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Down to Earth, our project on the biodiversity crisis, explained

Why a reporting initiative on the science, politics, and economics of an ecological catastrophe is so badly needed.

You can probably guess the three global threats that topped a recent list from the World Economic Forum.

No. 1? Infectious disease. (Nothing like a pandemic to remind us of this.)

No. 2? Inaction on climate change.

No. 3? Weapons of mass destruction.

But No. 4? That one might surprise you: biodiversity loss. The forum’s survey found that the irreversible impacts of ecosystem collapse and species extinction pose a greater global risk in 2021 than the debt crisis.

A number of recent events have helped spark this awakening — from the breathtaking 3 billion animals, many of them rare, killed or displaced in the 2020 Australia wildfires to the possible emergence of the coronavirus from wildlife farms in China. There’s also been a wave of groundbreaking studies in the past year — on the rapid rate at which mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and plants are disappearing; on the economics of biodiversity; on Indigenous communities’ forest management expertise; and on the cost of invasive species — that have helped clarify this mounting ecological catastrophe underway and the necessary responses.

The stakes of addressing this crisis — from safeguarding against the next pandemic, to ensuring baseline ecosystem functioning to sustain life, to protecting the rights of Indigenous people and our food systems — could not be higher. And there are signs that stronger policies could be forthcoming: The Biden administration, in its first climate executive order, included a target of “30 by 30” with a goal of saving 30 percent of America’s land and oceans by 2030. In October, countries will come to the table at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to hopefully cement what could be the Paris agreement of biodiversity.

All in all, it feels like the right moment to launch Down to Earth, a new Vox reporting initiative on the global biodiversity crisis, led by senior science editor Eliza Barclay, editor Brian Anderson, and reporter Benji Jones. We’ll also feature freelance contributors from a diverse range of communities around the world.

Supported by the BAND Foundation, a private family foundation that makes grants primarily around nature conservation and epilepsy care, Down to Earth brings Vox’s signature explanatory journalism to a complex crisis that’s linked to — but too often overshadowed by — climate change. Our reporting will build on our award-winning 2019 supertrees project to uncover connections between the biodiversity crisis and other news of the moment with an emphasis on political and corporate accountability; solutions; the interconnections in the fragile web of life; and cascading impacts. There’ll even be optimism!

Why this is needed now

While there’s growing awareness of the catastrophic loss of species and the massive failure of countries to hit conservation targets, the general public still has a poor understanding of what the biodiversity crisis even is, let alone who’s driving it and what we stand to lose.

This crisis evokes paralysis. Aside from donating to conservation organizations (save the pandas!) or planting pollinators, many citizens and policymakers aren’t sure what, exactly, to do about it.

Down to Earth will zero in on the “now what?” to move the conversation forward, away from tired tropes of pristine wilderness to spotlight the effects of a crisis that might still feel invisible to many.

We’ll be looking at big questions, starting with the 30 by 30 target: How should the Biden administration — with Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead the US Department of the Interior — advance both national and international biodiversity goals? What would it really take to hit targets to preserve a certain percentage of not only this country but the planet?

We’ll also step back and ask: How well do protected areas actually work? Has any country or region even totally nailed biodiversity policy, for that matter?

How do we sort through the conflict between building infrastructure — roads, bridges, and housing — with biodiversity protection? How do we conserve something when there’s no way to value it in the marketplace?

Which corporations are taking substantive and meaningful action to halt pollution and habitat and biodiversity loss?

What’s killing mussels? And, seriously, where the heck do eels mate?

You get the idea. Biodiversity isn’t just about species — it’s about abundance; healthy, functioning ecosystems; and cultural diversity too.

To get down to Earth, well, that’s down to us.


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