Global biodiversity has been increasingly imperilled since the beginning of the Holocene, or the human age, but many scientists agree that biodiversity decline in the 21st century is akin to a sixth mass extinction. Without the transformation of many facets of society, species abundance will continue to decline, causing a disastrous ripple effect across ecological, social, and economic spheres.
This information, coupled with ever-more-troubling International Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) reports can make it feel as though all hope is lost for a livable future. To discuss mitigation strategies, McGill’s Faculty of Science is hosting the Bicentennial Mini-Science lecture series to disseminate scientific knowledge about the future of sustainability.
Andrew Gonzalez, professor in the department of biology at McGill, Liber Ero Chair in Biodiversity Science, and director of the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science (QCBS), gave the sixth Mini-Science lecture on Sept. 9 via Youtube Live Stream. Gonzalez is a prolific researcher who also co-founded the environmental consulting company, Habitat. Based in Montreal, the organization advises local communities on forest management, landscape conservation, and ecosystem evaluation.
The talk covered the history of biodiversity decline and the current challenges policymakers face in preventing environmental breakdown. Gonzalez emphasized that sustainability should aim to improve the quality of human life while preserving non-human biodiversity.
“Vital to all of this, is that human activities remain within bounds, so as not to destroy the diversity, complexity, and function of [the] ecological life support system that we call the biosphere,” Gonzalez said.
According to Gonzalez, the world operates as a “coupled social-ecological system,” where the economy and its growth are totally dependent on the productivity of the biosphere. As it stands, global supply chains for goods such as sugar, coffee, and textiles contribute to biodiversity loss, which in turn decreases economic productivity—ultimately creating a vicious cycle as long as these systems are intertwined.
“Canada also imports biodiversity loss,” Gonzalez said. “[We] imported enormous amounts [of goods] from around the world to support our diets and the commodities that we purchase. Those imports […] have an imprint on ecosystems far from here, and that imprint, [whether it be] the destruction of habitats or the degradation of ecosystems, can be accounted for and quantified in our impact.”
The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has had several negative effects on biodiversity and conservation efforts. Despite the initial decrease in pollution and claims from social media that nature was healing, not a single international biodiversity target was reached this year. The global average temperature increase stands at a worrying 1.2 degrees Centigrade and 2021 had the warmest July on record. Canada also has the second-highest impact per capita on terrestrial mean species abundance—4.3 times the global average.
After discussing the sobering details of the climate crisis, Gonzalez shifted gears, offering several nature-based solutions, both on the micro and macro levels, to reach biodiversity and sustainability goals.
“We have to extend global conservation networks by establishing more protected areas […] if we are going to bend the curve of biodiversity,” Gonzalez said. “We need to restore degraded lands [like] abandoned agricultural lands, […] and we have to base future land-use decisions on comprehensive landscape-level conservation planning.”
A part of this solution set, Gonzalez added, is to transform agricultural systems by shifting away from animal protein-based diets toward more plant-based ones.
Although a small number of corporations are responsible for the majority of global emissions, Gonzales noted that effective biodiversity conservation strategies should consist of local efforts—and especially those led by Indigenous groups given their extensive knowledge of land stewardship.
“We cannot come down from an ivory tower where we are hidden away from society and proposing top-down solutions,” Gonzalez said. “That doesn’t work. The risks are too great and the needs are too immediate.”
The presentation provided a glimmer of hope in a sea of eco-anxiety, reminding attendees that scientists have amassed a wealth of solutions to preserve biodiversity. Whether they can be adopted in time remains to be seen.