EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Restoring the Earth: Protecting Plant and Animal Diversity

The two steps essential to protecting the earth’s extraordinary biological diversity are the stabilization of population and climate. If the world’s population increases to 9 billion by mid-century, countless more plant and animal species may simply be crowded off the planet. If carbon dioxide levels and temperatures continue to rise, every ecosystem will change.

Aiming for the low U.N. population trajectory, which has world population peaking at 7.8 billion in 2041 and then gradually declining, is the most effective option for protecting earth’s rich diversity of life. As it becomes more difficult to raise land productivity, continuing population growth will force farmers to clear ever more tropical forests in the Amazon and Congo basins and the outer islands of Indonesia. 53

Water management at a time of growing water shortages is a key in protecting marine species. When rivers are drained dry to satisfy growing human needs for irrigation and for urban water, marine species cannot survive.

Perhaps the best known and most popular way of trying to protect plant and animal species is to create reserves. Millions of square kilometers have been set aside as parks. Indeed, some 12 percent of the earth’s land area is now included in parks and nature preserves. With more resources, some of these parks in developing countries that now exist only on paper could become a reality. 54

Some 15 years ago, Norman Myers and other scientists conceived the idea of biodiversity “hotspots”—areas that were especially rich biologically and thus deserving of special protection. This helped the World Wide Fund for Nature, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and many other groups and governments to concentrate their preservation efforts. The 34 hotspots identified once covered nearly 16 percent of the earth’s land surface, but largely because of habitat destruction they now cover less than 3 percent. Concentrating preservation efforts in these biologically rich regions was a step in the right direction. 55

Some 30 years ago, the United States created the Endangered Species Act. This legislation prohibited any activities, such as clearing new land for agriculture and housing developments or draining wetlands, that would threaten an endangered species. There are numerous species in the United States, such as the bald eagle, that might now be extinct had it not been for this one piece of legislation. 56

As a species humans have an enormous influence on the habitability of the planet for the millions of other species with which we share it. This influence brings with it an unprecedented responsibility.

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53. United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision (New York: 2005).

54. J.R. Pegg, “Global Forces Threaten World’s Parks,” Environment News Service, 27 August 2003.

55. Conservation International, “Biodiversity Hotspots,” at www.biodiversityhotspots.org/xp/Hotspots, viewed 10 August 2005; Steve Connor, “New Biodiversity Hotspots Revealed,” Independent (London), 7 September 2005.

56. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Endangered Species Act of 1973, at www.fws.gov/endangered/esaall.pdf, viewed 10 August 2005.


Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute