Sunday, March 13, 2016

Global Solution to Extinction


                                             Comments due by March 28, 2016.

DURING the summer of 1940, I was an 11­year ­old living with my family in a low­ income apartment in Washington, D.C. We were within easy walking distance of the National Zoo and an adjacent strip of woodland in Rock Creek Park. I lived most of my days there, visiting exotic animals and collecting butterflies and other insects with a net that I had fashioned from a broom handle, coat hanger and cheesecloth. I read nature books, field guides and past volumes of National Geographic. I had already conceived then of a world of life awaiting me, bottomless in variety. Seventy­six years later, I have kept that dream. As a teacher and scientist I have tried to share it. The metaphor I offer for biological diversity is the magic well: The more you draw, the more there is to draw. But today the dream is at risk. Civilization is at last turning green, albeit only pale green. Our attention remains focused on the physical environment — on pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land and, of course, the great, wrathful demon that threatens all our lives, human­ forced climate change. But Earth’s living environment, including all its species and all the ecosystems they compose, has continued to receive relatively little attention. This is a huge strategic mistake. If we save the living environment of Earth, we will also save the physical, nonliving environment, because each depends on the other. But if we work to save only the physical environment, as we seem bent on doing, we will lose them both. So, what exactly is the current condition of the living environment, in particular its biological diversity and stability? How are we handling this critical element of Earth’s sustainability? To begin, how many species of organisms are known on the planet? Here, our knowledge is pathetically weak. At the present time, about two million species have been discovered, described and given a Latinized scientific name. But how many are there actually, known and unknown? Putting aside the bacteria and a distinctive group of microbes called the archaea (which I like to call together the dark matter of biology because so little is understood of their diversity), the best estimate we have of all the rest (the fungi, algae, plants and animals) is roughly 10 million, give or take a million. Except for the vertebrates (consisting of 63,000 described species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and the flowering plants (with approximately 270,000 species), relatively little is collectively known about millions of kinds of fungi, algae and most diverse of all, the insects and other invertebrate animals. And that matters, a lot: These least understood minions are the foundation of the living world. They are the little things that run the Earth. In short, we live on a little ­known planet. E.T. and other alien biologists visiting Earth would, I suspect, be appalled at our weak knowledge of our homeland. They would be mystified by the scant attention humanity gives to the life­forms on which our existence depends. The one major reserve in the United States that has been subjected to a complete census is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fifty thousand hours of field work there by specialists and assistants have yielded records of 3/13/2016 The Global Solution to Extinction ­ The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/opinion/sunday/the­global­solution­to­extinction.html 3/5 18,000 species of animals and microorganisms alone, with 40,000 to 60,000 considered likely on the roster when all transients, as well as rare and undescribed species, have been registered. The mapping of Earth’s biodiversity was not, as many assume, mostly completed in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has only begun. The study of biological diversity is absurdly slow. Today, only about 18,000 new species are being discovered and described each year. If we continue at this rate (I’ve described only about 450 new ant species in my own lifetime), the task of mapping life on Earth, or what is left of it, will not be completed until the 23rd century. That brings me to the extinction rate of species around the world. With data on the best known vertebrate species, and a lot of additional information from fossil studies and genetics, we can put the fraction of species disappearing each year at upward of a 1,000 times the rate that existed before the coming of humans. Most of this loss is occurring in tropical countries, and especially tropical forests on islands. But to bring it home to the United States, consider that from 1895 to 2006, 57 species and distinct geographic races of freshwater fishes were driven to extinction, which is 10 percent of the total previously alive; hence the rate of extinction was just under 900 times that which existed before the coming of humans. The global conservation movement, pioneered by the United States, has raised awareness of nature’s plight, and stimulated a great deal of excellent research. It has slowed the hemorrhaging of species, but is still a long way from stopping it. Conservation efforts are concentrated on the roughly one fifth of vertebrate species worldwide that are ranked as endangered to some degree. We have managed to stabilize or reverse the decline of one­fifth of the species in this group. A better record has been achieved within the United States by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which has brought  more species back to health than have been lost in the same time period to extinction. All this is progress, but the prospects for the rest of the century remain grim. The global conservation movement is like a surgeon in an emergency room treating an accident victim: He has slowed the bleeding by half. Congratulations, we might say — even though the patient will be dead by morning. Unless we wish to pauperize the natural world drastically and permanently, believing that later generations will be smart enough to find a way to bring equilibrium to the land, seas and air, then we, the current inheritors of this beautiful world, must take more serious action to preserve the rest of life. There is only one rational way to accomplish this goal, and that is to bring the extinction rate back to the level that existed before the worldwide expansion of human populations. The disappearance of natural habitat is the primary cause of biological diversity loss at every level — ecosystems, species and genes, all of them. Only by the preservation of much more natural habitat than previously envisioned can extinction be brought close to a sustainable level. The only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly increase the area of refuges, from their current 15 percent of the land and 3 percent of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. That amount, as I and others have shown, can be put together from large and small fragments around the world to remain relatively natural, without removing people living there or changing property rights. This method has been tested on a much smaller scale at the national and state park levels within the United States. This step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great and universal benefit, if we wish it so. I have to think that the dream of a boy from so long ago has a chance to endure. Edward O. Wilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of “Half ­Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”

15 comments:

Rowan Lanning said...

This is a fascinating article. It reminds me of a post I once read on a blog entitled 'Giant Pandas should be allowed to die out'. It argues that we spend multitudes of time, energy, and money in making sure pandas are protected and able to breed further, even though the panda itself is not a strong species capable of survival. In making sure they are protected, pandas are actually depleting the resources we could be using to help protect other species, like the tiger which could become extinct within the next two decades. The reason we focus so much of our efforts on the pandas is because... wait for it... they're cute. Yes, even our reasons for helping keep species alive is completely anthropocentric. Granted, the land protected for pandas also helps support other species that share the same lands, but the intention is not the same. The shift needs to come from a worldwide cultural shift in perspective that takes the focus away from humanity as an elevated species and back towards viewing humanity as a part of something bigger. The coexistance is key.

Anonymous said...

The goal stated at the end - half the planet - is a big one. I think it kind of goes back to the concept of creating a new environmental paradigm, that is considering the environment more so than we have done in the past. This article touches on it quite a bit, with regards to identifying species and correcting the fact that we know so little about the planet. I think with a new paradigm, we re-adjust our way of doing things with the environment in consideration. It might also involve changing the reason we value the environment. I think the way most of society approached the environment now is purely anthropocentric, when maybe it is in our best interest to consider the environment as having inherent value. We don't know enough about how it works to take undue risks, so maybe its best if we looked at the environment entirely differently.
-Carl Wojciechowski

Fatimah M. said...

I have to say that this is a very fascinating article. The first couple of sentences really engaged me because living within walking distance of a National Zoo and Park is amazing! It's disappointing not to be able to see exotic animals anymore because of the lack of care for the environment. I have always thought about the millions of species that were living on the planet before human "arrived" and said we have ruined their environment right from the beginning. Beforehand, they had places to run freely, but now we have detained them into little zoos for display. We try to put them in their "natural environment" but it's really our environment with fake props to make the animals believe it's their environment. I don't necessarily agree with the zoos because of that particular thing. It is true that the physical and nonliving environment.

Kaitlynn Brady said...

The expansion of the human population has completely wreaked havoc on all kinds of systems all over the world. I agree that preservation and coexistence with all species is essential to all of our survival. This goes back to the previous article about the GM mosquitos. I think it is extremely important that nature is not tampered with. Whether it be trying to save a species or killing off a species, nature has had its own way of survival of the fittest for centuries before humans (hence the evolution of humans). I don't think it is our job to determine what lives and what survives, we are just as apart of the entire ecosystem just as a mosquito would be. We all play our apart to ensure homeostasis. It is important that we let nature decide the evolution of all species and learn to coexist with the current status of our ecosystem instead of destroying it and then later trying to salvage it.

-Kaitlynn Brady

Christina Marciante said...

I never really took into consideration endangered species when looking at environmental issues. This article has opened my eyes to how little we focus on this topic. When trying to save endangered species, we only focus on species that are "cute" and never really care about insects. There is a lot of talk in the news now about saving bees because they contribute so much to ecosystems and help us greatly. If you remove one species, the whole food chain will become disrupted. I also found it interesting that he stated that we don't know our planet well, which is very true. If you live in an urban area, then you're really disconnected to nature and the issues it is currently facing.

Johnny Lopez said...

Animal conservation legislation and policy has been one of my personal favorite topics in Environmental Studies. Biodiversity is extremely fragile and essential to Earth's prosperity. From pop culture, I have read about the endangerment of the African rhino, Honey Bees, Leatherback Turtle, South China Tiger, and Sumatran Elephant. Although knowledge about conservation has improved the status of critically endangered species and government regulations like the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has improved ecological stability, much more work needs to be done. Furthermore, I think philosophy plays a role in environmental conservation. I think people would want to save life that has instrumental value, whereas instrinsic value may be deemed "unnecessary". Although the physical environment is important, the living environment is essential to our survivial. Like most issues in environmental science, everything is interconnected. One problem will have an profound effect on another situation, and so on.

Megan Brown said...

Endangered species has always been something that fascinated me when I was a child. This article reminded me how important of an issue this is and how little it is talked about in this world. When it is talked about, it is talked about the "cute" animals that people love to say are they're favorite animals, but not many people tend to think about the insect and how important they are. No matter what species it is, they are all extremely important in the food chain. I think people tend not to think of how important all species are to the food chain and to each other. I am reminded by this article to be aware of the importance of everything and how some people are just so disconnected and do not know!

SUET SZE AU said...

Written by SUET SZE AU

This article is interesting and inspiring. Mainstream environmentalists focus heavily on the issues of physical environment, like pollution and climate change. But they always underestimate the importance of living environment (species, biological diversity and stability). As the writer said, if we save the living environment of Earth, we will also save the physical environment, but if we only save the physical environment, we will lose both of them. We should do something to slow down the species extinction rate to protect our environment. As natural habitat is important for the existence of the species, we should try to preserve more natural environment. We should also put more resources to discover all the species in our planet.

Brian Frank said...

One thing that definitely peaked my interests on this article was the basis that we are not aware and have yet to indentify all of the organisms that are on this planet. For all we know there could be an organism that has the ability to help us in theprocess of sustainablity and we could be destroying the ecosystems in which they reside. Everything thing we is normally inflicted upon us so I believe steps have to be taken carefully in order to preserve what is left. If resources are allocated correctly we can strive to discover the specimens that inhabit this earth that we are not aware of. The author makes a good point in saying that the percent of preserved land need to be expanded because if species are killed off before even knowing there purpose due to clearing land we are ultimately hurting ourselves in the end.

Rebecca McMann said...

More environmentalists focus on mostly physical, but we have to always looks as many sides to this shape. According to this article we can't underestimate theses other angles. There is also looking at the living environment. The article states how the living environment being fixed can fix the problems happening with physical environment. There is so much to do and so many ways to work with the problems in this world and we have to look at them all. Not many realize how important talking about these ideas are. So many things occur and they are such important topics and they are not talked about enough to match their importance. Every piece of life on this earth holds an important part in the balance on this earth and all had to be maintained properly. Biodiversity is so fragile and has to not be taken lightly at all. The topic is so fragile that people need to know and need to be aware. Everything that has gone on has affected a different system and so throws many things off balance. This throws us into a definite spiral of unraveling and bringing us to a definite end to balance. it would be very interesting to find more species. Before we kill everything off in the rain forest there could be so many species that we don't even know existed. More information in this field would be a huge help to stopping the end to biodiversity.

Ralph Green said...

I have always been aware on threatened and endangered species and I believe that this topic is of great concern. The article states that we have no discovered every living organism on this planet so that means we could be aiding in its extinction or it has already gone extinct. That also means that there is potentially species out there that could benefit us in a certain way but we have not found them and could also be destroying their habitat as we speak. Every species needs to be treated fairly and taken care of because Earth as a whole is an ecosystem and every species plays a specific role and if we lose to many the balance will soon fall.

Erika Anzalone said...

Endangered species have been a growing issue for many years now. WE as a worldwide community have depleted all of our resources so much, that we bring an organism to extinction? I believe that is the most selfish and inhumane thing that can occur. For our selfish need to industrialize and tear down the rainforest we are killing a variety of different species. This is being done routinely and continually all over the world and is therefore leading to the endangerment, if not extinction of many animals that had no problem surviving before human intervening with the environment.

Erika Anzalone

Micah Steele said...

I find the framing of which this article is being discussed is particularly helpful in terms of clarifying to average citizens the complexities and impact of our ever increasing population. Dietary choices of meat wreak havoc not only on our internal biological system, but these choices continue to encroach and erode natural habitat. The rate of species going extinct contrasted with the rate of which we are discovering the types of species we share our home with, is a clear indication that our anthropocentric perspective becomes an illogical and unsustainable path. As someone who follows politics, and has been intimate through service with the regions of the middle east conflicts of Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The use of the refugee example to highlight our undertaking of protecting endanger species served made it very relevant.

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