How in the World Did We Get Here?

Notes on Simon Stuart’s presentation, “The State of the World”

By Dannie Piezas

May 17, 2022

The “environmental crisis” evokes a spectrum of images: from local disasters like wildfires to more immense and abstract issues like climate change. We can be so demoralized by such images to make us wonder: What can we do?

Dr. Simon Stuart, Executive Director of A Rocha International, only confirms in “The State of the World” that things are complicated and interconnected. We can’t begin to address one tangle like biodiversity loss without also addressing climate change. What more, environmental issues are intricately connected with societal issues.

Simon helps us to make sense of this complexity and answer the question of What can we do? by first asking How did we get here? Watch it right here:

Keep reading for a summary of the presentation. Click on a section you want to explore, and use the timestamps provided to watch that section of the video.

Presentation Notes

  • Over the past few decades, there has been massive growth in both the human population and global economy. Though many blame population growth, the growing economy has had more of an impact on the planet.
  • This impact is understood in the level of our consumption relative to the earth’s limited resources. Majority of countries are taking more than they’re giving of the world’s collective resources.
Simon Stuart
The 5 Major Pressures (4:09)

We often identify three major problems in the world:

  1. Climate change
  2. Poverty and inequality
  3. Biodiversity loss

But these are unintended consequences of our actual human demands:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Energy

… Which by extension creates:

  • A spread of infrastructure
  • Waste and pollution

Humans’ continuing, unsustainable demands worsen the environmental problems. Furthermore, the three major problems create a negative feedback loop with each other.

We’re in a big, interconnected system. Solutions need to incorporate an understanding of this big, interconnected system.

Simon Stuart
The Great Acceleration (13:01)

1950s – This was the inflection point, and the start of the Anthropocene. Previously, there was small, incremental rise in human impacts during the Holocene that turned into to large, exponential rise in the 50s.

1990s – This decade was the saturation point, when humans became the major impact on earth, and began to use more from the planet than it could provide.

An important policy-assisting tool is the concept of Planetary Boundaries, which shows how we’ve exceeded our limits based on certain measures (15:04).

“In 50 years, we tipped from 10,000 years Holocene to the Anthropocene. What we do in the next 50 years will determine the next 10,000 years.”

Tipping Points & the Paris Agreement (15:32)

A groundbreaking treaty, the Paris Agreement of 2015 decided on a target range of temperature rise. However, this range is already likely too high for coral reefs and risky for sea ice and glaciers.

We are at risk of tipping ecological thresholds. Once we cross the tipping point, we enter new global ecological states, and it will be very hard to return to a point that they can recover.

An example of a tipping point at play is the Great Barrier Reef, which already has large sections of irrecoverable, bleached corals.

Simon Stuart Simon Stuart

UN Sustainable Development Goals (18:46)

Developed in 2015, the UN outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 4 goals have to do with the biosphere:

  1. Life on Land
  2. Life on Water
  3. Clean water & sanitation
  4. Climate action

The Biosphere is at the base – if we don’t deal with these goals first, we’ll never address goals for the society and economy. The larger goal is that by 2050, we can be in a world living within planetary boundaries, in a stable and resilient earth system

Major Threats to Biodiversity (22:23)

Different ecoystems are threatened in different ways. We again see the links between the major world problems and how biodiversity is impacted by climate change and poverty.

  • Terrestrial ecosystems – Habitat loss, novel diseases, invasive species, unsustainable wildlife use & trade, pollution, and climate change
  • Freshwater ecosystems – Habitat alteration, disruption of water flow, invasive species, pollution, unsustainable use & climate chang
  • Marine – Overfishing, non-selective bottom trawling, ocean warming & acidification, deep sea mining, plastics

We are also facing an extinction crisis (25:27). Extinctions have always been happening, but the rate is three times higher today than the historical background rate.

What Do We Do? (29:13)
  • Long-termism – We must commit to places with the long view in mind.
  • Types of funding – These must also be considered with a long-term view. Existing funding models often favour projects
  • Conservation in the context of poverty – All A Rochas in a developing country started this way. Poverty & biodiversity loss are intricately linked, and we can’t work towards a sustainable future without addressing poverty & inequity.
  • Political commitment
  • Land tenure – Where people don’t have land tenure security, they are more driven to make short-term decisions. Rule of law & independent judiciaries must address this issue.
  • Leadership – This is often more important than money!
  • Deploying skills correctly, building partnershipsWe need everyone! Not just the obvious skills such as scientists and educators.
  • MonitoringWe constantly need to understand our impact through data.
  • Intractable problems – Some issues lack technical solutions at the moment – need to buy time and find solutions

Despite the dire message, Simon speaks to his hope. In his own research, he and his colleagues have found a significant difference that conservation has made to slow the decline of at-risk ungulates, or hoofed mammals (26:48). Three of the five rhino species of the world are making a recovery due to conservation efforts.

While the needs are many and our impact may seem small, every person and every step taken matters. We magnify the effectiveness of each component by bringing our efforts together, so that the tangle of issues becomes a shared work of caring for all creation.

Featured photo: Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash

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The long view in mind

Simon lists “long-termism” as one of the most important ways we can make a real and lasting difference. Some examples of ways you can protect biodiversity with the long view in mind:

  1. A Rocha is rooted in places, working towards transformation for generations to come. Supporting urgent projects is necessary, but you can also help people and places in the long term by becoming a monthly donor today.
  2. Check out the 2022 UN Biodiversity Day campaign that lists 22 actions that anyone can do for biodiversity. See how you are doing and what new practice you can start this year to help nature.
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