March 24, 2020
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The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) awarded Fennessy its “expert” designation to serve as a lead author for a report about the status and trends of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the Americas and to collaborate as an author on another report on land degradation and restoration globally. The reports, which involved dozens of authors from around the world, were released in March and will be used to inform decision-makers on environmental policy, underpinning a major U.N. convention for biodiversity in Egypt this November.
A nationally known specialist in wetland ecosystems and restoration ecology, Fennessy was nominated to the panel for her work with the United States Committee to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the first modern treaty between nations aimed at conserving natural resources.
Fennessy recently answered questions about her work for the U.N. study.
What were the most critical findings in your report that world leaders and policymakers need to understand about the Americas?
The most critical finding is our ability to document that biodiversity and ecosystems services — these are sometimes called “nature’s contributions to people” — are in dangerous decline, and because they are the foundation of our food system, clean water and health, their decline threatens human well-being. In all regions, biodiversity and ecosystems services are being degraded and lost, which poses a risk to the lives we lead. The threat to the biosphere from the loss of diversity is as great as the risks due to climate change, and, of course, climate change is also a threat to biodiversity.
We also found that the economic value of the Americas’ ecosystem services is estimated to be more than $24 trillion per year. This is equivalent to the gross domestic product of all the countries in the Americas combined, yet we documented that almost two-thirds — 65 percent — of these services are in decline, with 21 percent declining strongly. Essentially, we’re not just using the interest from our bank account, we’re spending our way through the principal.
The land degradation and restoration study is equally grim — land degradation impacts 3.2 billion people, and is a major driver in biodiversity loss. This is sometimes called the sixth mass extinction event — the fifth was when the Chicxulub asteroid impacted the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the dinosaurs and most other species went extinct. Today, the rapid increase in crop and grazing land and its unsustainable management means food security is at risk, and water and soil quality and availability are declining.
You’ve worked with dozens of scientists from multiple countries preparing this work. How has that process informed your work in the classroom?
The experience has given me an incredible perspective on the connections between people and nature. We often think of ourselves as apart from nature, not a part of it. We depend totally on the functioning of the natural world, and our chronic degradation and destruction of it compromises our ability to survive. The experience and what I learned, and the many case studies that we worked on, will benefit my teaching enormously. The effort was incredibly interdisciplinary — working with so many different people from different places and disciplines — and is a great model for how the environmental studies major at Kenyon should work.
How does this study translate into local action? What advice do you have for those who want to make a difference, but are unsure of where to start?
The best thing any of us can do is: reduce consumption of all sorts; work to preserve local biodiversity by preserving land; manage invasive species; learn about your food and support sustainable agriculture; grow native plants, particularly those that support native pollinators; and participate politically to bring pressure for our government to incorporate the policy recommendations in the IPBES and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
The threats to biodiversity outlined in all the IPBES reports are dire. What keeps you awake at night, and what gives you reason for optimism?
I’m actually less optimistic than I used to be. For example, there is a prediction that topsoil will be exhausted in about 60 years; that’s only 60 crop harvests in most places. What then? That said, if we’re willing to take action, there is a lot that can be done. Biodiversity and ecosystems services can be protected and restored in some cases. The reports outline better governance, and making nature a cross-cutting consideration in all sectors of government actions can do a lot to improve our situation.