By Jim Steele,director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University and author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism – Re-Blogged From http://www.WattsUpWithThat.com
Thirty years ago I never would have dreamed I would or could utter the words of my title. As a left-leaning young ecologist, I hated the way Limbaugh painted all environmentalists as “whackos”! I was a strong believer in the Endangered Species Act as a law that would ensure people stopped to consider win-win solutions for humans and all other species. I believed conservation science could guide us toward wise environmental stewardship, and when married to innovative entrepreneurial endeavors, we could build a better world for all. As director of a university environmental field station, I met people of all political persuasions eager to enjoy and protect the environment, and I believed both the left and right would rally around sound environmental science. So why did Rush label us as whackos? I saw Limbaugh’s polarizing polemics as an attack on the environment. But now I must agree with Rush’s recent view that “Apocalyptic, Fear-Mongering Accelerates the Decline of Our Culture”. In his critique of a newly published paper, “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction” (hereafter Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015), Rush correctly points out that it is just another example of apocalyptic fear mongering that drives some people into hopeless despair, while forcing others to ignore scientists’ steady drone that the end of the world is before us.
As an ecologist I read several papers a week, looking for pearls of wisdom that would make us better stewards of the environment. But Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015 offered absolutely nothing new and absolutely nothing useful. They simply created a framework that would dramatize their numbers stating, “Our analysis emphasizes that our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years.” Started to destroy…??? What are we now doing to suddenly promote mass extinctions?
Indeed more species have likely gone extinct in the past 500 years due to habitat loss, overhunting and invasive species than are known to have gone extinct over the past 400 thousand years, despite the extreme climate shifts between the ice age glacials and warm interglacials. But the bulk of those extinctions were the result of past human actions that are now being rectified. At this essay’s conclusion, I added a table for the first 100 of the 140 extinct bird species from the same IUCN database that Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015 used for their paper. Unlike Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015, I included extinction dates and the reason the IUCN has justified their extinction status. Notice that most extinct species inhabited islands where organisms are extremely sensitive to all invasive species. That damage has already been done. So in contrast to claims we are “entering” an era of accelerated mass extinctions, it would be more honest to say humans are now reversing what began 500 years ago.
Most island die-offs began shortly after Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World that encouraged worldwide exploration. Of the 100 extinct birds listed below, three species were extinct in the 1500s, 17 in the 1600s, 18 in the 1700s, 32 in the 1800s, and 30 in the 1900s. Overhunting claimed many island species like the Dodo early on, as hungry sailors and settlers struggled to survive. However a large proportion of recent extinctions happened unintentionally due to introduced rats that stowed away on visiting ships, (or more recently the introduced brown tree snake). Without natural predators, rat populations exploded. So islanders intentionally introduced cats, ferrets and mongoose to kill the rats. But island wildlife had evolved without any threat from land predators, so most species were behaviorally ill adapted to survive the onslaught of these new arrivals. Many island birds evolved flightlessness and explorers reported island species as remarkably tame. Most of the other extinct vertebrate species on the IUCN list suffered a similar fate in the wake of introduced species. Many of the most recent extinctions in the 1900s were simply distressed species succumbing to centuries of depredation from introduced species and lost habitat. Oddly enough, when the Christian Science Monitor hyped Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015 with How To Prevent The Sixth Mass Extinction, their only solution was a cure that is much worse than the disease. They resurrected Camille Parmesan’s pitch for widespread introduction of species into new habitats where climate change is predicted to create a more favorable environment. Not only has that remedy always caused disastrous ecological disruptions, but climate models have been notoriously awful about simulating regional climate changes.
The causes of past extinctions have been noted for decades and centuries. Instead of hammering the public with gloom and doom, Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015 would have served us better by reporting how extensive recent efforts are saving species. Globally people have been diligently working to prevent further island extinctions. For example, the Aleutian Goose was once believed to be extinct until a few individuals were found on a remote island. The goose had disappeared from all its other breeding islands because fur farmers had introduced arctic and red foxes. Recognizing the problem, humans quickly removed the foxes and the species rebounded immediately (as did many other breeding sea birds). The Aleutian Goose is now so abundant it is considered a pest on its wintering grounds. Similarly worldwide efforts to eradicate introduced “pest” species are reporting various levels of success. For a more hopeful outlook, and to appreciate how human efforts are promoting biodiversity, I suggest visiting the websites of organizations like Island Conservation or reading about successful eradications.
Unconscionably, although most past extinctions, as well as presently endangered species, are found on islands, and despite widespread local efforts that are preventing further island extinctions, Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015’s so-called “science” and self-prmoting press releases are only generating horribly despairing and deceptive headlines proclaiming, “Sixth mass extinction is here: Humanity’s existence threatened.”.
Why didn’t Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015 point out productive efforts that are preventing further extinctions? Why not offer real conservation guidance and optimism? It appears they prefer denigrating modern society and promoting apocalyptic fear mongering rather than promoting good conservation and good science. They wrote, “Modern extinction rates have increased sharply over the past 200 years (corresponding to the rise of industrial society) and are considerably higher than background rates”. But suggesting modern industrial society “corresponds” with those extinction is a horrible illusion. A stronger case can be made that industrial society will be wildlife’s savior.
Although the geometric growth of human populations for the past 500 years has undeniably led to increased habitat destruction and overhunting. But population growth may soon plateau and then reverse its growth trend. The “evils” of population growth have been the mainstay of influential apocalyptic predictions from Malthus in the 1700s to Ehrlich in recent decades. In Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, he warned of the mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation. But as Limbaugh noted, Ehrlich’s predictions have failed miserably. So perhaps his “new extinction research” is just an attempt to regain some support for his widely criticized “end of the earth” beliefs. But if Ehrlich is suggesting booming human populations will soon cause the Sixth Mass Extinction, then he has failed to report a more optimistic consensus that our modern industrial society is now reducing population pressures.
Ecologists divide animal reproductive strategies in to 2 broad categories. R-selected species provide little parental care and produce abundant young, anticipating high mortality. In contrast K-selected species produce few young but invest a lot of parental care. Modern industrial societies have encouraged humans to evolve from a R-selected to a K-selected species. Where humans once depended on cheap child labor to operate marginal subsistence farms, there was an economic advantage to having many children. In contrast industrial societies demand greater parental investment and more education, so reproduction is delayed and families are smaller. Furthermore mechanization of agriculture has reduced the demand for abundant cheap labor on