The Extinction Crisis- 45 Years of Crying “Wolf?”

environment_cartoon2While we were discussing the extinction crisis, I had a vague memory (boy, all those old memories are getting fairly vague!) about past predictions by scientists of future cataclysmic environmental events.

While looking around the web, I found this in Reason magazine in 2000 (15 years ago). Yes, Reason magazine, but the quotes are either real quotes or not (couldn’t find the originals online). The link is to page 3 of the article, which talks about biodiversity. Of all the people mentioned, I know Roger Sedjo regularly works with forests and numbers about forests.

The below article was written in 2000, and the First Earth Day was in 1970.

Worries about declining biodiversity have become popular lately. On the first Earth Day, participants were concerned about saving a few particularly charismatic species such as the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon. But even then some foresaw a coming holocaust. As Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look, “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.” Writing just five years after the first Earth Day, Paul Ehrlich and his biologist wife, Anne Ehrlich, predicted that “since more than nine-tenths of the original tropical rainforests will be removed in most areas within the next 30 years or so, it is expected that half of the organisms in these areas will vanish with it.”

There’s only one problem: Most species that were alive in 1970 are still around today. “Documented animal extinctions peaked in the 1930s, and the number of extinctions has been declining since then,” according to Stephen Edwards, an ecologist with the World Conservation Union, a leading international conservation organization whose members are non-governmental organizations, international agencies, and national conservation agencies. Edwards notes that a 1994 World Conservation Union report found known extinctions since 1600 encompassed 258 animal species, 368 insect species, and 384 vascular plants. Most of these species, he explains, were “island endemics” like the Dodo. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to habitat disruption, hunting, and competition from invading species. Since 1973, only seven species have gone extinct in the United States.

What mostly accounts for relatively low rates of extinction? As with many other green indicators, wealth leads the way by both creating a market for environmental values and delivering resource-efficient technology. Consider, for example, that one of the main causes of extinction is deforestation and the ensuing loss of habitat. According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, what drives most tropical deforestation is not commercial logging, but “poor farmers who have no other option for feeding their families than slashing and burning a patch of forest.” By contrast, countries that practice high yield, chemically assisted agriculture have expanding forests. In 1920, U.S. forests covered 732 million acres. Today they cover 737 million acres, even though the number of Americans grew from 106 million in 1920 to 272 million now. Forests in Europe expanded even more dramatically, from 361 million acres to 482 million acres between 1950 and 1990. Despite continuing deforestation in tropical countries, Roger Sedjo, a senior fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, notes that “76 percent of the tropical rain forest zone is still covered with forest.” Which is quite a far cry from being nine-tenths gone. More good news: In its State of the World’s Forests 1999, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization documents that while forests in developing countries were reduced by 9.1 percent between 1980 and 1995, the global rate of deforestation is now slowing.

“The developed countries in the temperate regions appear to have largely completed forestland conversion to agriculture and have achieved relative land use stability. By contrast, the developing countries in the tropics are still in a land conversion mode. This suggests that land conversion stability correlates strongly with successful economic development,” concludes Sedjo, in his chapter on forestry in The True State of the Planet, a collection of essays I edited. In other words, if you want to save forests and wildlife, you had better help poor people become wealthy.

13 Comments

  1. Interesting. And with some of it, I see your point. But it’s a narrow analysis. I’ll be even more interested when you post a followup blog with research on the habitat values in existing forests now compared to pretty much any date previously in history.

    • Natalie, I am not making a claim that things are hunky-dory with forests. I am questioning a specific claim that we are facing an “extinction crisis”. Still, you’re right, I think I will do a followup post. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • Great! Don’t forget clean water and aquatic habitat when you do it, and thus roads, pesticide use on industrial forests (the Reason article made me gag when it wrote about “chemically assisted” tree farms), the gazillion miles of roads and impacts on those for terrestrial and aquatic habitat, landslides, tree buffers… etc. And the differences in federal/state/private forest management (as best you can, but generally speaking it’s important how differently they are managed).

  2. Given there exists no professional nor personal accountability within the taxpayer funded agency providing your generous retirement benefits Sharon; and given your curiously frequent references to personal spiritual pursuits, I can understand the conundrum of a nagging and inevitable existential / moral dissonance arising from reflecting on a career with an agency which has operated on a colossal scale of mismanagement of habitat on over 190 million acres of public lands. For that you have many excuses., some even plausible.

    Habitat loss, for the purposes of this discussion, resides upon the higher order of causation of extinction of species (and since you reference the ICUN itself, replete with its 25 chapters of the World Wildlife Fund overseeing habitat loss in 25 countries of the planet in the service of “market based solutions” necessary to “incentivize” multinational for-profit corporations to provide shareholder profits for the rich and “stakeholder” disasters for the indigenous…); and since those disappearing species are estimated by credentialed professionals to be erased at the rate of over 100,000 species annually, and not even having enjoyed the privilege of being “discovered” and thus, relegated to oblivion unnamed…

    I’m moved to reflect on one example of such agency (that is, your USFS) mismanagement and the similarly staggering scale of institutional denial (oozing from it and this post as the oozing from a decubitus ulcer which will never heal) and not coincidentally, pertaining to wolves precariously existing within our largest national forest, the Tongass.

    Alas, for all the preceding words I have enlisted, in just two of your own words,”Crying Wolf ?”, says it all, as its question cleverly mocks and employs for its own use, a child’s parable for its own purposes of enabling Denial.

    And of all things, this happens to concern an endemic wolf in our “last frontier” (which I know you are well aware of ) residing within and by what remains of our last remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest habitat–

    Canis lupus ligoni , an endemic subspecies of wolf having flourished on our largest island — Prince of Wales Island — for many thousands of years, is directly threatened by your former agency’s past and current machinations of utter landscape level mismanagement — and presently conducting the largest old growth timber sale in many many years on the Tongass — the Big Thorne Timber Sale.

    Your incapacity for objectivity on this matter thus revealed, calls into question your capacity for having practiced unfettered science, or for that matter even NEPA review in the publics’ best interest.

    Given the agency intimidation, retaliation and expungement of its whistleblowers, I can understand the disincentive such agency practices might have had on your conscience. Now that your retirement plan is no longer at stake though, I suspect an even more substantial threat looms beyond mere cognitive dissonance — a career in which inescapable existential dissonance, and moral dissonance must be reconciled.

    Good luck with that.

    • David, we disagree about forest practices and their impacts, and the work of the Forest Service. The point of this blog is to see where others are coming from and to discuss our philosophical and practical differences.

      When people accuse others of being immoral, though, I find that it’s not generally helpful to better understanding that other person’s position.

        • OK, here you go:
          I started out saying what I thought about the issue.

          You brought up morality in terms of..
          “I can understand the conundrum of a nagging and inevitable existential / moral dissonance arising from”

          “I suspect an even more substantial threat looms beyond mere cognitive dissonance — a career in which inescapable existential dissonance, and moral dissonance must be reconciled.”

          I don’t actually have any “moral dissonance” so.. it kind of sounds like you are questioning the morality of my judgments on the issue. But I’m glad to know that’s not what you meant.

  3. “Pangloss most cruelly deceived me when he said that everything in the world is for the best.”

    Possibly a fifteen-year-old magazine article by the libertarian journalist Ronald Bailey isn’t the most authoritative source you could find.

    Here’s what FAO says, not in 1999 but in 2014, for what it’s worth: “The global rate of deforestation has slowed in the last decade, but it is still alarmingly high in many parts of the world and the MDG indicator on forests has not been achieved. Without convincing evidence of the many contributions of forests to sustainable development, policymakers are unlikely to take decisive action to discontinue land-use policies that favour the conversion of forests to agriculture and other land uses.” http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3710e.pdf

    Mr. Bailey makes the claim that “By contrast, countries that practice high yield, chemically assisted agriculture have expanding forests.” Perhaps he skipped journalism school on the day they lectured about non sequiturs. If not, maybe he could add to his “analysis” the fact that those same countries have, for example, higher annual sales of Beach Boys albums…or whatever. But then, Voltaire explored those same logical/philosophical jungles more than 250 years ago, “Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”

    And perhaps worth remembering, the boy who “cried wolf” turned out to be correct at the end of the story, but by then it was too late…

  4. Guy, I said pretty clearly I was using the Reason article for the quotes of apocalypse,

    ” but the quotes are either real quotes or not (couldn’t find the originals online). ”

    not for Bailey’s judgment of forest affairs and that of all the people cited only Sedjo (whom I don’t always agree with) has a track record on forests.

    Just because some can be inaccurately optimistic doesn’t mean that others can’t be inaccurately pessimistic.. which was the point.

    And the “crying wolf” was precisely my point. when people make cataclysmic predictions and they don’t pan out, people tend to think “those scientists are at it again”. So when someone comes along with something that really could be catastrophic , it will get overlooked.

  5. We have not killed off 75% of global fauna yet, but there is clear evidence that the global rate of extinction over the last few centuries is far above the natural background rate. http://rewilding.org/rewildit/images/Barnosky-6th-Great-Extinction-copy.pdf

    Furthermore:
    1) The rate of habitat loss is accelerating;
    2) climate change is a top-down threat to biodiversity and we are doing little to nothing to stop it;
    3) the oceans are acidifying at a rate unprecedented in the geologic record;
    4) biodiversity faces cumulative stresses (and positive feedbacks) from all of the above;

    To suggest that we are not causing an extinction crisis borders on denialism.

  6. Reading the comments and responses I noticed the old pattern of blame. I also note that there are those who express a form of outrage because species have not gone extinct thus opportunities have been lost without cause. Do we really need to see the worst to believe it can happen? I live in a timber dependent county. Some of us want to see an economic renaissance and other don’t care where the money comes from so long as it comes from an entitlement, the more federal the better. Point is, if we can’t discuss avoidance of calamity as thoughtful issue -educated individuals, knowing full well we do come awfully close to exceeding the ability of commercial and non-commercial species to maintain communities, the need to loudly voice consequences is absolutely necessary. What sort of a victory would being proven right – or wrong – be in terms of finality?

  7. The latest report out last Friday as described in layman’s terms in the Washington Post:

    ‘‘We can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way,’’ they write. ‘‘If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue, humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits.’’

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/science/2015/06/22/earth-brink-sixth-mass-extinction-scientists-say/yruUP9k1t8LMkgEe0iEoFL/story.html

    Has anyone seen any statements that this conclusion now reflects a scientific “consensus?”

    (Ironic the Paul Ehrlich is also quoted though.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *