Extinction

How Concerned Should You Be About Species Extinction?

Not very, says biologist R. Alexander Pyron

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AfricanAnimalsNataliaVolkovaDreamstime
Natalia Volkova/Dreamstime

A group of more than 15,000 scientists published "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice," in the journal Bioscience earlier this month. The new warning was published 25 years after a first warning was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists back in 1992. The alarmed scientists are worried about the deleterious effects of man-made global warming and human population growth, but also urgently warned that humanity has "unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century."

To prevent the coming mass extinction, the researchers urge that humanity take steps "(a) prioritizing the enactment of connected well-funded and well-managed reserves for a significant proportion of the world's terrestrial, marine, freshwater, and aerial habitats; (b) maintaining nature's ecosystem services by halting the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other native habitats; (c) restoring native plant communities at large scales, particularly forest landscapes; (d) rewilding regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics; (e) developing and adopting adequate policy instruments to remedy defaunation, the poaching crisis, and the exploitation and trade of threatened species…."

In a fascinating op-ed, "We don't need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution," over at the Washington Post, George Washington University biologist R. Alexander Pyron calls out "extinction fearmongers" and argues that "conserving biodiversity should not be an end in itself" and that "humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs." As Pyron further points out:

There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct. Thirty to 40 percent of species may be threatened with extinction in the near future, and their loss may be inevitable. But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. We don't depend on polar bears for our survival, and even if their eradication has a domino effect that eventually affects us, we will find a way to adapt. The species that we rely on for food and shelter are a tiny proportion of total biodiversity, and most humans live in — and rely on — areas of only moderate biodiversity, not the Amazon or the Congo Basin.

Developed human societies can exist and function in harmony with diverse natural communities, even if those communities are less diverse than they were before humanity. For instance, there is almost no original forest in the eastern United States. Nearly every square inch was clear-cut for timber by the turn of the 20th century. The verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains has all grown back in the past 100 years or so, with very few extinctions or permanent losses of biodiversity (14 total east of the Mississippi River, counting species recorded in history that are now apparently extinct), even as the population of our country has quadrupled. Japan is one of the most densely populated and densely forested nations in the world. A model like that can serve a large portion of the planet, while letting humanity grow and shape its own future.

Pyron's arguments mirror those made by United Nations Environment Programme researcher Martin Jenkins in his 2003 Science article, "Prospects for Biodiversity." In that article Jenkins noted, "In truth, ecologists and conservationists have struggled to demonstrate the increased material benefits to humans of 'intact' wild systems over largely anthro- pogenic ones [like farms]. . . . Where increased benefits of natural systems have been shown, they are usually marginal and local." Jenkins added that even if the dire projections of global extinction rates being made by conservation advocates are correct, they "will not, in themselves, threaten the survival of humans as a species."

I mourn the loss of species. Each species embodies complex genetic libraries, behavioral repertoires, and evolutionary histories that are both scientifically fascinating and aesthetically fulfilling. As a relatively well-off First Worlder, I have had the intense pleasure of walking in the wild within 40 feet of grazing rhinos and of swimming with Galápagos penguins. It would be a shame if future generations do not have an opportunity to enjoy such experiences.

In any case, with rising wealth, urbanization, and the approach of peak farmland, the dire predictions of mass extinction are most likely exaggerated.

Next week, I will finally get around to reviewing University of York conservation biologist Chris D. Thomas' superb new book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction.

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  1. Linked earlier, but appropriate here:

    “California birds nesting earlier to try to survive global warming”
    […]
    “Like many plants and animals, birds have been known to relocate to cooler places to compensate for rising temperatures, moving north or to higher elevations. But the research published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the extent to which birds are going to adapt in other ways to a changing world.”
    http://www.sfchronicle.com/bay…..379156.php

    Imagine! Living things do not shatter and collapse if the temperature changes a bit!

  2. I’m going to bet the commentariat takes a quasi-nihilistic approach to this question as is naturally required by their superior morals.

    1. You don’t even know what a quasi-nihilist approach is. Largely because it verges on oxymoron status but mostly because you are just regurgitating talking points. The points were libertarianism most closely approaches nihilism are precisely those points where you agree with them- sexual incontience, hatred of Christianity, hyper moral relativism and globalist knob gobbling.

    2. Tony, you believe rights are created by the state. You’re the most nihilistic person here. You have no basis for being morally indignant about anything.

      Also, how many human lives are you willing to end the Nicaraguan spotted tree frog? And then tell us who’s the nihilist.

      1. *to save the Nicaraguan spotted tree frog

  3. The only species extinction I worry about is the pig, as it gives us so much. Oh, and I suppose humans, too, as I personally don’t know how to make bacon, ham or pork chops.

    1. I agree. Meat from pigs tastes so much better than rhino or giraffe.

    2. Which is why pigs will never be extinct. That should be a lesson to all you other animals. If you don’t want to become extinct, taste better or have nice fur, or have some other use.

      1. “Which is why pigs will never be extinct.”
        I think it was David Freidman who mentioned that if you want a lot of trees, use a lot of paper.

    3. I agree, it’s very difficult to make human bacon.

  4. (a) prioritizing the enactment of connected well-funded and well-managed reserves for a significant proportion of the world’s terrestrial, marine, freshwater, and aerial habitats; (b) maintaining nature’s ecosystem services by halting the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other native habitats; (c) restoring native plant communities at large scales, particularly forest landscapes; (d) rewilding regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics; (e) developing and adopting adequate policy instruments to remedy defaunation, the poaching crisis, and the exploitation and trade of threatened species….”

    Items (a) thru (d) can be accomplished with a combination of education, private-sector advocacy, citizen action, and voluntary land trust contributions. With even the tiniest scrap of imagination, libertarian solutions can be found for these “problems”. Further, given that an ever-increasing proportion of developed country populations lives in – or close to – urban centers, it should only get easier in coming decades to leave habitats relatively untrammeled.

    Of course, that would require environmentalists do something other than complain that there aren’t enough laws. And that’s really their go-to tactic.

    1. How do they feel about GMO crops increasing yield with no larger footprint?

      1. That’s not their problem with GMO crops. Their problem with GMO crops is that they help feed poor black and brown people in Asia and Africa. That’s just not right.

    2. the key phrase there is “well funded”.

      follow the money.

      1. Forest with 401k?

    3. The most successful way to established the article’s priorities is regulated hunting. In the U.S., through Pittman-Robertson funding and hunting and fishing license fees, hunters and gun owners already provide 75 percent of wildlife management funding. In African nations with hunting programs, but few people wealthy enough to be local hunters, funding comes from U.S. and other first world hunters.

      There’s a long list of unendangered species resulting from such.

      But the “environmentalists” have hissyfits over that.

  5. This is the typical Libertarian don’t worry, be helpless message. Just call extinction natural evolution and never have to lift a Libertarian finger. I don’t want to see the extinction of beautiful animals. Our planet is getting more filthy and over populated by human garbage. Population reduction is necessary. Either humanely sterilize the human garbage now or wait until everything is so out of control that the only remedy is the gas chamber.

    1. Channeling the ghost of Margaret Sanger

    2. Re: ALWAYS RIGHT,

      I don’t want to see the extinction of beautiful animals.

      You can always gouge your eyes out. Your “wants” don’t become our imperatives all of a sudden. You can, respectfully, go fuck yourself.

    3. Overpopulated by humans? Please demonstrate your solution.

    4. Spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people.

      1. Spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people.

        I was working diligently at (or at the very least distracted by) varying tasks when you posted your comment, AlmightyJB, and was thus thwarted by your circumstantial advantage(s) and often admirable alacrity.

        Well done, Sir.

    5. I’ll give you 6/10. You give it away a bit too much at the end; still could pass for a real YouTube comment though.

      1. Yeah, seemed entirely too consistent to be real.

    6. I have the fix. Start by getting rid of your own garbage. I mean you. Yourself. Libertarians are totally ok with suicide.

    7. I don’t want to see the extinction of beautiful animals. Our planet is getting more filthy and over populated by human garbage. Population reduction is necessary. Either humanely sterilize the human garbage now or wait until everything is so out of control that the only remedy is the gas chamber.

      As always…you first.

      And nice to see somebody so vehemently opposed to evolution. It’s not a common stance I see much of.

    8. You don’t own a mirror do you?

      Wait, this is Tony’s other voice and he wants to sterilize what ? Non-government people?

  6. Unsustainable seafood just tastes better than the sustainable kind.

    1. Lionfish are killing off native species. I can’t understand why because they’re the most delicious fish that I’ve ever eaten.

      1. Nice.

  7. Well, I am a bit torn. I don’t agree with the Malthusian fearmongers, because they have cried wolf way more than one too many times, but I do recognize that there is a certain “tragedy of the commons” problem, insofar as it’s very difficult to privatize certain natural wildlife (birds, open-ocean critters) and so in a purely privatized world, there is little incentive for any property owner to take care of those guys. or to prevent their overfarming.

    1. There is also not particular concern with the extinction of one species; happens all the time and since humans don’t much care unless they are tasty, fuzzy, or we can anthropomorphize them, it doesn’t matter.
      Do I care if the northern spotted owl goes extinct, leaving on the the southern spotted owl? Call me when we run out of beer.

  8. OT good news:

    “Judge rules Seattle’s tax on the wealthy is illegal; city vows to appeal ”
    […]
    “”We are also living in a time of extreme income inequality that corrodes our social compact and causes many to wonder whether wealthy individuals are paying their fair share,” they said.”
    https://www.msn.com/en-us/
    news/us/judge-rules-seattles-tax-on-the-
    wealthy-is-illegal-city-vows-to-
    appeal/ar-BBFBlpo?OCID=ansmsnnews11

    So this is about making everyone feel equal!

    1. I’m wondering whether those wondering whether wealthy individuals are paying their fair share are paying their fair share.

      1. Clearly you aren’t using the social justice definition of “fair share”; you are guilty of hate speech.

  9. It would be a shame if they disappeared from the wild

    Not if they are properly BBQ’d.

  10. We need a good, cleansing plague. Kill off about 90% of the human population, and Gaia will again be happy.

    1. That wouldn’t be necessary if the people who say they believe this would cleanse Gaia of themselves. It’s almost enough to make one think the people who say this don’t really mean it.

      1. True. I remember getting weird looks in college when I pointed out that Paul Ehrlich doesn’t believe his own bullshit about overpopulation given that he had a child.

  11. (d) rewilding regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics

    We’d be much better off if we had the dinosaurs back.

    1. We’d be much better off if we had the dinosaurs back.

      Do you mean to imply that:

      1) The dinosaurs would suddenly be extant and (presumably in accordance to their individual capabilities) attempt to survive?
      2) The “we” in your response is meant in the current vernacular, one meaning of which is that “we” humans got your back.

      There is also this: Welcome back.

      1. Off am I to slumber.
        I shall look again at a later time.

      2. Just sarcasm.

        We are what we are and thrive because events occurred that favored it. Whatever/whoever comes next will similarly owe their dominance to whatever events transpire hence. The notion that evolution stopped with humans is laughable. Trying to stop it is an exercise in futility.

        Thanks, but I never really left.

        1. “The notion that evolution stopped with humans is laughable.”

          Similarly, the notion that the earth’s climate is currently ideal and should never change.

  12. dunno how personalized the ads are, but I’m getting one for a powered skateboard claiming “No boring commutes”.
    Well, getting across the Bay Bridge on a board is prolly not “boring”, so I’ll give them that.
    But an algorithm that targets old farts for board ads is not gonna make anyone money.

  13. Each species embodies complex genetic libraries, behavioral repertoires, and evolutionary histories that are both scientifically fascinating and aesthetically fulfilling….It would be a shame if future generations do not have an opportunity to enjoy such experiences.

    I agree with all that. I also think that these sentiments are a luxury good, so the best way to preserve biodiversity is to make people richer.

    1. Yup. The sooner the average Kenyan eats at KFC every day, the sooner the wild game becomes just a suburban nuisance.

  14. “Apex Predator” was my nickname in college.

    1. For a while now, I’ve wanted to have an apex predator BBQ. You can be the desert

  15. Our current “mass extinction” (which started thousands of years ago when humans spread out and killed most of the large land mammals and started drastically changing all ecosystems) is not like the other mass extinctions, where large swaths of the Earth were left barren and most of the wildlife on the planet died. We are not making the planet any less habitable for life in general, just some species. The Earth will be just fine. We wouldn’t be here today without those other mass extinctions, by the way.

    Maybe we are just a quick evolutionary error and bringing about our own extinction will just set the stage for cephalopods to take over the Earth and become more advanced than even we are.

    1. Humans played a role, but remember that at that same time (about 12,000 to 20,000 years ago) there was some real kick-ass climate change. Like a mile thick ice cap melting off of most of the northern continents.

  16. Looks like the vicious animals of ISIS/the Muslim Brotherhood have struck over in Egypt.

    Sad, but it’s definitely far preferable for them to be killing each other over there than to be killing us over here.

  17. If you are worried about extinctions (or globalclimatewarmingchange) you are science denier.
    Darwin’s theory is settled science.

    To stay on topic, please explain to me how much better the world would be if the passenger pigeon were still around.

  18. AM Linx?
    Go long on construction firms; subsidized garages for the middle class next up:

    “For drivers without garages, charging a big barrier to electric cars”
    […]
    “Even as prices for EVs fall and the cars’ ranges increase, the hassle of plugging them in remains daunting for those who have only street parking. It is a problem that San Francisco and other cities will have to solve…”
    http://www.sfchronicle.com/bus…..ate-result

    Yes, “San Francisco” must solve it! For the chillunz!

    1. San Francisco can either “fix” homelessness or “fix” the problems of rich folks plugging in their electric cars.

      We see what they REALLY think is vital.

  19. splendidly engineered?and largely empty

    US48

  20. “Thirty to 40 percent of species may be threatened with extinction in the near future, and their loss may be inevitable. But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. ”

    Man can probably survive but a 30 to 40% chance of our extinction in the near future is rather alarming all the same.

  21. With any luck the Democrats species will be extinct by 2020.

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