A million plant and animal species are under threat. Humans are largely to blame – but we will pay the cost too

We humans pride ourselves on our ability to look beyond immediate concerns and think on a grander scale. While other creatures preen for mates, hunt prey or build homes, only humans ponder the nature of time, explore our place in the universe or are troubled by the question of what wiped out the dinosaurs. Yet we are often poor at focusing on and understanding the things which really matter. A new mass extinction is under way, and this time we are mostly responsible. The new UN Global Assessment Report warns that a million plant and animal species are at risk of being wiped out.

Most of us find it impossible to visualise such a large number. Focusing on individual cases is only partially helpful. Plenty of tears are shed for charismatic megafauna such as rhinos when they are driven to the brink. Fewer know or care that two in five amphibian species are under threat. Phytoplankton drifting in the ocean are barely noticed at all, but absorb carbon dioxide as well as being eaten by zooplankton, which in turn are eaten by larger creatures, in turn eaten by ourselves.

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