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 stabilization of the human population and the earth’s climate. If our numbers rise above 9 billion by mid-century, as projected, countless more plant and animal species may be crowded off the planet. If temperatures continue to rise, every ecosystem on earth will change. 59

One reason we need to stabilize population at 8 billion by 2040 is to protect this 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.

Better water management, particularly at a time of growing water shortages, is a key to protecting freshwater and marine species. When rivers are drained dry to satisfy growing human needs for irrigation and for water in cities, fish and other aquatic 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 13 percent of the earth’s land area is now included in parks and nature preserves. With more resources for enforced protection, some of these parks in developing countries that now exist only on paper could become a reality. 60

Some 20 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. 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 is now a common strategy among conservation groups and governments. 61

In 1973 the United States enacted 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. Numerous species in the United States, such as the bald eagle, might now be extinct had it not been for this legislation. 62

Another promising school of thought centers on the extension of species conservation into agriculture, urban landscapes, roadways, and other landscapes. Among other things, this protects and strengthens wildlife corridors. Wildlife action plans for individual states, developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, could be a template for this approach.

The traditional approach to protecting biological diversity by building a fence around an area and calling it a park or nature preserve is no longer sufficient. If we cannot also stabilize population and the climate, there is not an ecosystem on earth that we can save.

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59. U.N. Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision Population Database, at esa.un.org/unpp, updated 11 March 2009.

60. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), “Problems: Inadequate Protection,” at www.panda.org, viewed 8 May 2009.

61. Conservation International, “Biodiversity Hotspots,” at www.biodiversityhotspots.org, viewed 8 May 2009.

62. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The Endangered Species Act of 1973,” at www.fws.gov/endangered, viewed 31 July 2007.

Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute