Wellesley Ecologist Discusses UN Report on Animal and Plant Extinction

An arial shot of a forrest and land that has been cleared.
Photo provided by Shutterstock
June 13, 2019

Jaclyn Hatala Matthes, assistant professor of biological sciences at Wellesley, specializes in feedbacks between ecosystem processes, climate change, and land-use change. Here, she talks about a recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Q: The IPBES report has global implications. Can the average person grasp the extent of the consequences it outlines?

Jaclyn Hatala Matthes: I think that everyone finds it hard to comprehend, not just “the average person!" Recently one of my colleagues who is working on the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (first published in 1990) joked, “Are we allowed to use swear words this time around?” Slowing the deterioration of our environment is a long-term collective action problem where we can use science to observe what’s happening. And the drivers of this deterioration are the intersection of social, political, and economic systems, where the outcome is going to affect the future of humanity. That’s a lot to take in, but it’s also the reality of what’s happening. That’s also why a broad liberal arts perspective is so crucial to addressing these problems.

Q: How can collective action reverse or slow down the damage described in the report?

Matthes: The deterioration of the environment often happens in indirect, slow ways that can lack the urgent elements of spectacle that provide a clear and direct call to collective action. But to make an analogy to another collective action problem, when we don’t get the outcome that we want in an election, we certainly shouldn’t just give up! I think that after the last election, many individuals have felt even more strongly called to collective action, often through local efforts, and we need to harness that same energy for addressing environmental problems. We need to work together and engage with our institutions and communities to think about how our actions broadly impact our local, and then global, environment. 

Q: Does income inequality or social justice figure into the equation?   

Matthes: It’s definitely worth considering the amount of privilege that the “average person” must have in order to be in a position to just do nothing about environmental problems. The IPBES report highlights the intersection of environmental issues with other dimensions of social justice. We have seen recent examples of this in the United States through the indigenous-led #NoDAPL movement, and movements connected to the Flint water crisis. For those who are already experiencing the detrimental effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, being overwhelmed and doing nothing isn’t an option.

Q: Does anything in the report frighten you?

Matthes: The single thing that I find most frightening is that the deterioration of the environment will lead to increased suffering of already marginalized groups, to the economic benefit of other people.

Q: Is there a historical context for these processes through which we are killing off biodiversity?

Matthes: The top two global processes that are causing biodiversity loss—the destruction of habitat and direct exploitation of organisms—are rooted in colonialism and have happened for centuries. For example, in New England, European colonization involved the near-complete decimation of forests to create extensive farmland, which caused a cascade of species extinctions along with the genocide and relocation of indigenous people who lived here (and still do). The ecological legacies of these actions persist through impacts to our human health today: for example, the current outbreak of Lyme disease is partly caused by the abundance of small mammals and deer that harbor ticks, which are abundant due to the lack of larger predators like wolves that humans drove to extinction.

The IBPES report highlights the urgent need for “collective action for transformative change,” which needs to engage with this historical legacy of injustice embedded in previous environmental decisions (tied up in social, political, and economic decisions). Looking to the past will help us to recognize the fact that although the intensity of pressure on ecosystems has increased quickly over the past 50 years, changes to ecosystems are rooted in these historical actions. The world of the future is going to look different from the world of the present and the past, and with respect to biodiversity and climate change we’re at a critical point of action to influence outcomes within that future world.

Q: What steps can individuals take to address the problem?

Matthes: Eat less meat and waste less food. Food represents a critical trade-off for our species—we need to balance our needs for energy, which are growing with population size, with the impact that this harvest has on our ecosystems. Currently, 40 percent of Earth’s land is used for agricultural fields and pasture, and in the United States, 40 percent of the edible food that we buy ends up in the garbage. When we eat meat, energetically that’s less efficient, because the meat that we’re eating came from an animal that had to eat a heck of a lot of grain in order to produce a quarter-pound of hamburger. And then if we throw 40 percent of that meat into the garbage, that’s wasted energy that could have gone to feeding other organisms (including other people).

Photo: A destroyed rainforest in Borneo, Malaysia, makes way for oil palm plantations.