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Climate & Energy
From the President
Dwindling Wildlife: For Whom Does it Matter?
According to a report released recently by the National Audubon Society, climate change is “likely to so alter the bird population of North America that about half of the approximately 650 species will be driven to smaller spaces or forced to find new places to live, feed and breed over the next 65 years.” If they do not they could become extinct.1 The world as a whole has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years, according to authoritative research compiled by the World Wildlife Fund, the Zoological Society of London, and several other organizations.2 This follows the publication earlier this year of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction, an attempt to raise public awareness of an ongoing mass extinction that has been evident to scientists for at least the past decade.3

The Conservation Movement in the US began in the late 19th century in response to fears of running out of wood and other resources, but also because the potential impacts of human progress on birds and other wildlife were already becoming readily apparent. First came the citizens organizations—the American Bird Society, American Forestry Association, and others that worked to raise public awareness and press for government action. This action took the form of new agencies—the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1871, the US Forest Service in 1905; the National Park Service in 1916; the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1940—charged with protecting many of America’s remaining wild lands and ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources.

“America’s greatest idea,” as Ken Burns characterized the creation of national parks and other protected areas, prompted others around the world to take stock of declining wildlife populations, from western Europe to the plains of Africa, and take actions aimed at reversing these trends. Clearly unsustainable patterns of natural resource exploitation spawned entirely new areas of natural and social science focused on understanding the complex web of ecological relationships in the natural world, and expanding the production of renewable resources to stay ahead of the needs of a growing—and increasingly consumptive—human population worldwide. Advances in agriculture and forestry greatly increased the land’s productivity for food, shelter, and renewable energy. The new field of resource economics posited that free markets, the laws of supply and demand, and new technologies would temper resource scarcities and ensure that production and consumption would always be roughly in equilibrium.

And yet...after more than a century of concerted effort in conservation science, policy and management techniques, we find that populations of other animal species around the world have plummeted by half in less than the last fifty years. How else to describe this magnitude of loss over such a short period of time in the history of life on Earth? This is not just the loss of rare, sensitive, and local species—as bad as that is—but a precipitous drop in the populations of robust species that heretofore have been able to co-exist in a world dominated by human influences.
Frosty pine

So here is a question for the social scientists: How should we interpret so passive a public response to the finding that we are already several decades into a global mass extinction on the order of the one that ended the era of the dinosaurs? Perhaps it is not that people don’t care, but that they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge and the apparent lack of any realistic solutions. Or perhaps many have concluded that, while certainly tragic, these trends in the natural world don’t really matter, particularly as humanity becomes increasingly an urban species. For most of us, especially in the US, life is good; we may never have noticed these declines in wildlife populations had they not been discerned by watchful scientists.

Besides, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. There were five previous extinctions, after all. The planet survived and here we are today, perhaps even the beneficiaries of the cataclysmic events that gave mammals a shot at ecological dominance. Might we actually benefit from the current mass extinction as well, technologically rendered immune to the forces that are decimating the populations of so many other species? It may be worth considering that humanity was not around to survive any of those previous extinctions, and the higher order species that were present at the time did not fare nearly as well as microbes and bacteria.

The reality is that humanity is a highly adaptable and opportunistic species, and we will adapt as best we can to the global environmental changes that we helped put in motion, and now cannot stop.We are betting heavily that it will be at least a survivable world, notwithstanding the disappearance of so many other life forms.

I have a book, Animals of the World, that was given to me as a child. Its rich color illustrations of strange and exotic beasts drew me to its pages time and time again. I will pass this book along to my first grandchild, born this past summer, in hopes that in her own lifetime she too will still have a chance to experience this rich diversity of life—that the exotic beasts on these pages will not have become something akin to what the saber-toothed tiger and woolly mammoth were to my generation’s childhood.

More than half the world’s population is now urban and increasingly distant from natural systems.4 But environmental change that has eliminated half the world’s wildlife in a mere four decades cannot help but have significant implications for the future of humanity as well. Creating a broader understanding of the connections between healthy natural systems and the health and well-being of human societies may be the most critical mission of conservation in this century.

Al Sample

1 Barrington, F. 2014. Climate Change Will Disrupt Half of North America’s Bird Species, Study Says. The New York Times, September 8. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/us/climate-change-will-disrupt-half-of-north-americas-bird-species-study-says.html?_r=0

2 Carrington, D. 2014. Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF. The Guardian, September 29. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/29/earth-lost-50-wildlife-in-40-years-wwf

3 Kolbert, E. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York. Henry Holt & Sons.

4 United Nations Development Programme. World Urbanization Prospects. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/publications/2014-revision-world-urbanization-prospects.html
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