Charting the decline of the world’s wildlife

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the Living Planet Report and wrote that it contains two of the most important graphs in the world. The first shows the earth’s biocapacity and how we are overshooting it. The second is this one:

This is the Living Planet Index. The index takes trends in 10,380 different populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, some 3,028 vertebrate species in total, and amalgamates the data into a single figure for global wildlife. By tracking this over time, we can see how the world’s wildlife is faring.

The results are pretty shocking. Since 1970, the world’s wildlife populations have halved.

I find that quite extraordinary. What is also extraordinary is just how unaware we are of what we’re doing. (And it is our doing. The leading causes of this decline are exploitation through hunting and fishing, habitat degradation, and habitat loss.) You might think a finding like that would make headlines, but coverage was pretty muted. It got a mention here and there, even on the front cover of the i and the Telegraph, but the media were busy picking over the Conservative party conference. Any attention it got was rapidly eclipsed by politics, ebola or IS, the curse of any long-term, big-picture story in the eternal ‘now’ of news culture.

Obviously there’s a fairly wide margin of error here, since nobody is going round counting every animal in the world. And it’s easily misunderstood – an average decline of 52% across wildlife populations doesn’t necessarily mean there are literally half as many animals in the world, which is what some reports imply. Neither does it mean that half the world’s species have gone extinct. The decline is much more pronounced in some parts of the world than others.

But whichever way you square it, the fact remains that children today are inheriting a less vibrant, less wild, less alive planet than the one their parents were born into. And that is a tragedy.


8 Comments on “Charting the decline of the world’s wildlife”

  1. m. October 20, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    Now pair above words to your mentioning a report on “progress” of a few days ago, not questioning the yardstick of progress in depth, but brushing over the results rather. Do you see the incoherence of your write-bites pairing the two? That’s called a bend. You are supposed to be read by intelligent people …supposedly to be fed a diet of knowledge that is thoroughly questioned.

    The larger context of the planet is not met in the first article talking about progress, the “progress” of a few days ago cannot be fed back into the loss of bio-diversity of today. Adapt your language and content or be in-congruent. You cannot count on “respectable” sources to consider the larger context in this case, including the issue of biodiversity into what they measure as progress, you better should.

    Consider your errata, announce your mistakes, be consistent and academic in the right sense then add the layer of passable language to be understood by lay people that are them, on their turn imprisoned in a mold of not enough energy, time, economical means to do their own research, and pair it to the research of others, as intelligent as themselves, thus peered but not attached to the “respectable” sources that feed by omission and technicalities outright lies.

    Taking out the bends goes a long way in altering the quality of perception to the public, that is your task, as a public intellectual.

    As always with all the estimation for your work over time, in general and abiding,


    • Jeremy Williams October 21, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

      You’re right, I didn’t tie together ‘progress’ and biodiversity, but I did draw in sustainability more generally at the end of the post on progress, and pointed out that there was a disconnect.

      As always, there’s a balance to be struck when blogging. I want to write posts that highlight important information, and that encourage people to ask more questions, while keeping things short and punchy – otherwise nobody reads them!

      The tradeoff is that I can’t tie everything together in every post, or raise and resolve every complication – see how much is acknowledged and skated over in that penultimate paragraph above!

      But thanks for highlighting the potential contradiction. I will revisit the post on progress and connect the two.

      • m. October 21, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

        My intentions were genuine, your writing is better than mine(machine-like), yours seems to soak up the leather soles of the post readers. Just pointing to an itchy sting in the content when analyzing the post on progress, too much was taken for granted, we should not be duped by institutionalized errata(apparently the verdict still hangs?!).

        Keep up the good work.


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