Extinction rebels with a cause

The Extinction Rebellion in Wanaka on April 24

When a band of local eco warriors took to the Wanaka tree to make a statement about extinction on April 24, there was a good level of support but also a few raised eyebrows. Environmental issues such as plastic waste and climate change saturate social media feeds and appear almost daily in many media channels. But how is the Extinction Rebellion different, and why is their message gaining traction on the leading environmental issue of climate change?

The rebellion’s message is specifically on species extinction and the ecosystems and biodiversity required to sustain human life on earth. Far from being a few dreadlocked activists working on alarmist data and fringe science, the Extinction Rebellion is backed by very convincing research from reputable sources. On April 18, the Ministry of the Environment released a report, Environment Aotearoa 2019 which provides an overview of the state of our environment. The report presents nine priority environmental issues and at the top, in the number one space, are ecosystems and biodiversity.

According to the report, “Our unique native biodiversity is under significant pressure from introduced species, pollution, physical changes to our landscapes and coast, harvesting of wild species, and other factors. Almost 4,000 of our native species are currently threatened with or at risk of extinction.”

“Our biodiversity has declined significantly. At least 75 animal and plant species have become extinct since humans arrived in New Zealand. Marine, freshwater, and land ecosystems all have species at risk: 90 percent of seabirds, 76 percent of freshwater fish, 84 percent of reptiles, and 46 percent of vascular plants are currently threatened with or at risk of extinction. The extinction risk has worsened for 86 species in the past 15 years.”

In addition to the ministry’s report, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has spent the last three years working on an 1,800-page report on the state of the world's ecosystems, the final details of which have just been signed off at the IPBES Plenary in Paris. The report examines changes to biodiversity over the past five decades and suggests a number of ways to slow down imminent high rates of extinction over the coming decades.

In reference to the IPBES report, Associate Professor James Russell from the University of Auckland said, "The IPBES exists to normalise biodiversity in the same manner the more well-known IPCC has raised awareness about the impacts of climate change. Framing biodiversity as a collective good is challenging, as it has many facets and threats to it, which has made it difficult to conceptualise in its global totality.

"The report paints a bleak picture of the current status of biodiversity and its decline over the past 50 years, but now makes clear that we can no longer say ‘we don’t have enough evidence’. The science is in and it's no longer time to debate or deny the science, but to shift to discussions about appropriate policy responses.

"In saying that, I found the framing of ‘opposition from vested interests’ as problematic, as it creates an othering where there are sides of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. I think the reality is simply that we live in a world of self-interested people, where we all live in a dissonance where our actions and desires are at odds with what the planet can sustainability provide, especially when all of us desire these things. As it has been noted elsewhere, the key here would probably be to rein in the excesses of capitalism, one of the most egregious forms of resource hoarding. It has been noted that the fundamental tenet of economics is unlimited growth which is at odds with the fundamental tenet of ecology that is finite resources.”

Anna Simmonds who is helping to coordinate Wanaka’s Extinction Rebellion said, “Yes, Extinction Rebellion agrees that the climate and extinction crises stem from an economic, political and psychological crisis, with unrestrained capitalism and colonialism some of its main root causes. The current system is, as Dr Russell says, utterly unsustainable within the limits of our planetary and ecological boundaries. Extinction Rebellion does not prescribe what another system should look like as we see ourselves as the fire alarm to create enough awareness for people to demand changes to the system, not the firefighters who figure out how to do it (yet).”

John Spicer, Professor of Marine Zoology, University of Plymouth said, “Reading the IPBES report there is a profound sense of déjà vu – in one way our general knowledge of biodiversity decline and what we can do about it seems to have changed little since the first global attempt to tackle biodiversity loss at the Convention for Biological Diversity, in 1992. But for me the key question remains how do seven billion human beings suddenly agree on an enlightened vision of caring for biodiversity, and so care for our own future? The answer may well have its seeds in the movement which resulted in more than 1.4 million young people around the world taking part in school strikes for climate change – it’s not 1992, and there is a new generation now.”

Pest control, rabbits, water management, habitat conservation, tourism growth and development are all issues the Wanaka community grapples with almost daily; one or more of these subjects is in The Wanaka Sun almost on a weekly basis. What has often been missing is a common thread that binds all those issues together. The Extinction Rebellion may well have just provided one.

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