In what year will the human population grow so great that the earth cannot sustain it? The answer is around 1970, according to research from the World Wildlife Fund. In 1970, the planet’s population of 3 and a half billion people was sustainable. But on New Year’s Day, the population is 8 billion. Today, wild flora and fauna are running out of places to live. The scientists you’ll meet say Earth is experiencing a mass extinction crisis on a scale not seen since the dinosaurs. We’ll show you a possible solution, but first, take a look at how humanity is already suffering from vanishing wilderness.
In Washington State, the Salish Sea helped feed the world.
DANA WILSON: With this weather and the way things feel once I get out of here, it’s time to fish, that’s what it’s like.
Commercial fisherman Dana Wilson has supported a family living off their legendary salmon fortune in the Salish Sea. He remembers the propellers turning the waters out of Blaine, Washington and the cranes toiling for the state’s $200 million annual catch.
Dana Wilson: That was a buying stop, now they’re gone, they’re not buying anymore. So, that building over there was buying salmon, they don’t buy salmon anymore, it’s not here.
In 1991, a species of salmon was endangered. Today, 14 of my salmon are on the run. They have been pushed out of rivers by habitat destruction, warming, and pollution. Dana Wilson has been fishing all summer long. Today, a conservation authority grants rare and fleeting permission to cast the net.
Scott Pelley: There was a season.
DANA WILSON: There was a season.
Scott Pelley: Now there’s a day?
DANA WILSON: There is a day and sometimes hours. Sometimes you may get 12 hours and 16 hours. This is where we come from.
Here, the vanishing wilderness has replaced a way of life that began with indigenous tribes 1,000 years ago.
Armando Briones: I don’t remember anyone doing anything other than salmon fishing.
Fisherman Armando Briones is a member of the Lummi tribe, who call themselves the “Salmon People”. He never imagined that the rich harvest would end with his five fishing boats.
Armando Brionez: All of a sudden, you’re trying to figure out, “Well, how am I going to pay my family this salary?” Well for me it was fine I have a backup backup backup backup backup backup.
Brioney’s “backups” include his new food truck, a switch to crab fishing, and advice on cannabis farms. His attempts at adaptation are repeated all over the world. A study by the World Wildlife Fund says that in the past 50 years, global wildlife abundance has collapsed by 69%, often for the same reason.
Paul Ehrlich: Too many people, overconsumption and growth obsession.
At 90, biologist Paul Ehrlich may have lived long enough to see some of his dire prophecies come true.
Scott Pelley: You seem to be saying that humanity is not sustainable?
Paul Ehrlich: Oh, humanity is not sustainable. To sustain our lifestyle (your way and mine, basically) for the entire planet Earth, you’d need five more planets. It is not clear where they will come from.
Scott Pelley: Just in terms of resources required?
Paul Ehrlich: The resources that are going to be needed, the systems that support our lives, which of course is the biodiversity that we’re destroying. Humanity is too busy sitting on a limb that we’re cutting off.
In 1968, Ehrlich, a biology professor at Stanford University, became a doomsday celebrity as his bestseller predicted the collapse of nature.
Scott Pelley: When the “population bomb” came out, you were described as panicking.
Paul Ehrlich: I panicked. I’m still upset. All my colleagues are worried.
The ultimatum sounded by Ehrlich in 68 warned that overpopulation would lead to widespread famine. He was wrong about that. The green revolution fueled the world. But he also wrote in 68 that heat from greenhouse gases would melt the polar ice and mankind would overwhelm the wilderness. Today, humans have captured more than 70% of the planet’s land and 70% of its fresh water.
Paul Ehrlich: The extinction rate is extraordinarily high right now and it’s been getting higher all the time.
We know the extinction rate is “extraordinarily high” because of a study of the fossil record by biologist Tony Barnowski, Ehrlich’s colleague at Stanford.
Tony Barnowski: The data is very solid. I don’t think you’ll find a scientist who will say we’re not in an extinction crisis.
Barnowski’s research indicates that today’s extinction rate is up to 100 times faster than the typical extinction rate in the roughly 4 billion years of life’s history. These peaks represent the few times life has collapsed globally. The last of these was the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
Tony Barnowski: There have been five times in Earth’s history that mass extinctions have occurred. And by mass extinction, I mean at least 75%, three-quarters of known species disappear from the face of the Earth. We are now witnessing what many people call the sixth mass extinction where the same thing could happen on our watch.
Liz Hadley: It’s a terrible state of the planet when common species, the ubiquitous species that we know, are in decline.
Tony Barnowski’s colleague in the Extinction Study is his wife, biologist Liz Hadley, director of faculty at the Jasper Ridge Research Reserve at Stanford in California.
Liz Hadley: You know, I see it in my mind and it’s a really sad state. If you’ve spent any time in California, you know about water loss. Loss of water means that there are dead salmon that you see in the river right before your eyes. But it also means the demise of those birds that depend on catching salmon, the vultures. That means, you know, things like mink and otters that depend on fish. It means that our habitats that we’re used to, the forests — you know, 3,000-year-old forests are going to be gone. So it means silence. This means some very catastrophic events because they happen very quickly.
Tony Barnowski: It means you look out your window, and three-quarters of what you think should be is no longer there. This is what a mass extinction looks like.
Liz Hadley: What we only see in California is, you know, the loss of iconic state symbols. We no longer have grizzly bears in California.
Scott Bailey: California’s only bears are aware of the state’s flag?
Tony Barnowski: These are the mammals in our state that no longer exist.
Scott Pelley: Is it an exaggeration to say we’re killing the planet?
Liz Hadley: No.
Tony Barnowski: I would say it’s a stretch to say we’re killing the planet, because the planet is going to be okay. What we do is we kill our way of life.
The worst killings have been in Latin America where a World Wildlife Fund study says wildlife abundance has declined by 94% since 1970. But it is also in Latin America that we have found the possibility of hope.
Mexican ecologist Gerardo Ceballos is one of the world’s leading scientists on extinction. He told us the only solution was to save a third of the Earth, which remains wild. To prove it, he set up a 3,000-square-mile experiment. In the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve near Guatemala, family farmers are being paid to stop cutting down the forest.
Gerardo Ceballos: We will pay each family a certain amount of money more than they would get from cutting the forest, if you protect it
Scott Pelley: How much do you get paid each year?
Gerardo Ceballos: For example, each family here will get about $1,000.
More than enough, here, to make up for lost farmland. In total, the payments amount to $1.5 million annually. Or about $2,000 per square mile. The tab is paid by the charity of wealthy donors.
Gerardo Ceballos: The investment to protect what’s left is, I mean, very small
The return on this investment is collected on the forest cameras in Ceballos. Thirty years ago, the jaguar was on the verge of extinction in Mexico. Now Ceballos says they regressed to about 600 in the protectorate.
Scott Pelley: There are other places that have reserves around the world where they’ve been able to increase populations of certain species. But I wonder, are all these small success stories enough to prevent mass extinctions?
Gerardo Ceballos: All the great successes we’ve had in protecting forests and restoring animals, like tigers in India, jaguars in Mexico, elephants in Botswana, etc., are amazing, amazing successes. They are like grains of sand on the beach. And to really make a big impact, we need to increase this 10,000 times. So it’s important because it gives us hope. But it is completely insufficient to deal with climate change.
Scott Pelley: So what is the world going to do?
Gerardo Ceballos: What we have to do is really understand that climate change and species extinction are a threat to humanity. Then we put all the mechanisms of society: political, economic and social, towards finding solutions to problems.
Finding solutions to problems was the goal, two weeks ago, at the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity, where nations agreed on conservation targets. But at the same meeting in 2010, those nations agreed to limit Earth’s destruction by 2020 — and none of those goals have been met. This, despite thousands of studies including the ongoing research of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich.
Scott Pelley: You know there’s no political will to do any of the things you’re recommending.
Paul Ehrlich: I know there is no political will to do any of the things I care about, and that is exactly why I and the vast majority of my colleagues think we have it; That the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization that we are accustomed to.
In the 50 years since Ehrlich’s population explosion, humanity’s consumption of resources has tripled. We already consume 175% of what the earth can regenerate. And consider here, half of humanity, about four billion, live on less than $10 a day. They aspire to cars, air conditioning, and a rich diet. But they won’t be fed by Washington’s Salish Sea fishermen, including Armando Briones.
Scott Pelley: The tribe has been fishing for salmon here for hundreds of years?
Armando Briones: Yes.
Scott Pelley: And your generation sees the end of that?
Armando Briones: It’s getting harder. I hate to say – I don’t want to say it’s the end of it.
Scott Pelley: Why do you feel so emotionally connected to this?
Armando Briones: It’s all we know. I am fortunate enough to know where I know a lot of different things. I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. You have become very good at evolving and changing. But not everyone here is built that way. That’s what some of us know, that’s all they know.
The five mass extinctions in the ancient past were caused by natural disasters – volcanoes and an asteroid. Today, if the science is correct, humanity may have to survive a sixth mass extinction on a world of its own making.
Produced by Maria Gavrilovich. Associate Producer, Alex Ortiz. Broadcast assistant Michelle Karim. Edited by April Wilson.