By Harold Brown
Every year around Earth Day (April 22), people everywhere are harshly reminded just how “unnatural” environmentalists consider humans. Humans, they argue, are against nature, and nature is being destroyed by humans.
It’s unfortunate. Creating this dichotomy of humans against nature not only confuses the environmental narrative, it claims a separation that doesn’t exist and disregards enough relationships to make it preposterous.
A striking recent example is the oft-repeated claim that species are threatened with extinction by human activities. National Geographic, the Public Broadcasting System, the World Wildlife Foundation and others have repeated the theme that “Current rates of extinction are 1,000 to 10,000 times the background (before humans) rate of extinction.”
Sometimes the exaggeration is milder: “100 to 1,000 times the background rate.”
The causes most cited are exploitation, habitat loss, global warming and, of course, the concerted effort of humans to avoid their own extinction.
But human-caused extinction proves people’s connection with nature, not separation from it. The only “unnatural” part of it is that people know – are aware of it – and some of us may even regret it. Certainly, thousands and thousands of species have participated in extinctions without knowledge or care.
The confusion about people’s connectedness to nature doesn’t even come close to the confusion about the number of species and the degree to which people influence extinctions.
Some estimates of the total global number of species range from 3 million to 100 million. According to a 2011 article in PLOS Biology, however, “In spite of 250 years of taxonomic classification and over 1.2 million species already catalogued in a central database, our results suggest that some 86 percent of existing species on Earth and 91 percent of species in the ocean still await description.”
If only 10 percent of species are known, how can the number of extinctions be calculated or predicted?
The vast ignorance about species numbers stems largely from the small size, inconspicuous nature and inaccessible habitats of so many species. Science has naturally concentrated on the most visible, most useful and most harmful of species.
But species counts are unreliable even in well-known groups, like birds. A 1988 publication reported, “new birds continue to be found at the rate of about three species per year (against a total of around 8,000 species).” Most recent reports give a total of about 10,000 species of birds, an increase of about 70 per year since 1988.
More significant, a 2016 publication concluded that recent estimates are low by one-half and that bird species number about 18,000 – an increase of several hundred per year since 1988. Surely this increase does not represent the evolution of new species but illustrates, instead, the difficulty of finding and gathering all birds into clear-cut groups that experts agree are distinct species.
Consider the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, alternately declared extinct and rare for more than three-quarters of a century. It was listed as threatened in 1988, extinct in 1994 and 1996, but “Critically Endangered” since 2000. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reportedly spent $20.3 million on its recovery from 2003 to 2013.
Twenty million dollars spent on a species that may be extinct? Should it not be found first?
This conundrum – “saving” it without being able to find it – illustrates the problem of conclusions and predictions about species extinctions. This is the largest woodpecker in the United States (20 inches tall, 30-inch wing span, weighing over a pound). And the species is still up in the air – or not.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, “Until hard evidence is obtained though, this subspecies (another may occur in Cuba) should be considered possibly extinct.”
If the biggest woodpecker cannot be proved existing or extinct for the past 80 years, how can conclusions or predictions be made about tiny species like flies, fleas, mollusks and minnows, and the millions of microscopic species.
Not even primates, the order of animals to which we belong, are completely enumerated. Mammal Species of the World database reports the number of our primate relatives increased from 233 species in 1993 to 376 in 2005. Surely it was a matter of miscounting; we and our relatives are not evolving that fast.
In fact, primates have been disappearing, according to “Primate Adaptation and Evolution.” It notes, “The vast majority of primate taxa that have ever lived are now extinct.” Did humans cause the extinction of the species that spawned us?
Perhaps we did. The Neanderthals were such a low class, we probably avoided them – once we got above our raising. Perhaps we disliked them enough to exploit them and destroy their habitat. Perhaps humans adapted to climate change and they didn’t. And being the “natural” species that they were, perhaps they accepted extinction gracefully.
University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of, “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonprofit, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 21, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.