Echoing biodiversity calls for an Ecological Transition

Yago Santos

First published on Echoing biodiversity calls for an Ecological Transition | by Yago Santos | Medium

We are living in a constantly changing world where an ecological collapse is occurring in front of us every time, everywhere, and all at once. Maybe it’s an unusual thing that we must deal with now that previous generations never faced. Biogeochemical cycles instability, biodiversity loss, and climate change are threats to all humankinds (in plural) and the environment surrounding it.

We know that we need radical solutions to end this exploitation structure of ours and other species. People are constructing them on many fronts to an ecological transition: land reform, demarcation of indigenous land, end of fossil fuels use, vegan activism, etc. But maybe we need an ecological transition radically more ecological.

To act towards solutions, we need to know the material reality of the nature which we are a part of. We’ve been facing the effects of climate change for a while now. It’s a structural problem. In the words of the sixth IPCC report, “Human influence has warmed the climate at an unprecedented rate for at least the last 2,000 years”.¹ Let’s remember that these executive summaries are pretty “conservative”.²

The climate breakdown is upon us. After decades of scientists’ warnings and mitigation agreements, humanity lived together with the warming planet because business as usual remains.³ These negotiations have been exposed as insufficient and delaying the necessary actions. This happens through corporations and states pressure on their final versions, as happened to the last IPCC report.⁴

The climate situation always remembers us why we are living in a disaster with many names: climate emergency, catastrophe, or crisis. And while living in a climate crisis, we are coexisting with a mass extinction event and a collapse of some natural cycles.

We passed over some of the nine “Planetary Boundaries”(PB).⁵ When researchers proposed this systematization of natural cycles boundaries, they want to create a way to see the limits where humanity can operate safely in a global sustainable approach. The boundaries that were crossed were: climate stability, biosphere integrity, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use changes, new entities (pollution levels and possible/known risks), and recently, in the 2020s, freshwater stability.⁶

Bannings chlorofluorocarbons helped us to be in the safe zone for the depletion of the ozone layer boundary. Ocean acidification is close to the safety limit and already dangerous⁷, and aerosol loading was not quantified on a global safety scale yet.⁸

The lack of organized information, which delay the quantification of boundaries through time, advert us the problems of science in unifying methodologies and opens a possibility that maybe other boundaries can be proposed. But we just don’t know, as the authors also proposed in a 2015 update, the boundaries, and the methodology to do then, are not fixed and are in its final version.⁹

Because of some critics, PB has been reformulated sometimes but still doesn’t have a huge influence in the Global South.¹⁰ Others argue it is ineffective to set world boundaries for processes when we don’t know the global thresholds.¹¹ Rockström, one of the authors, said that even if PB are limited to understanding the biophysical system limits, they can provide information to change policy debates in different spatial scales, especially because is said that the methodology cannot provide planetary tipping points, more regional and local tipping points that can have an influence in the earth system.¹²

Methodological biases can be overcome with time, complementarity, and collective work. The reality is that we must deal with what we know at the moment, which is, sometimes, not enough, and with new doubts and questions that we come across.

Even with possible criticisms of PB, John Bellamy Foster has an important point about them¹³:

“Individually, each of these are planetary emergencies which all have one common denominator: The capitalist economic system. Even if we deal with one of these emergencies, we have to deal with the rest”.

In any case, one of the proponents of PB has already said that core boundaries are biodiversity and climate, and they affect all the others.¹⁴

Climate is a consequence of weather patterners and life forms are deeply connected to it. This intrinsic relation is known in many forms, from extremes weather events’ effects on life and life’s effects on the weather:

-The Role of marine microbes that fix carbon and nitrogen and mineralize organic matter.¹⁵

-Heat waves intensifying forest fires.¹⁶

-Forests producing vapor and biotic aerosols¹⁷ and Marine phytoplankton producing Dimethylsulfide¹⁸, both involved in the formation of clouds.

-Increased mass bleaching of tropical coral reefs due to higher temperatures.¹⁹

When we talk about biodiversity and climate some words appear: tropical rainforests. It happens because of this kind of forest’s capacity to store carbon and multiple life forms. As an amazônida, I’m going to use one of these forests as an example because I grew up as part of it. But the idea is useful in every ecosystem (Aquatic and terrestrial, Northern and Southern hemispheres). The biggest of them all, the Amazon rainforest is a huge part of the climate and biodiversity global discussion. Without the Amazon, is difficult to construct a livable future, but just with it is also difficult.

In Brazil, for example, people tend to focus the ecological issues on the Amazon biome and forget the other biomes’ importance, like the Cerrado Savannah, their connections to the planetary system, and the well-being of all lifeforms that exist there. On a global scale, it can happen in a hierarchization of parts of nature.

The 26th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of Parties, or COP 26, in Glasgow, brought Amazon’s importance come back to the global news. The capacity of this terrestrial biome to absorb CO₂ is huge, varying between 0.42–0.65 Petragram (Pg) de Carbon,²⁰ 1 Petragram is equal to 1 billion tons. This is equivalent to 25% of all terrestrial ecosystems’ carbon sink capacity.

Amazon is also one of the largest carbon reservoirs on Earth, storing around 150–200 billion tons of C in its organisms and soils.²⁰ To compare in scale, in 2020 we “emitted” 34 billion tons.²¹

Its carbon sink capability has erroneously given Amazon the nickname “Lungs of the World” in a misinterpretation of a Harald Sioli speech by United Press International in 1971. One of the main threats to this biome and its carbon sink capacity is very prominent: deforestation.

Today, we know that this ability to absorb carbon is decreasing in the forest, partly because it is decreasing the net productivity of the forest²⁰ (i.e. there are more pieces of forest dying than growing) and some heavily deforested areas are emitting more carbon than absorbing.²² Deforestation at slower rates is still deforestation. The biome-conserved area is decreasing over time.

Huge ecosystems, like the Amazon, have a major, but not exclusive, role in the maintenance of life. Amazon’s climate role is undeniable but, as a society, we keep looking at this capacity going down in only one kind of data: Deforestation rates. When we look at a biome in this way, without an appropriate time frame, we forget other Amazon roles in the Earth System. Besides seasonal importance through the years, Amazon has long-term importance that depends on the size of its forests.

We should stop thinking about the Amazon as a bunch of trees only without the complex system that forms it.²³ While the Amazon is discussed as unconnected from the whole and from the outside in, it can be faded to the infamous savannization process²⁴ and to the perpetuation of colonialism trying to “save” it.²⁵ Independently of its significance, the Amazon can’t carry all the world’s “conservation”.

Like other biomes, year by year, the total area of the Amazon is decreasing due to the advance of monoculture, cattle ranching, dam construction, and mining activities. This land use change can be seen in many forms: legal and illegal activities, and amnesty to environmental destruction through policies.

When a native vegetation area disappears, many species share the same fate. When a specie disappears, it vanishes forever together with its function in the ecosystem equilibrium. Species do not live evenly distributed across biomes. Some are concentrated in specific areas and we call them endemic species.²⁶

The Amazon, like all other biomes, can be separated into zones of endemism for certain groups of beings.²⁷ This shows a tendency that there are different species in each of these zones, sometimes coming from a common ancestor that generated descendants that over time became more and more distinct.

When we look at these zones of endemism together with deforestation data maps, we see that certain areas have already been much more degraded than others. Which shows that we’ve lost many unique species. With each one of them lost, landscapes of these places become less viable for self-maintaining. Forests not only store CO₂, it’s a set of organisms interacting in a complex way that in the long term make these places possible to exist. No matter how big the biome, its ability to maintain itself is not measured by the whole, but by the integrity of its parts. The fragmentation of habitats and wildlife corridors should be discussed in our land distribution plans.

An environmental colossus, the Amazon still manages to be one of the most important parts of the biophysical system that keeps the earth running. Each of these drastically affects the planet, like its importance to the water cycle in South America. The risk of collapse is higher “only” with the increase in temperature and they can reach tipping points. 15 important locations or processes passing through changes:²⁸

1. Thermohaline Circulation in the Atlantic slowing intensity.

2. Artic sea ice disappearing in the summers.

3. Permafrost in Siberia thawing.

4. Greenland Ice Sheet loss.

5. Boreal Forests consumed by fire.

6. Amazon Rainforest emits more carbon than absorbs.

7. Great Barrier Reef coral dying by bleaching.

8. West Antarctic Ice collapsing.

9. East Antarctic, the world’s most stable glacier also melting.

10. Alpine Glaciers decreasing in size.

11. Desertification of the Sahel.

12. Weakening of the North Pole Jet Streams.

13. Increasing El Niño Southern oscillation amplitude and frequency.²⁹

14. Disrupting stability in the Indian monsoons.³⁰

15. Artic Sea Ice decreases in size in the winter.

A tipping point cascade may happen. These “places”, in an analogy, are like our vital organs. Whether damaged or not, they play unique roles in the vitality of the whole. But for a body to be well, these organs need to be linked together with other parts that nourish, protect, and communicate internally. Is not just a matter of temperature change, its ecosystem crumbling down.

We need to remember that regardless of the climatic role or the “quantity of biodiversity”, all biomes need to exist for the integrity of the whole. They are not separate things. There are many types of interaction between them. Migrating species and sweet water connections are examples of it. They can be lost forever with the actual extinction event.

What we call the sixth mass extinction, even though extinctions have not yet occurred at the rate of the previous ones, seems to be happening in a frightening way. The previous one occurred over millions of years and this one occurred over a century.³¹

The red list of threatened species is just increasing in the number of represented species.³² Of course, there’s an effect of the accumulation of data but still, the number of threatened species just gets higher. Different criteria are discussed by conservationists to increase protection: Cost of protection,³³ the “charisma” of some species as propaganda to save others in the same environment, and how useful they are to humans.³⁴ Some ethical discussion of it is diluted by limited resources.

Even organizations that work with a lot of important data for the conservation of life, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), underestimate the current level of extinction, as presented by Cowie et al.³⁵ There is a question of moral responsibility in dealing with all this. Their work showed that there is a very large difference between groups of species already described and those evaluated on the IUCN red list of threatened species. It’s common to see a more well developed list of charismatic species that threatened them the ones people think are not that appealing. Maybe this is a face of speciesism.

This aspect of speciesism is reflected when we think about plants. The number of described species of plants that are threatened with extinction is bigger than the number of threatened animals.³² Also, the proportion of threatened species calculated is high, 2 in 5,³⁶ but this is not translated to action to protect them specifically.

Even when we care about endangered species, we can be treating them in a speciesism way full of utilitarianism. Bees species suffer from that. Most of the alarm, or worried speeches, are related to the economic cost of crop failure, and native bees are exchanged for more profitable ones that are carried around by trucks in huge monoculture areas,³⁷ like in California Almond farms that depend on bees trucked from other states.³⁸

Monoculture is the final step of some versions of the famous bioeconomy. It happens with açaí fruit (Euterpe oleracea). The expanded demand for açaí made it disappears from poor neighbourhoods in Amazonian cities and increased ultra-processed versions of the fruit in other parts of Brazil.³⁹ Now, some of the flooded forests, in the Amazon River estuary, became monocultures of açaí to attend to this demand, losing important natural interactions.⁴⁰

A study made with hummingbirds and plants shows the importance of these interactions in a delicate equilibrium changed by climate crisis pressure.⁴¹ Some hummingbirds are super specialized in some kind of flowers so with one disappears the other will perish together. But this effect can be increased when a specie is related to many others (key specie), a cascade of extinction can happen with a single disappearance. Both processes are called coextinction and when the relation of species is more overlapped, the effect gets worse.

Not just birds and flowers can have effects like this. The vanishing of apex predators, like jaguars and sharks can change whole ecosystems. Their absence makes an increase in “smaller” predators’ numbers, mesopredators, leading to declining of their prey and leading to local extinction and high economic and social costs.⁴² Protection and reintroduction of apex predators are being used as “banner-bearer” to protect whole ecosystems and increase their resilience to climate change, due to predator-prey interaction nuances.⁴³

Ecology, in its “hard science version”, is the study of these interactions between living beings and their interactions with non-living things. When most plans are constructed thinking about climate risks only, or worse, focusing on the carbon cycle from a simple chemical perspective, we lose a lot of how nature works and lose space to talk about it. It seems that it easily shifts society’s attention to metrics, which makes it easier for things like creating demands as carbon market and cutting emissions with any method, but distances us from the tangled feedback loops of nature that the metrics try to translate.

If we are putting the environment at the center of our “society project”, we must think that the environment is all that is or was or ever will be (paraphrasing Carl Sagan describing the Cosmos). As we do so we must rethink biodiversity. Biodiversity, in all scales, is a key element needed to a continuous survivor of all species and their natural communities, including us of course.⁴⁴

Biodiversity is divided into genetic and behavioral variations within the species, habitats, and communities’ heterogeneity and species diversity. When we talk about biodiversity, we can see that there is no hierarchy level to discuss this. Tropical forest habitats and species are as important as desert ones. Of course, they diverge in numbers but every ecosystem and the biodiversity that form it counts.

The connectivity of biodiversity through the landscape or seascape is also something crucial to guarantee wildlife continuity, inside fragmented ecosystems via swaths of native vegetation or protected areas on the water.⁴⁵ These Habitat corridors should let species disperse, migrate, find proper environmental conditions, and support the species’ seasonal needs all over the ecosystem and their transition zones, the Ecotones.

Many organizations were claiming a systemic change in the COP26 (and further ones)and previous Climate Change Conference of Parties. Surely these conferences are important events to draw attention and push other environmentalist groups to more radical solutions. But there’s an important conference of the parties that was created in Rio 92, The Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB).⁴⁶ The groups that occupy the last CDB were the companies and banks. Brazil e.g., a megadiverse country was misrepresented by its biggest extractive companies.

Conventions and agreements are being made and, besides some victories, the global situation is just getting worse. Some signed compromises are forgotten in the States project, like the Aichi Goals. The plans and speeches don’t necessarily direct the actions and changed the practices. It develops into greenwashing.

This is an example of the Science-practice gap showed by Ricardo Dobrovolski⁴⁷, where the science produced concerned by biodiversity is not translated to actions and is alienated to increase capital. While Dobrovolski says that scientists need to embrace a radical critique of our social metabolism, we need their earth system science knowledge to make this critique better. Especially with biodiversity that is disappearing faster than we can understand it. In this way fulfill the key place that science has in a sustainable society. To that we need this interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinary outlook between sciences and other ways of knowledge. We also need a science made by a diverse group of thinkers and not just specialists.

Sometimes we are proud of past individual thinkers that were polymaths, and we forget our collective capacity to do much more together. Polymath thinkers are useful for something: Find the connections and fill the gaps between proposes and solutions. But like protected areas, knowledge should be borderless, and “corridors” are needed. Protected areas and knowledge when isolated for too long may be lost forever decaying and slowing within itself.

There’s no space to discuss single or universal solutions for biodiversity. Biodiversity should be in our speeches as well as climate. Nature does not work in independent parts. We know that, but society’s projects must reflect that. We won’t build a livable world if it’s just for humans. We cannot authorize ourselves to fail with the biodiversity. But while we keep doing this, nothing will be “ecological” and we´ll have to deal with the severe consequences.

Approaching the issue of biodiversity as only a technically discussed accessory will not make a different society for all lifeforms. We must strive to secure rights for those who cannot ask them. And securing those rights in Transgenerational ways as well as we suppose be doing to our own specie. Transgenerational interspecific rights.

With this, maybe humankinds can share some of its fascination with nature wonders for more lifetimes. Maybe we’ll transform this collective knowledge about how nature works into wisdom. Maybe construct a prelude to a world out of the ecological barbarism. Maybe build the foundation of a radically ecological transition.

Special thanks to Juliana Aguilera and Adriana Lippi for the all help.


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DisclaimerOpinions expressed in articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Global Ecosocialist Network

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