The Collapse of biodiversity

or the allegory of the frog plunged into boiling water

By Gilles Mur

The frog immersed in slowly warming water ends up boiled. The frog plunged in boiling water may be burnt out, but will most likely jump out of the water. This is the allegory of the frog.

But here we are, in turn, transformed into a batrachian in an ocean that is slowly warming on the scale of our lives, but so rapidly on the scale of our planet… As we ever overvalue the present at the expense of the future, our actions have proven to be little or not up to the challenge of global warming containment. And it is indeed the COVID-19 crisis that unexpectedly and brutally confronts us with our weaknesses.


Of course, the shortcut to finding a common cause for our ills is tempting. However, this is undoubtedly simplistic and might be unproductive in order to seek relevant solutions. Nevertheless, it may be sensible to figure out the consequences and risks of our human activities, bearing in mind that we are nowadays consuming the equivalent of 1.8 planets as per the report published by the Global Footprint Network.

On the basis of the IPCC’s work, a consensus has been reached regarding the major risks of amplification of environmental and human disasters as a result of our human activities.

Today, we are already paying a huge toll to pollution: The Lancet Commission has estimated the impact of pollution in 2015 at nine million premature deaths [1]!

And what if the risks of an increased pandemic were also the cause of an overexploitation of our natural resources, unbalancing ecosystems and causing the collapse of biodiversity?


The reports of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) are alarming: more than one million animal or plant species are threatened.

As of today, more than 90% of large animals are either humans or domesticated animals [2]. The reduction in the habitat areas of wild species, resulting from the expansion of agricultural land, urban areas and industrial sites, has therefore had a significant reduction on biodiversity in all its components, from genes to the communities of species that make up our ecosystems. A study published in 2018 [3] conducted on the island of Madagascar highlighted the impact of human activities on deforestation since 1950, whereas 90% of species are rain forest dependent.

So naively, one might think pathogens would be diminished by the disappearance of their hosts. But the opposite is actually proven true, namely that species diversity constitutes a buffer reducing the risk of inter-species transmission. Thus, the collapse of species richness, particularly in equatorial zones, has led to a greater migration of pathogens to more temperate geographical areas, where the phenomenal improvement in hygiene conditions in the 20th century has amplified the risk. This has gone with a decrease in the immune response to infection, generation after generation.

On top of it, the disappearance of species also causes a chain reaction in our ecosystems with the growth of opportunistic species, such as rodents, which are potentially hosts and vectors of cross-species pathogens over wider geographical areas. Globally, the wider spread of pathogens can thus potentially cause co-infections and thus create even more virulent mutations. And should we add that our knowledge of the diversity of pathogens is still limited at this stage (from 10% to 50% of living beings), to understand that we have not yet figured out all the risks [4]?

Obviously, mankind has experienced multiple outbreaks, some of them more deadly, such as the great black plague in the 14th century or the Spanish flu at the end of the First World War. But today, all the conditions are perfectly in place for more frequent outbreaks and, above all, with an extremely rapid widespread. To follow up the Ebola outbreak of 2014, Bill Gates warned in 2015 [5] about our state of unpreparedness to face the next one …  And where are we today?

Let’s bet that we will be able to draw from Covid-19 crisis beyond immediate prevention measures by getting aware that certain ecosystems such as rain forests constitute an invaluable asset that we must preserve at any cost!

Our storytelling of widely shared fictions has enabled our homo sapiens species to survive and climb up to the top of the food ladder.  Why could not we stop this collapse?

How can mass consumption evolve bearing in mind that the consumer is not able to process all available and relevant information in 1.8 seconds (average purchase decision time for a common consumer good)?

The brand reputation prevails in purchase choice in the sense that a brand is foremost an association of information in consumer’s mind. A company’s societal communication increases brand capital according to different factors: the societal sensitivity of consumers, the congruence of the brand with the cause defended and the credibility of the information in the face of consumer scepticism [6]. On the other hand, the negative effects of poor societal performance on purchasing intentions are undeniable, all the more when this is largely amplified by a defensive attitude in a period of intense activism on social networks. Thus, societal communication becomes an issue of economic competitiveness.


As a matter of example, the analysis of BEL company’s rhetoric highlights a strong meaning to its raison d’être. BEL’s communication strategy is voicing out a continuous improvement plan taking into consideration co-construction through various partnerships [7].

In fact, the mutual interaction between users and brands can trigger a virtuous circle encouraging at the same time a change in consumer habits and an increasing commitment from companies in the execution of their social and environmental responsibility (SER) plan. This is also the wager taken by certain organisations such as WWF to engage in collaborations with large commodities companies with the objective to control our consumption below planet resources availability [8] [9]. A business partnership with an independent authority, such as a well-recognised NGO (Non-Governmental Organization), strengthens the argument and relevance of the brand’s storytelling in the face of consumer scepticism.


Beyond the corporate level, how can we take actions at the scale of an industrial site or unit? Several methods and tools, such as BioScope developed by the BBE platform (biodiversity, ecosystems and economics) or the Product Biodiversity Footprint [10], are readily available [11] to measure the impact of an industrial activity on biodiversity.

Another lever to prompt a change in habits and behaviour is pricing.

As a matter of evidence, the results obtained following the introduction of a soda tax are outstanding: sales of sweetened beverages in Philadelphia have dropped by 38% since the tax was introduced in January 2017. The immediate toll, namely the public health cost of obesity, is built into the price of the product to some extent. Nevertheless, the social acceptance of a “green deal” is far from obvious if the cost is not borne equitably, meaning with any compensation for the most deprived ones. Ultimately, it is unlikely that a more virtuous change of habit will be nudged and eventually occur without any pricing leverage.


As global citizens, we are thus individually challenged about our way of life and our relationship with nature and wildlife.

For example, the last few decades have seen the explosion of mass tourism: it is true that traveling allows us to explore our planet and meet other cultures, but we will probably have to reconsider our way of traveling in order to one day see wildlife, essential to our existence, preserved and offer our grandchildren a privileged future in harmony with nature.


May they, like me, have the chance to observe with amazement an emblematic species among so many other endangered species, namely the orang-utans who are literally the “rain forest men” “, while respecting their natural habitat at home on the island of Borneo…

For the time being, debates on the way out of the crisis, advocating either the easing of regulatory constraints in order to boost economic activity, or massive investment to reorient towards sustainable growth, are growing in several countries. May we miss this opportunity window and postpone such investment until an austerity period that will eventually occur? Can we really afford not to make a more vigorous transition to the bioeconomy given the costs and risks of our activities and lifestyles?



Strange Spring… isn’t it the ideal time for reflection and debate?

Sources : 

1 Lancet 2018; 391: 462–512. Published Online October 19, 2017.

2 Homo Deus, une brève histoire de l’avenir, Yuval Noah Harari, P.86, Ed. Albin Michel

3 Ghislain Vieilledent & Al (2018).Combining global tree cover loss data with historical national forest covermaps to look at six decades of deforestation and forest fragmentation in Madagascar. Biological Conservation Volume 222, June 2018, Pages 189-197.

4 Vourc’h, Gwenaël & Plantard, Olivier & Morand, Serge. (2012). How Does Biodiversity Influence the Ecology of Infectious Disease?. 10.1007/978-94-007-2114-2_13.

5 Ted Talks Bill Gates 3 Avril 2015

6 Béatrice Parguel, Florence Benoît-Moreau. Communication sociétale et capital-marque. Congrès International de l’AFM, 2007, Aix-les Bains, France. halshs-00145919

7 Duteil, Carine, et Christine Fèvre-Pernet. « La responsabilité sociétale des entreprises (RSE) : créativité stratégique et enjeu de compétition économique », Revue internationale d’intelligence économique, vol. vol. 11, no. 1, 2019, pp. 19-39.

8 Ted Talks Jason Clay 16 Août 2010

9 Site internet 20 Avril 2020

10 Site internet 20 Avril 2020 :

11 Di Fonzo, M. & Cranston, G., (2017), ‘Healthy Ecosystem metric framework: Biodiversity impact, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), Working Paper 02/2017

12 Abhijit V. Banerjee, Esther Duglo « Economie utile pour des temps difficiles »Ed. Seuil, Mars 2020, p. 302-305

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