in our Supermarkets. (Let’s leave the moral point of maltreating animals here. And we will come back to the effluent of meat factories in the installment of Planetary Boundaries of Eutrophication / nitrates and phosphates in the surface waters.)
Meat is a fantastic food product, but we kill ourselves and the planet in our barbaric pork-and-chicken-binge.
State of the Planet
We are losing biodiversity at a staggering rate, especially since the 1970’s and it is most likely completely unnecessary. In a small and intensely industry-agriculturalized country like The Netherlands, there is not much left. 85% of the “Mean Species Abundance” has been lost.
In our travels in Asia we have seen bountiful forests razed and replaced with corn. Forests that have developed for tens of thousands of years, with amazing diversity. Now there are only small pockets left, like this forest in Khao Yai, Thailand:
Well, it is not really possible to get any extinct species back. Those who are gone are gone, despite the sci-fi stories of the Jurassic Parc. And the endangered species have very few individuals left, so the genetic robustness is far from ideal. We need to limit the damage and allow species to recover and recombine into new combinations, as has always happened.
Therefore, the first step is to reduce the area of growing annual grains for animal feed and plant trees. We need to recreate habitat. Lebensraum. To achieve this, we need to reduce meat consumption, since that is the dominant areal user.
We can go back to the situation of 2001, when average meat consumption was 15% less, as a starting point. In no time, we can rebuild vast areas of refuge (300 million hectares!). If we go down even further to a more healthy diet, we also have plenty of space for lots of healthy vegetable gardens everywhere!
The second step is to stop using agricultural pesticides. Go organic. Last week an article in Science came out that showed that neonicotinoid insecticides are present in 75% of all honey that was sampled from all over the world. The “precision agriculture” with minimal impact is a myth. The pesticides break down slowly and spread through our waters and kill/weaken wherever they come.
My proposal is that we handle chemical industrial agriculture as an “Asbestos-problem”. We in society made a mistake in the 1960’s and we should solve it together. We need to put some tax money in a pot and help farmers to switch over, and strengthen the legal limits.
The third stage is to produce healthy food in a circular way. Agriculture in balance with ecology to strengthen the soils – a.k.a. agro-ecology. There are innovative farmers who build rich soils using animals, trees, bushes and grasses. They develop new ways to cycle nutrients, where our participation as eaters is just one step of the nutrient dance.
(We are also a kind of earth worms.)
What can I do?
- Eat less meat. Buy organic meat. If you can from a farmer you trust.
- Join a political party and drive policy for a transition to organic farming and creation of wildlife refuges.
- Support local agro-ecology projects. Find an organic nut grower, or join an agro-ecology interest group.
- Grow a garden. (Simplest starting micro-garden: Get some compost and get started right away. Put a handful of garlic cloves in the dirt, and you will have plenty of delicious garlic greens to eat as soon as spring comes.)
- Plant some trees. Try a vegetable tree like the “lettuce tree“!