What we learned from Sir David Attenborough’s Extinction: The Facts

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In contrast to his previous Blue Planet series, the latest documentary of the UK’s favourite naturalist presents a difficult, hour-long examination of the ways in which humanity is driving a sixth mass extinction, and how this loss is affecting us in turn.

Extinction: The Facts, aired on BBC 1 on September 13th, not only teaches us important facts about the ecological disaster humans are causing to their own planet, but also ways in how to overturn it.

Here are some of the important things we learnt from Sir David Attenborough about how species extinction threatens human progress.

  1. Biodiversity loss can lead to pandemics

“Scientists have linked our destructive relationship with nature with the emergence of COVID-19”, Attenborough says. The fact that humans encroach more and more on natural habitats creates a proximity with wild animals that increases the risk of new virus spreading from animals to humans. In fact, 31% of emerging diseases have originated from land use change, for example when clearing rainforests to use land for cattle farming.

  • Plants are at risk

University of Oxford plant scientist Kathy Willis highlights in the show that one in four plants assessed in the UN’s 2019 global study of biodiversity are at risk of extinction.

Plants are crucial to our food, water and air quality. Trees regulate the water flow across landscapes, which stabilises the ground and prevents landslides. Even in the UK where the climate is mild, the disappearance of marshy wetlands that could absorb rainwater has caused floods to increase.

  • The illegal animal trade is skyrocketing

Poaching and illegal wildlife trade has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, with animals like rhinos and elephants being regularly killed. But the most traded animal is the pangolin, a mammal covered in scales. Traders claim their scales have medicinal properties, but ‘pangolin scales are just made of keratin, like our fingernails’, says Iris Ho, a wildlife specialist at the Human Society International. The programme revealed over 175,000 pangolins were killed in 2019.

  • Overfishing is depleting entire parts of oceans

Prof. Daniel Pauly from the Institute of Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, Canada, explains that waters around major fishing countries – like China, Indonesia and the US, are being emptied, and the populations are not recovering.

For example in China, the waters have now about 16% left in fish levels of what they had 120 years ago. Around Britain, there is only 5% of trawler cod fish left compared to the turn of the 20th century.

  • Consumption is the problem and the solution

Attenborough explains that while the major share of population growth comes from developing countries, the pressure on resources is coming from developed countries.

The average Briton consumes four times more resources than the average person living in India. The way we produce and dispose of things has a major impact on our environment. Waste is also one of the most important issues: Watson, who led the UN’s 2019 study on biodiversity loss, says we waste 40% of the food we produce. If we reduced our consumption and waste, we could build far more sustainable supply chains.

  • We can change

The pandemic has put the world on pause, and as we move forward, now is the time to change the way we run our world.

We need to act both at the individual and collective level. Nations need to collaborate in making and respecting environmental protection laws and investigating global supply chains. The green economy should be a priority for every government, as it will create new jobs and make our transportation system, buildings, and food more sustainable.

At the individual level, we must carefully think about our consumption behaviours, including what we’re buying, where from, and how often.

As Kathy Willis puts it: “Everything is joined up, from a single pond to a whole tropical rainforest. We tend to think we are somehow outside of the system. But we are part of it; and totally reliant on it.”