Aiming Higher: Drawing Hope From The 2018 Living Planet Report
Every two years, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) publishes the Living Planet Report (LPR), which is meant to serve as a comprehensive overview of any trends in global biodiversity and as an indexed measure of the general health of the planet. Back in 2014, we covered the 2014 LPR and found the conclusions to be “bleak.” In the latest edition, the WWF says that scientific evidence they’ve compiled underlines “what nature has been telling us repeatedly”: human activity is pushing the planet’s natural systems to the edge, and perhaps past it.
First, the bad news: almost 20% of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared in just 50 years, and the global average temperature has skyrocketed 170 times faster than the background rate of temperature increase in the same time period. Meanwhile, six billion tons of fish and “seafood” have been pulled from the world’s oceans since 1950, and freshwater fish have the highest extinction rate worldwide among the vertebrates. Perhaps most shocking (and what the media picks up on the most) is that, in less than 50 years, we’ve seen an overall decline of 60% in vertebrate population sizes.
Despite these dire figures, some advocates have pointed out quirks in the LPR’s methodology that demand a second look. In particular, one analysis presented by the National Geographic notes that, while still dire, the media have “widely misinterpreted” the report. It notes that the LPR’s index weights results by species, and that this method can lead to confusion as detailed in the following description:
Let’s say for example you have 50 tigers, 200 falcons, and 10,000 squirrels. Let’s say the first population declines by 90%, to 5 tigers. The second declines 80%, to 40 falcons. And the squirrels drop to 9,000—a 10% fall. That’s a 60% average decline of these three fictitious populations, but only a total decline of 12% of the individuals.
For their part, the National Geographic notes that the WWF report makes this math clear. But, it’s a good reminder to advocates that the media are not necessarily scientists or statisticians, and that they can be just as prone to misinterpreting data as lay people can be.
Is there any good news in the report that can’t be chalked up to playing with stats? As with the 2014 edition of the LPR, the biggest silver lining is perhaps that, despite this trend towards a precipice, we are not too late. The WWF encourages environmental advocates to be part of a “new deal” for the planet, “one that provides a blueprint for biodiversity and for people to 2050 and beyond.” The WWF is launching an initiative called Bending The Curve Of Biodiversity Loss with a consortium of nearly 40 universities to help identify problems and solutions.
For animal advocates working solo or in smaller groups, the problem may seem intimidating and impossible, but it will take many kinds of advocate working all over the world to turn the tide. We encourage advocates at all levels, whether working alone or as part of larger organizations, to check out the full report, and to identify areas where they may be able to contribute to the effort themselves.