World's Biggest Market Crashes and You Didn't Even Know It

An infant mountain gorilla from Volcanoes National Park in northwest Rwanda. Photographer: David Yarrow/Getty Images

If animals were stocks, the market would be crashing.

The chart below shows the performance of an index that tracks global animal populations over time, much like the S&P 500 tracks shares of the biggest U.S. companies. The Global Living Planet Index, updated today by the World Wildlife Foundation, tracks representative populations of 3,038 species of reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and fish.

To say the index of animals is underperforming humans is an understatement. More than half of the world's vertebrates have disappeared between 1970 and 2010. (In the same period, the human population nearly doubled.) The chart starts at 1, which represents the planet's level of vertebrate life as of 1970.

The global LPI shows a decline of 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010. This suggests that, on average, vertebrate species populations are about half the size they were 40 years ago. This is based on trends in 10,380 populations of 3,038 mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species. The white line shows the index values and the shaded areas represent the 95 per cent confidence limits surrounding the trend Source: WWF, ZSL, 2014

It makes sense that the WWF is framing of biodiversity loss as an index that may look more familiar to financial analysts than environmentalists. The research group's message is as much economic as environmental: Not only do animal populations represent valuable natural systems that economies rely on, in many cases they are actual tradable goods, like stocks of wild fish.

"In less than two human generations, population sizes of vertebrate species have dropped by half," writes WWF Director General Marco Lambertini. "We ignore their decline at our own peril."

Humans are currently drawing more from natural resources than the Earth is able to provide. It would take about 1.5 planet Earths to meet the present-day demands that humanity currently makes on nature, according to the WWF. If all the people of the world had the same lifestyle as the typical American, 3.9 planet Earths would be needed to keep up with demand.

1.5 Earths would be required to meet the demands humanity currently makes on nature. For more than 40 years, humanity’s demand has exceeded the planet’s biocapacity—the amount of biologically productive land and sea area that is available to regenerate these resources. Source: WWF/Global Footprint Network, 2014

The report reads like one of the "alarm bells" U.S. President Barack Obama referenced in his climate change speech last week. Unfortunately, according to the WWF, the effects of climate change are only starting to be felt; most of the degradation of the past four decades has other causes. The biggest drivers are exploitation (think overfishing) responsible for 37 percent of animal population decline, habitat degradation at 31 percent, and habitat loss at 13 percent.

Global warming is responsible for 7.1 percent of the current declines in animal populations, primarily among climate-sensitive species such as tropical amphibians. Latin American biodiversity dropped 83 percent, the most of any region. But the toll from climate change is on the rise, the WWF says, and the other threats to animal populations aren't relenting.

For social and economic development to continue, humans need to take better account of our resources. Because right now, life on Earth is not a bull market.

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