The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

What is at stake?

Ecosystems are the foundation for human life. They perform a range of functions, generally referred to as environmental services, without which human societies and economies could not operate at their current level. We depend on them for air, water, food, shelter and energy. Local ecological collapse may have caused the end of a civilization on Easter Island. More recently, ecological collapse in and around the Aral sea has had dramatic social and economic consequences for the region. Ecosystems can tolerate a measure of impact from human use with no negative effects – an attribute generally known as resilience – but beyond a certain threshold, or tipping point, sudden, radical and sometimes irreversible disruption occurs. Soil quality, freshwater supplies and biodiversity diminish drastically, while agricultural capacity plummets and daily living conditions deteriorate significantly. Displaced populations and the loss of previous food sources add pressure to other areas, so that local disruption might escalate into the rapid and irreversible collapse of most ecosystems across the Earth, drastically compromising the planet’s capacity to support a large human population.

Since the mid 1950s, many elements that ensure the habitability of the planet are degrading at an accelerating pace.

How much do we know?

Ecosystems are complex entities, which consist of a community of living organisms in their non-living environment, linked together through flows of energy and nutrients. The behaviour of an ecosystem is relatively stable over time, but when the balance between some of its elements is altered beyond a certain threshold, it can experience a non-linear, possibly catastrophic transformation. 

Human-induced factors that affect ecosystem vitality may be classified in the following manner: 

  • changes in the balance of local biodiversity caused by human intervention, in particular as a result of introducing new species or overexploitation
  • alteration of the chemical balance in the environment due to pollution
  • modifications in the local temperatures and water cycle because of climate change
  • habitat loss, whether through destruction or ecosystem fragmentation.

Scholars describe the current historical moment as the start of a new geological era, called the Anthropocene, where humans as the predominant agent of change at the planetary level change the nature of nature itself. Since the mid 1950s, many elements that ensure the habitability of the planet, whether greenhouse gas concentration, forested areas or the health of marine ecosystems, are degrading at an accelerating pace. In 2009, an international group of experts identified nine interconnected planetary boundaries that underpin the stability of the global ecosystem, allowing human civilization to thrive. Their report indicates that we have exceeded safe limits for four of those, and are now operating in a high-risk zone for biosphere integrity and biogeochemical flows. Unless we rapidly change trends and adopt a new sustainable paradigm, we are very likely to exceed all nine boundaries, and leave the safe operating ecological space where humanity has thrived.

Unless we rapidly change trends we are very likely to leave the safe operating ecological space where humanity has thrived.

What are key factors affecting risk levels?

  • The development and adoption of new technologies or production models that are less resource-intensive and/or less polluting will reduce the risk of ecological collapse, as will a shift towards more sustainable lifestyles, more specifically changing consumption patterns.
  • It is estimated that environmental services, should their contribution to human well-being be calculated, would be worth more than twice as much as the entire global GDP. Integrating the valuation of ecosystems into economic decision making and employing robust environmental accounting systems across businesses and national economies would contribute to reducing the risk.
  • Global governance mechanisms to preserve ecosystems and reduce pollution, in particular more integrated approaches between the governance of ecosystems and trade, are of particular importance, as many ecosystems do not overlap with national boundaries, and trade is an important driver of ecosystem collapse. This is an emerging area of global governance that is beginning to be applied, for instance, to assess the synergies and trade-offs among the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nauru – an example of ecological collapse

Nauru, a small island in the central Pacific, provides a telling example of the risks and consequences of ecological collapse. The mining of rich phosphate resources placed this island-nation among the wealthiest in the world in the 1970s, but it resulted in a severe degradation of the island’s ecosystem. Many key plant and animal species are now either extinct or endangered, previously rich and abundant food sources such as pandanus fruits, almonds and noddy birds have been destroyed, and 40% of Nauru’s coastal marine life was devastated by run-off from the mines. With no topsoil left to restore a once thick tropical forest in the mined-out island core, Nauruans are no-longer self-sufficient on their island home.

Maria Ivanova

Associate Professor of Global Governance and Director, Center for Governance and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Boston; Global Challenges Foundation Ambassador

Philip Osano

Research Fellow, Natural Resources and Ecosystems, Stockholm Environment Institute