Yes, we do dare to hope. Looking at these problems from a distance, they seem like impenetrable, mountainous barriers to a good future, but in every case, there is a path through.
“Saving the planet” can mean many things in practice, but one goal pretty much everyone shares is stopping extinctions. Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, reported on scientists sounding the alarm about high extinction rates, and in the years that followed, the idea that we are in the midst of one of the planet’s greatest mass-extinction events has come to feel like a bedrock truth to many greenies. This framing can make extinction feel like a force too huge and powerful to avert.
That’s just not true. As of today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the conservation status of 128,918 species has been assessed. Of those, 902 have gone extinct since the year 1500. This is absolutely too many. One is too many. But to cause an extinction event on the scale of those seen millions of years ago, in which more than 75 percent of species disappeared, we would have to lose all our threatened species within a century and then keep losing species at that same super-high rate for between 240 and 540 more years. In other words, the concept assumes that we won’t save anything, ever, and that hundreds of years into the future, we will still be as inept at protecting biodiversity as we are now.
You might have also heard that we’ve lost something like 60 percent of wild animals since the 1970s? Surely this suggests that a lot more extinctions are imminent? In 2018, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong helpfully explained that this study actually looked at the average decline of a given population (not species) of wild animal. So severe declines in small populations disproportionately increase the average decline.
More recently, a new analysis of the data showed that, indeed, the 60 percent average decline was driven by very severe crashes in a very small number of vertebrate populations. For example, one small population of Australian waterfall frogs declined 99.5 percent over two years. This decline became one data point, which was averaged with 14,000 others, many from stable or increasing populations.
Really, less than 3 percent of vertebrate populations are crashing. Remove the most strongly declining populations, and the average would actually be growing slightly. This means that declines are not the rule everywhere. It means that the specific populations in crisis can be identified and helped. And we have the knowledge to save them, if we can marshal the will and resources.
This targeted approach works for environmental policy too. The Trump administration pushed for more than 100 rollbacks of pollution standards, land protections, and other green policies, with the glee of a team of comic-book villains. Jill Tauber, the vice president of litigation for climate and energy at Earthjustice, told me that her organization has more than 100 lawsuits pending against the Trump administration and that so far, once cases pass any procedural hurdles, her side is winning more than 80 percent of them. Tackled one-by-one, many of his policies can be undone and their damage limited.