This is the first in a series of posts on the subject of extinction. I’m writing about it partly because the subject is fascinating in its own right (I’m a dinosaur fan, after all) and also because this is one of the strands in Stephen Emmott’s stage play Ten Billion last year and I’m interested in unpacking and critiquing the ideas expressed in the play. You can read an initial critical analysis of Ten Billion’s themes over at the Climate Resistance site (link below), written by Geoff Chambers with some input from myself, but it would also be good to take a further, more in-depth look into some of these themes.
So, extinction. During the play (which was actually more a sort of presentation or monologue on neo-Malthusian themes), Professor Emmott referred to it at least once, stating that species on Earth are becoming extinct a thousand times faster than the normal evolutionary rate, as humans consume the planet’s resources.
And if species were disappearing at a thousand times the normal rate, this would of course be highly alarming. It would look very much like the beginnings of a sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. And Emmott is not the only one saying it – you can read about the extinction crisis in science magazines, hear it mentioned in science programmes on the TV and radio, find it bundled up with other (and equally panic-inducing) themes such as human population growth, peak oil and so forth in articles by people such as biologist Paul R Ehrlich. It’s one of those facts that are repeated so often that there’s a general tendency to assume they’re true – that is, if people don’t put too much thought into the matter.
But is this true? And if it’s true, how do we know it’s happening? When people say that species are going extinct a thousand times faster than before, how are scientists supposed to be measuring it? And when did this idea start?
There’s much to explore on this subject, and I’m going to try and do so over several posts. But first, what I wanted to attempt to find out was when this idea first appeared in the media. I ran some searches, and the earliest result in Google’s online newspaper archive came from 19th August 1989, when several newspapers ran an Associated Press article mentioning a new report that had emerged from a study by the NSF or National Science Foundation in the US.
According to the article: “One quarter or more of the Earth’s species of animals, plants, microbes and fungi will become extinct without measures to preserve them, a National Science Foundation study said Friday.”
And: ‘”Unless the international community can reverse the trend,” the report said, “the rate of extinction over the next few years is likely to rise to at least 1,000 times the normal background rate of extinction and will ultimately result in the loss of a quarter or more of the species on Earth”.’
I then searched for and downloaded the NSF report from 1989. It is called “Loss of Biological Diversity: A Global Crisis Requiring International Solutions” (link below) and describes what it calls an “an ongoing, unprecedented loss” of biodiversity (the gist of the report might be expressed somewhat like: “The biodiversity crisis is very serious and huge. We don’t even know how huge it is. We need to gather more information – send us more funding.”) In the prologue, it says:
The extinction event that we are witnessing is the most catastrophic loss of species in the last 65 million years. Most importantly, it is the first major extinction event that has been caused by a single species, one that we hope will act in its own self interest to stem the tide.
Unless the international community can, indeed, reverse the trend, the rate of extinction over the next few decades is likely to rise to at least 1000 times the normal background rate of extinction, and will ultimately result in the loss of a quarter or more of the species on earth.
So here is the first instance that I can find of the “1000 times the normal background rate” idea. But that’s just the prologue – where else does the report mention it? It doesn’t, exactly. What it does mention is the theory of island biogeography, which states that “when natural communities have been reduced to less than 10% of their original area, half of the original species are at risk”, and this is something that I will return to, later.
And it also mentions, on page 3: “Estimates of species loss rates suggest that, unless current trends are reversed, from one quarter to one half of the earth’s species will become extinct in the next 30 years (Lovejoy 1980; Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 1981; Norton, 1986).”
There are some good pointers here for further investigation…
A few notes, at this stage:
1) Notice how “the rate of extinction over the next few decades” in the prologue of the actual report becomes “the rate of extinction over the next few years” in the AP news item? This is something I’ve noticed quite a bit in the environmental and climate debates – information gets distorted as it is passed on. Numbers get inflated, time scales are dramatically compressed – remember the business of the Himalayan glaciers in IPCC’s AR4?
2) Also notice how in 1989 they were saying that the extinction rate “is likely to rise to at least 1000 times the normal background rate”, while now Emmott and others are saying it’s already happening. Has there been a measurable increase in the rate between then and now?
3) Also note the fact that in the 1980s, the Ehrlichs and others were suggesting that between a quarter and a half of all species would become extinct in the next 30 years. Time, needless to say, has not been kind to that prediction! There is a historical pattern, of which this is a great example, of sweeping doom-laden predictions that come to nothing; however, there are genuinely intelligent people such as Professor Emmott who appear curiously unable to acknowledge the pattern of failure.
Much more later. Stay tuned!
Blog post “It’s a F*ct – We’re F*cked” on Climate Resistance:
National Science Foundation report “Loss of Biological Diversity: A Global Crisis Requiring International Solutions”: