RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Humans are threatening the natural world as we know it. That's according to conservation scientists who put out a new United Nations report on biodiversity. One million species of animals and plants are at risk of extinction, many within decades. Robert Watson led the research. He told journalists yesterday this is not just an environmental issue.
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ROBERT WATSON: It's an economic issue, a development, security, social, ethical and moral issue. Biodiversity has incredible economic value.
MARTIN: David Obura is one of the authors of the report. He's a marine biologist in Mombasa, Kenya. Thank you so much for being with us.
DAVID OBURA: My pleasure.
MARTIN: We have heard about these issues before. What makes this report different?
OBURA: Well, this report is different because the level of integration that we've tried to have across not just the natural sciences but, really, into human society and people's dependence on nature hasn't been done before at this scale. And really, we've tried to show how there's so many ways that we depend on nature, that its decline now is really threatening human societies.
MARTIN: What specifically are the human behaviors or activities that are the biggest threat to other species?
OBURA: Well, we listed five main ones across the report, but it's really overexploitation of resources. The extraction that we do of the ecosystem services - so food, fisheries, water, mining, things like that. And then land use and sea use change - we've changed the face of the planet. More than 75% of the terrestrial surface has transformed into something that it wasn't before, and it's declining. So we're really affecting, you know, the surface, the lungs, the heart of the planet and how nature functions.
MARTIN: Can you give me another example of how humans have changed the shape of the world?
OBURA: Well, one interesting one that is new in this report - I was really hosting what we called the units of analysis of the terrestrial and ocean regions that we were looking at. And the coastal zone is one that we are transforming at a very rapid pace now - the border between the land and the sea. And as we settle in these large cities, we harden the coastline. We take land from the sea and transform it into flat areas for construction.
So as we take over the space, that really prevents other species from being able to live under those conditions. And as you lose those species, we lose them for what they provide to us and also the regulating services and the functions that we depend on from the land-sea border as well.
MARTIN: Is it too late to do anything about it? I mean, over 130 countries have approved the summary of the report's findings. That includes the United States. So what can those countries do?
OBURA: Well, this is the final message that we have in the report is that it is quite late. We're already at more than a planet's worth of consumption - 1 1/2 planets and higher. So we really need transformative change. We can reverse a lot of these declines. We can stop them. But it takes transformative change at all scales to really be able to stem this demise.
MARTIN: What is one tangible action that would amount to a transformative change?
OBURA: Well, I think, you know, we have a very consumerist attitude around the world - and in the U.S. in particular - to how we run our lives. And we have to realize that we can't just measure success through the amount of dollars we have, the amount of material consumption that we have. We have to change that.
We have to value - the materials we have might be less than what we have now and they're made with a much smaller footprint than is currently the case. And also, that enables the benefits to be shared across a much broader range of people as well from different socioeconomic levels and across different countries too.
MARTIN: David Obura is one of the authors of a new U.N. report on biodiversity. Thank you so much for your time.
OBURA: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.