The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Governments could take decades to save species. Here’s what you can do now.

Conservationists and authors of a United Nations report on biodiversity loss say individuals have the power to create meaningful change.

Tourists and the Capitol dome are reflected in a puddle left from sprinklers watering the lawn of the Mall during turf restoration efforts last year. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

For many Americans, the first step to helping to save a million plant and animal species from being wiped out starts at the front porch.

Lush green lawns are a tradition that dates back to the arrival of European colonists. But they are also an environmental nightmare that strips away shrubs, flowers and weeds, which thousands of animals need for habitat and food.

Grass yards are the nation’s largest irrigated crop, covering “more than three times the number of acres that irrigated corn covers,” according to NASA. They suck up 9 billion gallons of water per day, the Environmental Protection Agency says, enough in a year to fill the Chesapeake Bay, one of the largest estuaries in the world.

Last week’s United Nations biodiversity report was deeply troubling in the way it linked the plundering of nature and the disappearance of species to human survival, and many people wondered what they can do. While the world’s governments could spend decades considering the recommendations in the report, which said human activity has driven a million plant and animal species to the verge of extinction, individuals can help now by saving more water, burning less energy, using fewer pesticides, ditching their commutes by working from home and reimagining the emerald carpet of turf that surrounds it.

“Lawns are basically biodiversity wastelands,” said Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Foundation. “We typically put a lot of chemicals on them, kill everything that isn’t Bermuda grass or Kentucky bluegrass, which contaminates the soil and leads to it running off into our waterways."

“You can support hundreds of species on your own patch of lawn,” O’Mara said. Carving out space for milkweed and flowers can support numerous species of butterflies and moths, he said.

The U.N. panel that produced the 1,500-page report on global biodiversity loss said the problem is as big and frightening as global warming because human survival depends on the very resources humans are destroying.

The report’s authors said the issue should be elevated to the same level as yearly negotiations among countries to mitigate climate change by lowering greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — above preindustrial levels. It took 25 years for those talks to reach a shaky agreement.

Within 25 years, dozens of species of coral, plants and animals could already be extinct or diminished to nearly the point of no return, the report said. More species are threatened with annihilation now than in any other period in human history. Already the global rate of species extinction is “tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating.”

The warming and acidic oceans, where overfishing is causing massive declines, are becoming watery deserts. “Almost a third of reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives are currently threatened,” the report said.

Human pollution, hunting and global trade that introduce deadly invasive species to habitats that have no defense against them are major drivers of species loss.

It is an enormous problem for people to wrap their heads around. But the individual solutions are as small as managing with a bit less food, buying fewer products encased in plastic and siding with politicians and corporations who champion sustainability, conservationists said.

“Sometimes these issues seem so big that people switch off and don’t do anything [but] with this, there are . . . things we can do,” said Joseph Walston, senior vice president for global conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“We need people regardless of political perspective to put environmental issues at the top of agendas,” Walston said. Voting for people inclined to do that is key. Higher taxes on industries that withdraw resources from nature — lumber, fossil fuels and animals such as marine life — is also important, he said. “It’s too easy to draw down on nature. There needs to be an appropriate cost.”

Individual choices are also part of the solution. “Our behavior, there are so many things we can do from reducing our flying to not sitting in our car to not buying single use plastics,” Walston said. “We have the power to be able to improve that.”

According to the report, plastics are contaminating oceans across the world, and animals are mistaking it for food. Birds feed it to chicks that have been found dead with plastic bulging in their stomachs. At least three beached whales died with bellies full of plastic.

Walston also said eating beef is a major problem because of the resources it takes to raise cattle. But massive resources are needed to produce many common items consumers buy every day.

A quarter-pound hamburger requires 450 gallons of water, the U.S. Geological Survey said. A pound of chicken takes about 500 gallons. Producing one cotton shirt requires 600 gallons, and one pair of blue jeans tops that.

Humans need to eat, of course, but studies have shown that up to 40 percent of food purchased in the United States is thrown away. The Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations said that that amount surpasses the worldwide total — a third of all food — by a slim margin.

“In a rich country, we get too big a portion, so we waste a lot of food on our plate,” said Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as chairman on the panel that produced the U.N. report. “We buy too much food at the supermarket and put it in the back of the refrigerator.”

Watson said small steps taken by people every day can start to make a difference. “More walking, more cycling, more mass transportation, car sharing, telecommuting, all of those things,” he said. “The less resources we need, the less pressure on the environment. People turning off the tap while they’re brushing their teeth. Not using a huge amount of water washing the car every bloody Sunday.”

Wetlands and rivers that support fish and hundreds of other creatures are also being drained to support human consumption, the report said. Water is often funneled to development, ranches and farms and industries that produce everything from food to steel to paper.

More than 40 percent of amphibian species and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened, the report said. “At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9 percent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.”

In the United States, farms are responsible for displacing tens of millions of acres of insect habitat. Not only do farmers spray poisons that kill the animals, but in the Midwest, they removed wild prairie land that preserved the soil and sustained thousands of species of bugs and birds.

Wild prairie is an oasis for hornets and bees that are increasingly disappearing. Dickcissel birds and blackbirds dart about to gather food, mate and protect nests. Butterflies flutter between flowers and milkweed, which is also where monarch butterflies relax during their epic multigenerational migration through the United States between Mexico and Canada every year.

Monarch butterfly populations have dropped dramatically because of insecticides and loss of habitat. But homeowners and gardeners can offset the loss.

“Providing small spaces for species to live or hide from predators helps,” O’Mara said.

Rather than using a bug zapper to kill mosquitoes, enlist a bat to do the job by putting a bat box in a tree or on a pole in the yard. An invasive fungus brought by travelers from Europe has killed at least 7 million bats in the United States. A disease known as white nose syndrome attacks the animals as they hibernate in abandoned mines and caves.

“One bat eats 100 mosquitoes a day,” O’Mara said. “I’d rather have a mosquito in a bat’s belly than on my arm. Frankly bats do a lot more than eliminate mosquitoes. They’re also great pollinators. If it wasn’t for us being afraid as kids by vampires, bats wouldn’t be nearly as scary.”