young man in a hoody looking up at the sky

Scientific agreement is nowhere near enough to convince John Doe

Good satire is excruciating; it should make you squirm. It is a shame that this is what it takes to get our attention…

I watched the movie Don’t look up and survived.

Stream it if you haven’t already. A more visceral take on modern life would be hard to find despite the occasional flat joke and intentionally long runtime. 

In the movie, journeymen scientists from Hicksville discover a large meteorite that they saw through a telescope and then calculate that it will collide with earth in a matter of weeks. They are ignored, then so are their colleagues from the ivy league colleges who agree and support their findings — not every viewer would appreciate how rare it is to see such scientific agreement. 

All the non-scientists from the President down have way more important things in life than imminent death, except the billionaire telecoms entrepreneur with a space subsidiary who decides there is money to be made off a meteorite full of rare earth metals. 

Good satire should be brutal to watch because it is very nearly accurate.

If only the truth were easier to watch.

In 2017 scientists said humans were causing the sixth mass extinction event in the Earth’s history. The UN has reported that the world has failed to meet a single target agreed a decade ago to stem the destruction of wildlife and life-sustaining ecosystems.

According to the largest reinsurance company in the world, Swiss Re, more than half of the world’s annual GDP, some $42 trillion, depends on high-functioning biodiversity and a fifth of the world’s countries risk having their ecosystems collapse.

The UN’s overarching plan is that humanity should be living in harmony with nature by 2050. The 2030 goals relate to that ambition in five ways: 

  1. ensuring no net losses in the integrity and size of freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems; 
  2. reducing the number of species threatened with extinction; 
  3. enhancing genetic diversity; 
  4. achieving the targets of the Paris agreement; and 
  5. sharing the benefits of genetic resources and traditional knowledge.

There is a big problem with targets like these.

They are set up for failure because in themselves they do not say how they can be met. How do you achieve no net loss or enhance genetic diversity? Are these outcomes even possible?

The UNs harmony with nature is the biodiversity loss problem with hints to the analogy of the comet about to collide with earth.

We know that biodiversity — the variety of life on earth — is central to how nature functions because organisms create biomass, move that biomass around and allow humans to manipulate a huge chunk of that biomass into food, fibre and fuel.

As biomass is created by the plants and moved around by the animals that eat them and the microbes that decompose the leftovers, so a raft of other ‘useful to humans’ things happen such as oxygen production, carbon sequestration, air and water filtering, water harvesting and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Chip away at biodiversity with some loss here and there and not much changes until it does and systems collapse.

All the ecological scientists and the research papers that they write tell us that diversity is crucial to resilience and the ongoing productivity of natural and agricultural systems. They have seen the comet and calculated its trajectory to the sixth mass extinction.

By the way, Don’t look up was about carbon pollution forcing irreversible and catastrophic climate change. It needed a mountain-sized meteor analogy for a satirical edge.

God only knows what analogy is needed to get traction for the even more obscure yet equally terrifying risks from biodiversity loss.

Hero image modified from photo by Anthony Fomin on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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