The Sixth (at least…) Mass Panic about Species Extinction

The alleged “Sixth Mass Extinction!” is the re-heated media panic currently being mindlessly parroted across the Web. Today’s Obscura magazine notes that this claim surfaces about once a year, and has the Web links to prove it. Obscura has also talked to one the world’s leading experts in the field. Dr. Stuart Pimm simply dismisses the current media hysteria and points out the flaws…

“Dr. Stuart Pimm … serves as the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University, has studied extinction for his entire career, and authored a paper on the current mass extinction, in Science, as far back as 1995. “This is a story that crops up every year,” he says. “If I might draw an analogy, it’s as if the world woke up one day and said ‘oh my god! people are dying! and they’re dying from disease, and this is really terrible!’ [while] there are more encouraging developments that the public could be discovering for the first time instead [but doesn’t, because the media simply won’t talk about them].”

What he’s talking about is that species extinction is a natural and expected phenomena, as is the parallel emergence of new species. Indeed, the latest research — which has sparked the current media parroting — appears to say that extinction probabilities are actually far lower than previous estimates (2.3% of all vertebrate species die over the next century). Worse, one of the new paper’s authors is Paul Ehrlich, a man who has been proven time and again to be flat wrong in his feverishly apocalyptic eco-predictions. Yet these and other inconvenient facts are ignored and we get hysterical headlines like: “75 Percent of Animal Species to be Wiped Out in ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’”.

Nor did the mass media parrots stop to read the article by the venerable Stewart Brand in the April 2015 issue of Aeon magazine: “We are not edging up to a sixth mass extinction”

“Many now assume that we are in the midst of a human-caused ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ to rival the one that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. But we’re not. … The phrase ‘all currently threatened species’ comes from the indispensable IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which maintains the Red List of endangered species. Its most recent report shows that of the 1.5 million identified species, and 76,199 studied by IUCN scientists, some 23,214 are deemed threatened with extinction. So, if all of those went extinct in the next few centuries, and the rate of extinction that killed them kept right on for hundreds or thousands of years more, then we might be at the beginning of a human-caused Sixth Mass Extinction.”

But we’re not, and it’s not likely that we ever will be — unless we all revert to hunter-gatherers needing 50 sq. miles of land each to support one extended family. As Matt Ridley pointed out in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, while we may be contributing to isolated occasional extinctions (human poaching and the rhino, for instance) we can also be fairly sure we’re not causing any ‘mass’ extinction…

“so long as you count Australia as an island, because its rash of extinctions was caused mostly by introduced aliens — [then] the rate at which continents are losing species is remarkably slow, despite huge changes in habitat wrought by human beings. According to the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 122 bird species and 58 mammals have gone extinct in the last 500 years. But of these, the independent scholar Willis Eschenbach has concluded, only six birds and three mammals were on continents — out of 8,971 and 4,428 continental species, respectively. None [of these extinctions] was exclusively a forest dweller, and none was extinguished exclusively by habitat loss.”

So if Ridley is correct then nearly all the historic species extinctions have happened to isolated, vulnerable species living on islands. A fact which is conveniently forgotten by those eager to blame capitalism and ‘greed’ for such things.

The gloomsters have been here before. In 2007 leftist newspaper The Independent wailed that… “our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by 2100” (The Independent, 30th Apr 2007). Indeed, on one of the gloomsters’ earlier estimates all species on earth should have died by 2015. So the gloomsters sometimes alternate “Sixth Mass Extinction!” with a slightly different and more backward-looking claim, that the “Earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years”. That claim is about overall volume rather than species, and I fisked and debunked it here back in January. I found, buried deep in the WWF report and unreported by the media, that the…

“WWF [actually] seems to have presented evidence for optimism. The Report shows that all types of species grew in numbers in the world’s temperate regions, and wildlife is also currently doing rather well overall in Africa. In the developed world, which is likely to have the most reliable and lengthy data, wildlife numbers are up by 10% overall.”

Of course, there is cause for concern, most especially in the tropics and in the warmer oceans of the world. Amphibian species loss in Central America, forest loss in Indonesia and Brazil/Paraguay, and very heavy over-fishing in South-East Asia are all specific areas that require urgent action. It is possible that humanity is somewhat accelerating the natural cycle of species die-off and new species emergence, in certain niche habitats as these are denuded or destroyed in some eco-regions. But, over the next century or so, humanity is generally on course to replenish vast areas of habitat and bio-diversity due to new conservation, the confluences and synergies of all our older conservation measures of the last 50 years, and also total habitat restoration opportunities arising from all the new farming efficiencies. Not only have we provided a wealth of new niches in which speciation is undoubtedly occurring, but we’re set to provide far more of these in the near future.

So the answer to such local eco-problems is not to push out dubious stories of global apocalyptic doom. By doing so the gloomsters may temporarily help fill the coffers of a few mega eco-charities, gain a few grants and sell a few books, but they will ultimately cause many in the developing world to shrug and say: “If the West says that the situation is so hopeless, why should we worry…?”