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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
Trees held us in on all four sides so thick we could not see / I could not see any wrong in you, and you saw none in me.
— Woody Guthrie, Remember the Mountain Bed
May 22, 2008
Planet of Weeds: Tallying the Losses of Earth’s Animals and Plants

Written by David Quammen and published in Harper’s Magazine in October of 1998 everybody should read this article in its fully.

It’s a reminder of our small place in the world, and the dangerous potential of the future—a future that’s already 10 years old.

“…why has the rate of extinction—low throughout most of Earth’s history—spiked upward cataclysmically on just a few occasion?…The Ordovician extinction, 439 million years ago, entailed the disappearance of roughly 85 percent of marine animal species…The Devonian extinction, 367 million years ago, seems to have been almost as severe. About 245 million years ago came the Permian extinction, the worst ever, claiming 95 percent of all known animal species.” pp. 58

“How long is the lag between a nadir of impoverishment and a recoverty to ecological fullness? That’s another of [David] Jablonski’s research interests. His rough estimates run to 5 or 10 million years.” pp. 58

“…The consensus among conscientious biologists is that we’re headed into another mass extinction, a vale or biological impoverishment commensurate with the big five. Many experts remain hopeful that we can brake that descent, but my own view is that we’re likely to go all the way down.” pp. 58-59

“When did someone first realize that the concept might apply to current events, not just to the Permian or the Cretaceous?
[Jablonksi] begins sorting through memory, back to the early 1970s when the full scope of the current extinction problem was barely recognized…In 1976, a Nairobi-based biologist named Norman Myers published a paper in Science on that subject: in passing, he also compared current extinctions with the rate during what he loosely called ‘the great dying of the dinosaurs.’…in 1979, Myers published The Sinking Ark, explaining the problem and offering some rough projections. Between the years 1600 and 1900 by his tally, humanity had caused the extinction of about 75 known species, almost all of them mammals and birds. Between 1900 and 1979, humans had extinguished about another 75 known species…Myers guessed that 25,000 plant species present stood jeopardized, and maybe hundreds of thousands of insects. ‘By the time human communities establish ecologically sound life-styles, the fallout of species could total several million.’” pp. 59

“…Most conspicuous of the naysayers was Julian Simon, an economist at the University of Maryland, who argued bullishly that human resourcefulness would solve all problems worth solving, of which a decline in diversity of tropical insects wasn’t one.
In a 1986 issue of New Scientist, Simon rebutted Norman Myers, arguing from his own construal of select data that there was ‘no obvious recent downward trend in world forests—no obvious losses at all, and certainly no near catastrophic loss.’” pp. 59-60

“…perhaps the truest sentence [Simon] left behind was, ‘We must also try to get more reliable information about the number of species that might be lost with various changes in the forests.’ No one could argue.
But it isn’t easy to get such information. Field biologists tend to avoid investing their precious research time in doomed tracts of forest.

W.V. Reid of the World Resources Institute, in 1992 gathered numbers on the average annual deforestation in each of sixty-three tropical countries during the 1980s…He chose a standard mathematical model of the relationship between decreasing habitat area and decreasing species diversity, made conservative assumptions about teh crucial constant, and ran his various deforestation estimates through the model. Reid’s calculations suggest that by the year 2040, between 17 and 35 percent of tropical forest species will be extinct or doomed to be.
Robert. M. May, an ecologist as Oxford, co-authored a similar effort in 1995. May and his colleagues noted the five causal factors that account for most extinctions: habitat destructions, habitat fragmentation, overkill, invasive, species, and secondary effects cascading through an ecosystem from other extinctions….’Much of the diversity we inerited,’ May and his co-authors wrote, ‘will be gone before humanity sorts itself out.’
Teh most recent estimate comes from Stuart L. Pimm and Thomas M. Brooks, ecologists at the University of Tennessee…Pimm and Brooks concluded that 50 percent of the world’s forest-bird species will be doomed to extinction by deforestation occurring over the next half century.

Jablonski, who started down this line of thought in 1978, offers me a reminder about the conceptual machinery behind such estimates. ‘All mathematical models,’ he says cheerily, ‘are wrong. They are approximations. And the question is: Are they usefully wrong, or are they meaninglessly wrong?’” pp. 60-61

“…According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the rate of teh deforestation in tropical countries has increased (contrary to Julian Simon’s claim) since the 1970s, when Myers made his estimates. During the 1980s, as the FAO reported in 1993, that rate reached 15.4 million hectares…annually. South America was losing 6.2 million hectares a year…the Atlantic coastal forest of Brazil is at least 95 percent gone. The Phillipines, once nearly covered with rain forest has lost 92 percent. Costa Rica has continued to lose forest, despite that country’s famous concern for its biological resources…By the middle of the next century, if those trends continue, tropical forest will exist virtually nowhere outside of protected areas—that is, national parks, wildlife refuges, and other official reserves.
How many protected areas will there be? The present worldwide total is about 9,800, encompassing 6.3 percent of the planet’s land area. Will those parks and reserves retain their full biological diversity? No. Species with large territorial needs will be unable to maintain viable population levels within small reserves.” pp. 62

“…world population is still increasing, and even if average fertility suddenly, magically, dropped to 2.0 children per female, population would continue to increase (on the momentum of birth rate exceeding death rate among a generally younger and healthier populace) for some time…According to the U.N.’s middle estimate…among seven fertility scenarios, human population will rise from the present 5.9 billion to 9.4 billion by the year 2050, then to 10.8 billion by 2150 before leveling off…about 9.7 billion people will inhabit the countries included within Africa, Latin America, the Carribean, and Asia.” pp. 62

“We also need to remember that the impact of Homo sapiens on the biosphere can’t be measured simply in population figures. As the population expert Paul Harrison pointed out in his book The Third Revolution that impact is a product of three variables: population size, consumption level, and technology….High consumption exacerbates the impact of a given population, whereas technological developments may either exacerbate it further…or mitigate it…
According to Harrison’s calculations, population growth accounted for 79 percent of the deforestation in less-developed countries between 1973 and 1988…figures point toward an undeniable reality: more total people will need more total land. By his estimate, the minimum land necessary for food growing and other human needs (such as water supply and waste dumping) amount to one fifth of a hectare per person….that comes to another billion hectares of human-claimed landscape, a billion hectares less forest—even without allowing for any further deforestation by the current human population…This raises the vision of a very exigent human population pressing snugly around whatever patches of natural landscape remain.” pp. 63

“…the world’s poor also number about 1.1 billion people—all from households with less than $700 annually per member. ‘They are mostly rural Africans, Indians and other South Asians,’ [Alan] Durning writes. ‘They eat almost exclusively grains, root crops, beans and other legumes, and they drink mostly unclean water. They live in huts and shanties, they travel by foot, and most of their possessions are constructed of stone, wood, and other substances available from the local environment.’…It’s only reasonable to assume that another billion people will be added to that class, mostly in what are now the less-developed countries, before population growth stabilizes….if all the bright ideas generate by a human population of 5.9 billion haven’t yet relieved the desperate needfulness of 1.1 billion absolute poor, why should we expect that human ingenuity will do any better for roughly 2 billion poor in the future.” pp. 63-64

“[Thomas] Homer-Dixon said it more vividly: ‘This of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction.” pp. 64

“We shouldn’t take comfort in assuming that at least Yellowstone National Park will still harbor grizzly bears in the year 2150, that at least Royal Chitwan in Nepal will still harbor tigers…Those predator populations, and other species down the cascade, are likely to disappear.” _pp. 65

“…The additional dire factor is invasive species, fifth of the five factors contributing to our current experiment in mass extinction.
…Maybe you havent’ heard much about invasive species, but in coming years you will. The ecologist Daniel Simberloff takes it so seriously that he recently committed himself to founding an institute on invasive biology at the University of Tennessee…
The problem dates back to when people began using ingenious new modes of conveyance (the horse, the camel, the canoe) to travel quickly across mountains, deserts, and oceans, bringing with them rats, lice, disease microbes, burrs, dogs, pigs, goats, cats, cows, and other forms of parasitic, commensal or domesticated creature. One immediate result of those travels was a wave of island-bird extinctions, claiming more than a thousand species,…Dutch sailors killed and ate dodos during the seventeenth century, but probably what guaranteed the extinction of Raphus cucullatus is that the European ships put ashore rats, pigs and Macaca fascicularis, an opportunistic species of Asian monkey. Although commonly known as the crab-eating macaque, M. fascicularis will eat almost anything…the dodo hasn’t been seen since 1662.” pp. 65

“…the same trend of far-flung human travel that gave biogeographers tehir data also began to muddle and nullify those data, by transplanting the most ready and roguish species to new places and thereby delivering misery unto death for many other species. Rats and cats went everywhere, causing havoc in what for millions of years had been sheltered, less competitive ecosystems. They Asiatic chestnut blight and the European starling came to America…Sometimes these human-mediated transfers were unintentional, sometimes merely shortsighted. Nostalgic sportsmen in New Zealand imported British red deer; European brown trout and Coastal rainbows were planted in disregard of the native cutthroats of Rocky Mountain rivers…the Atlantic sea lamprey found its own way up into Lake Erie, but only after the Welland Canal gave it a bypass around Niagara Falls.” pp. 66

“The problem is vastly amplified by modern shipping and air transport, which are quick and capacious enough to allow many more kinds of organism to get themselves transplanted into zones of habitat they never could have reached on their own. The brown tree snake, having hitchhiked aboard military planes from New Guinea region near the end of World War II, has eaten most of the native forest birds of Guam…One study…reports that in the United States 4,500 nonnative species have established free-living populations, of which about 15 percent cause severe harm…Michael SoulĂ©, a biologist much respected for his work on landscape conversion and extinction, has said that invasive species may soon surpass habitat loss and fragmentation as the major cause of ‘ecological disintegration.’ Having exterminated Guam’s avifauna, the brown tree snake has lately been spotted in Hawaii.” pp. 66

“The city pigeon, a cosmopolitan creature derived from wild ancestrya s a Eurasian rock dove (_Columba livia_) by way of centuries of pigeon fanciers whose coop-bred birds occasionally when AWOL, is a weed. So are those species that, benefiting from human impacts upon landscape, have increased grossly in abundance or expanded their geographical scope without having to cross an ocean by plane or by boat…Biologists frequently talk of weedy species, meaning animals as well as plants.” pp. 67

“Now, as we sit in [Jablonksi’s] office, he repeats ‘It’s just a question of how much the world becomes enriched in these weedy species.’ Both in print and in talk he uses ‘enriched’ somewhat caustically, knowing that the actual direction of the trend is toward impoverishment
…the two converse trends I’ve described—partitioning the world’s landscape by global transport of weedy species—produce not converse results, but one redoubled result, the further loss of biological diversity…portending a near-term future in which Earth’s landscape is threadbare, leached of diversity, heavy with humans and ‘enriched’ in weedy species. That’s an ugly vision, but I find it vivid. Wildlife will consist of the pigeons and the coyotes and the white-tails, the black rats_(Rattus rattus)_ and the brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) … Forests will be tiny insular patches existing on bare sufferace, much of their biological diversity (the big predators, the migratory birds, the shy creatures that can’t tolerate edges, and many other species linked inextricably with those) long since decayed away.” pp. 67

“I see this world implicitly foretold in the U.N. population projections, the FAO report on deforestation, the northward advance into Texas of Africanized honeybees, the rhesus monkeys that haunt the parapets of public buildings in New Delhi, and every fat gray squirrel on a bird feeder in England.” pp. 68

“Now we come to the question of human survival, a matter of some interest to many…By seizing such a huge share of Earth’s landscape, by imposing so wantonly on its providence and presuming so recklessly on its forgivingness, by killing off so man species, they say, we will doom our own species to extinction. This is a commonplace among the environmentally exercised….
Jablonski also has his doubts. … ‘Oh, we’ve got to be one of the most bomb-proof species on the planet,’ he says. ‘We’re geogrphically widespread, we have a pretty remarkable reproductive rate, we’re incredibly good at co-opting and monopolizing resources. I think it would take really serious, concerted effort to wipe out the human species.’ … Homo sapiens itself is the consummate weed. … But there’s a wide range of possible circumstances, Jablonski reminds me, between the extinction of our species and the continued growth of human population, consumption and comfort. ‘I think we’ll be one of the survivors,’ he says, ‘sort of picking through the rubble.’” pp. 68

“‘A lot of things are going to happen that will make this a crummier place to live—a more stressful place to live, a more difficult place to live, a less resilient place to live—before the human species is at any risk at all.’ … Maybe we’ll pull back before our current episode matches the Triassic extinction or the K-T event. Maybe it will turn out to be no worse than the Eocene extinction, with a 35 percent loss of species.
…What will increase most dramatically as time proceeds, I suspect, won’t be generalized misery or futuristic modes of consumption but the gulf between two global classes experiencing those extremes. … So the world’s privileged class…will probably still manage to maintain themselves inside Homer-Dixon’s stretch limo, drinking bottled water and breathing bottled air and eating reasonably healthy food that has become incredibly precious, while the potholes on the road outside grow ever deeper.
…evolution never rests. It’s happening right now, in weed patches all over the planet. … What I’ve tried to describe here is not an absolute end but a very deep dip, a repeat point within a long, violent cycle. Species die, species arise. The relative pace of those two processes is what matters. … So we might reasonably imagine an Earth upon which, 10 million years after the extinction (or, alternatively, the drastic transformation) of Homo sapiens, wondrous forests are filled with wondrous beasts. That’s the good news.” pp. 69

Posted by skooter at 5:07 AM This entry is filed under Science, Technology.
This entry is tagged: Environmentalism, Population, Poverty, World Hunger

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