The specter of mass extinction

One of our companions, for now

If current trends continue, one half of all species of life on Earth will be extinct in 100 years. — E.O. Wilson

What will people do?
After the garden is gone.
— Neil Young

Something terrible is happening. Does anyone notice? A few do. In developed countries, only the more observant see it. From time to time, though, we hear about it in the media. We’re destroying the global ecosystem, our life support system.

Too easy to deny

So what? We don’t have to listen to that. Nothing’s happening here. Sure, there’s not as much open land, we hear about companies cutting down something called “old growth forests,” some animals have disappeared. Big deal, our lives go on about the same.

Okay, so there’s some stuff happening in far away places. Something about global warming, deforestation, water shortages. Sorry, but we don’t see it here.

Denial has its place. Sometimes it helps us cope with intense emotions.

But sometimes it kills us. (Consider the denial that one has a serious medical condition.)

Right now, as a species, we humans are flirting with the latter. Dismantle a life support system and, before you’re finished, what happens to the life it supports?

A topic to fight denial?

I was thinking about our collective denial of the environmental crisis we’re creating, when I read a blog post by Nicola-Frank Vachon at The Solemn Monkey. (To understand the title, see the very worthwhile video on the “About me” page.) Besides an artistic essay which led me to confront the thought of our own self-destruction, it featured the video below. From the Species Alliance, I think it’s remarkably persuasive in driving home its point about the huge surge in extinctions we’re seeing today.

Our earth has seen five prior waves of mass extinction, the last one having eliminated the dinosaurs. This “sixth extinction,” (pdf) as many scientists now refer to it, is the result of human activity with causes including climate change and deforestation. Key among the underlying drivers of those causes are, of course, the topics we examine here: human population growth, our growing rates of resource consumption, and the drive for unceasing economic growth.

The video made me wonder if the specter of mass extinction, especially when effectively presented, might be enough to break through some of our denial. I would think many people would sense intuitively that a world with half as many species as we now enjoy would be grimly impoverished. Would it be livable? I hope we don’t have to find out first hand. Does the subject of mass extinction have a unique place in our toolbox of ways to wake people up to the realities of our ecological crisis?

Other worthwhile sources:

[Update, May 4, 07:] Gone, Julia Whitty’s excellent article on species extinction for Mother Jones.

The Sixth Extinction (book), by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin

The Sixth Extinction, by Niles Eldredge for

Population-Biodiversity Linkage, from the Union of Concerned Scientists

The Real Biodiversity Crisis, by Philip S. Levin and Donald A. Levin, for American Scientist Online

What Can Be Done to Protect the Chimpanzees and Other Great Apes of Africa?, by Mellisa Thaxton, for the Population Reference Bureau

Also, see the Facts page at the Species Alliance site. Here are three of those facts:

• Every species of great ape on the Earth (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos) is in imminent danger of extiction. (United Nations,

• Every species of tiger on Earth is in imminent danger of extinction. (World Wildlife Fund,

• The number of lions left in Africa has fallen 90% in 20 years — there are now only 20,000 remaining. (BBC,

Image source: mrflip, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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33 responses to “The specter of mass extinction

  1. “[Will] the specter of mass extinction … be enough to break through some of our denial?”

    “Does the subject of mass extinction have a unique place in our toolbox of ways to wake people up to the realities of our ecological crisis?”

    It certainly used to be in my toolbox. Still is, but not too well used.

    Here is another problem re: denial…

    There are many (but not yet enough) who have been quite shrill about the potential for (and/or the inevitability of) catastrophe due to near-unbridled population growth, industrial and agricultural pollution, resource depletion, etc. Sill, social learning theory suggests that the messages will continue to fall on deaf ears in the main, up to some tipping point.

    Milbrath says it this way at the end of his “Envisioning A Sustainable Society” :

    “…As we struggle to deal with these problems, people will slowly come to realize that technology alone is insufficient to handle them and that we have to make major social changes in order to cope.

    “As these [social/environmental gloom and doom] stories accumulate, people are beginning to realize that the world no longer works well; that their future is in serious jeopardy. Scientists and environmental movement activists are likely to stand ready with plausible explanation for these phenomena. Minds that formerly were closed and unheeding are more likely to be searching for understanding. Not until then can we expect much social learning to take place. But, even then, we should expect the social system to resist change strenuously.

    “All social structures try to protect their integrity and continue to exist. Nations view their sovereign independence as their highest value and are always willing to go to war to protect it. All bureaucracies try to protect themselves and to grow if possible. Organizations hate to die and will languish for years after their initial purpose has been fulfilled; or they may transform. Cultures, too, have numerous defenses to protect their integrity, and change ever so slowly.

    “We need to remind ourselves that despite the natural tendency of social structures to protect their current structure and thrust, they can transform, paradigms can be be displaced by a new social paradigm….

    “Over the next twenty years or so we should expect extremely strong social forces determined to keep us on our present trajectory. Only major failure of physical systems, like swift climate change, could deflect their domination. The DSP [Dominant Social Paradigm] will continue to dominate thinking and behavior…. The challenge to the DSP by the NEP [New Environmental Paradigm] will continue. They will point out deleterious trends, accidents, and mistakes engendered by the DSP society; they will urge new ways of thinking and doing things. A sizeable minority of people will listen, and will come to agree with them, but the majority will marginalize the NEP advocates and tune out their messages. Environmental organizations will continue to educate, advocate, and struggle politically. Green parties will arise but probably will enlist the support of no more than a minority. Science will continue to develop new findings and interpretations, spurred by deepening problems in nature and by inadequacies in the human response to those problems.

    “Nature itself will be the most frequent and unsettling spur to new thinking. … Markets will fail to solve the linked problems of population growth and resource shortages [Iverson note: and pollution ‘longages’]. Most frustrating, but perhaps most stimulating to new thinking, will be the discovery that technological fixes will not be able to cope with the character and scope of the problems.

    “Societies facing these problems are bound to become more turbulent. …

    [On the other side of some tipping point, likely induced by catastrophes] … “All this mental activity could lead people to perceive a new pattern of meaning reflecting a new state of complexity – that could evolve into a new biological, social, economic, political order. Old explanations for phenomena will be discarded and people will wonder how they ever believed in them. Ideas that formerly seemed hopeless to get across now seem to make sense and are eagerly accepted. … Because the old DSP system no longer will be working well, fewer people will have a stake in its preservation – the rearguard will weaken while the vanguard will strengthen.”

    Iverson: Or not! Maybe we, particularly here in the US will dive deeper into authoritarian governmental systems and self-proclaimed free market systems (systems that are really well connected to the governmental systems while we pretend them to be “free”), hoping that we (and our many consumer goods) can be sustained or rejuvenated in the DSP.

  2. Dave, that’s a powerful quote from Milbrath and, I think, right on the money. Thanks.

    From the blurb on the Harvard Press site for Edward O. Wilson’s “The Diversity of Life” (I just started reading it today):

    All evidence marshaled here resonates through Wilson’s tightly reasoned call for a spirit of stewardship over the world’s biological wealth. He makes a plea for specific actions that will enhance rather than diminish not just diversity but the quality of life on earth. Cutting through the tangle of environmental issues that often obscure the real concern, Wilson maintains that the era of confrontation between forces for the preservation of nature and those for economic development is over; he convincingly drives home the point that both aims can, and must, be integrated.

    Here’s the rub: Milbrath wrote his words in 1989, Wilson in 1992.

    There are some positive developments — if one looks hard enough: even Christian evangelics (yeah, just a subset) have organized for addressing global warming and caring for the environment; even GWB (I’m shocked!) acknowledged global warming; solar panels are selling like hot cakes; gas price shocks are killing off the SUV; the 2006 US elections moved in the right (left) direction.

    Is it enough? Hell, no. I hoping for accelerated attitude change. If it doesn’t happen through enlightened education and awareness of the science involved, it will certainly occur when economies start to suffer. The only question is what sort of biodiversity and climate will we have then?

  3. I believe there are probably two problems with awareness/action here. The first is the seemingly slow pace of species loss. Slow on a human scale that is but lightening fast on a planetary or evolutionary scale. The second is our detachment from the natural world. I read somewhere that half the human population of the globe lives in cities now. Species loss may be like a house of cards. Yo can take out quite a few cards without anyone noticing but at some point the whole damn thing comes down. I hope we do not reach this point.

  4. Some related thoughts over at Gred Laden’s blog

  5. Interesting read and well written. I have written on a similar topic at

    Lots of people in denial, still. Kepp spreading the message.

  6. Wow, all the comments just nail it.

    Dave — Great excerpt. It’s fascinating to see mapped out one vision of how things might progress. But you’re right; it could go either way. Nothing guarantees people will finally come around to new ways of thinking. There’s always the authoritarian possibility, which unfortunately could, I suppose, precede the “collapse” alternative.

    But even going with the optimistic alternative, as Trinifar asks, what sort of biodiversity, what sort of ecosystem will we have left if we have to wait for fairly catastrophic tipping points to move people to action? I just hope enough of a groundswell might be building right now that some truly meaningful changes might happen fairly soon.

    And Verdurous, your “house of cards” comment is my concern as well. I think some such “tipping point” does likely lie down the road if we don’t do the right things before then. And, as we’re seeing with climate change, sometimes these things turn out to move faster than we would have guessed. I have a collection of articles from Science in book form, their State of the Planet – 2006-2007. In it is a 2003 article, Prospects for Biodiversity by Martin Jenkins. It is one of the most conservative I’ve seen on the topic in the sense that he argues that we’ve eliminated lots of species and converted 1.5 billion hectares of natural landscape to low-diversity, human-managed agricultural land, yet don’t seem to have suffered for it. (…we humans, that is. God forbid we should think about the species we’re eliminating.) The attitude is almost dismissive of any problem.

    (Well, we have suffered in ways he leaves out, some of them major, but you get his point. But my other complaint about the article is that he doesn’t even touch on the possibility that these changes have had subtle but far ranging effects which, if things were to stay just as they are now, might take a long time to be felt, but might be very serious.)

    But even this guy, writing almost dismissively, has to concede in the end, “At some point some threshold may be crossed, with unforeseeable but probably catastrophic consequences for humans.” But he immediately tries to qualify that, saying, “However, it seems more likely that these consequences would be brought about by other factors such as abrupt climate shifts, albeit ones in which ecosystem changes may have played a part.”

    That last bit is confusing. We’re a big part of the cause of an abrupt climate shift! Maybe he’s acknowledging that, but I’m not sure. At any rate, the prospect of crossing that threshold is not at all appealing.

    Update: Okay, here’s the abstract for that article:

    And here’s a letter to Science about it from Daniel P Faith which makes much more expertly a point similar to the one I was trying to get at:

  7. libertas01 — Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  8. The option of simply giving up, is always open. The vast majority of the human population may one-day wake up to the “fact” that environmental devastation, biospheral destruction, plundering, rape and murder, is human nature, simple as that, … and that there really is nothing to do about it.

    In which case the future will be all about acceptance: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” – (the “tough” being the environmentalists, all belonging to the losing side of moaners and weepers who never stood a chance to succeed, really).

    As it is: from my Norwegian base, I am starting to see this development as the case in point. People can easily realize that making a positive change to the better, on the part of the environment at large (yes: globally!), will be extremely difficult – to the degree that we can equally just give it all up, and simply sit back and accept the reality of extreme weather conditions and climate change.

    While the upper and middle classes of the population continue to enjoy an exuberant but unsustainable lifestyle: “lucky losers” indeed. :-[

  9. John: “The attitude is almost dismissive of any problem.”

    – —

    Or like one of the environment site forum users, facing a climate skeptic, retorted today: “You advocate sitting back and further increasing the likelihood that we will be beyond rescue when stubborn skeptics are finally swayed to acceptance of the fact of global warming as a result of anthropogenic GHG emissions. It’s probably already too late but these views are firmly nailing the lid to our coffin.”

  10. Daniel P Faith’s letter to Science is excellent. Translating between its academic tone to everyday language would be useful to gain a wider audience. My take would include: “We are only beginning to appreciate the economic value and scientific nature of biodiversity, but what we do know points to it being critical to both our economy and our well-being.”

    It appears that the discussion of global warming and climate change has changed from large-skepticism to large-acceptance and that biodiversity is lagging behind that curve.

  11. Magne: “The option of simply giving up, is always open. The vast majority of the human population may one-day wake up to the “fact” that environmental devastation, biospheral destruction, plundering, rape and murder, is human nature, simple as that, … and that there really is nothing to do about it.”

    Yep, that could be a possibility. I do think some people assume it to be the case. I’d like to think I’d be doing what I’m doing here even if I didn’t have kids. But having them definitely provides a lot of motivation for me to go on trying to make whatever dent I can, even if it’s “just in case” we’re able to stop the destruction, plundering, etc.

    Of course if such a destructive tendency is just human nature, we might assume that even after some success we’ll never see the end of humanity-threatening challenges. Sigh.

  12. On the general topic of biodiersity and nature, I would highly recommend the new BBC series “Planet Earth” narrated by David Attenborough (probably his penultimate doco sadly). It contains the most profoundly moving images of this planet I have ever seen, including many habitats, species and places never before seen on film. Remarkable.

    The website is here.

  13. Verdurous, thanks for the heads-up. And thank heavens we can get it in the USA:

    “Award-winning actress and
    conservationist Sigourney Weaver joins Discovery Channel as narrator of the
    breathtaking look at our world, PLANET EARTH, premiering on the Discovery
    Channel on Sunday, March 25, 2007 at 8 PM ET/PT…. PLANET EARTH airs on consecutive Sundays from March 25 through April
    22, 2007.”

    Discovery channel announcement

    I’m not sure what kind of conservationist Sigourney is, but she does have a good voice for narration.

    I haven’t seen anything by David Attenborough that I didn’t like. And his brother Richard introduced a new generation to Gandhi. Makes you think a couple of parents did some pretty good child raising.

  14. Nice post, John.

    Denial is such a power thing. But to break through it is even greater. And as human beings we have that capacity. It comes from the same power that gives us denial. We just need to turn it on its head.

    Glad to know someone else cares about the future.

  15. Verdurous — I’m going to try to check out that series for sure. Thanks.

    signature — Thanks. I wonder what sort of actions or events will be able to turn that denial on its head, i.e., what actions we can take (or what sort will have to happen in general) that would have the most power to help that along.

  16. Magne Karlsen

    Quote: “In the March 2007 issue of BioScience, an international team of 19 researchers calls for better forecasting of the effects of global warming on extinction rates.”

    Goes to prove that there really are other people out there, who are interested in the topic of possible mass extinction. – Always good to know.

  17. Thanks Magne. Interesting link. Yes, it’s good there are people investigating the issue. It also points to how much we really don’t know.

  18. Magne Karlsen

    John: “Denial has its place. Sometimes it helps us cope with intense emotions. But sometimes it kills us. (Consider the denial that one has a serious medical condition.) Right now, as a species, we humans are flirting with the latter. Dismantle a life support system and, before you’re finished, what happens to the life it supports?”

    – —

    Too many people are choosing to ignore the bleedin’ obvious. Like the limits to growth, for example. People can readily acknowledge the natural existence of such limits, yet they’re still free to choose to ignore any such knowledge. I don’t know: what if this tendency is proving to be the most natural societal response to all the extreme information originating from a variety of scientific milieus, and is floating about in the blogosphere these days?


    My case in point is this:

    According to Websters, the definition of “ignorance is, quite simply, “the lack of knowledge or education.” On the other hand, we have the verb “ignore”, which is defined as:

    1. Refuse to acknowledge; “She cut him dead at the meeting”.
    2. Bar from attention or consideration; “She dismissed his advances”.
    3. Fail to notice.
    4. Give little or no attention to; “Disregard the errors”.
    5. Be ignorant of or in the dark about.

    **double sigh**

    I remain as worried as ever before, about the problematic difference between the individual person and the social creature which gives rise to whole social systems, economies, markets, political systems, social stratification systems, religious faiths and cultural beliefs. … uhmmm, and so on …

    What’s the relevance of “nature” compared to all these?

  19. Magne Karlsen

    A brilliant video. Absolutely fabulous.

  20. Magne, that’s a great video. Clicking the link to “learn more” at the end leads to a lot more good information as well. Maybe I’ll center a future post around that video. 🙂

    “what if this tendency is proving to be the most natural societal response to all the extreme information originating from a variety of scientific milieus, and is floating about in the blogosphere these days?”

    Hmmm, I wonder what social science research may tell us about denial of this sort — what triggers it, what might help prevent it, etc. I mean, it clearly happens, but I wonder how much we actually know about it from various angles, looking at individuals and groups, trying to extrapolate to society, etc.

  21. Magne Karlsen

    I don’t even know if there is any social science reasearch on that topic going on. You see: things have changed so dramatically in the past couple of years, I actually believe most social scientists are as affected by the information overload and its mental / socio-psychological side-effects as everybody else is; making it difficult for any of them (sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, historians or social anthropologists like myself) to assess the situation analytically.

  22. “I don’t even know if there is any social science reasearch on that topic going on…”

    Yeah, I was kind of afraid of that. I’m way out of touch with the research going on in various branches of psychology, but I would think somewhere in the whole body of social psychology research, recent or older, there should be examinations of denial of a sort relevant to what’s going on today.

    Unless a social psychologist reads this and responds, though, it would take some library research to dig it up.

    But it would have some real value if someone put together a review of relevant literature and looked at how it relates to today’s situation.

    I do recall an “eco-psychologist” or two in the video. I suppose those folks must have a good deal to say about it. Whatever they’re saying though, it’s not getting a lot of publicity.

  23. Magne Karlsen


    Let me take you back to the beginning. In a comment to your opening post – “Welcome to Growth is Madness!” – you made a quick remark which really makes sense. – About “pure greed.”

    I don’t believe that too many psychologists and philosophers, for instance, are too keen on acknowledging the notion that a growth in pure greed (as well as other human vices) might be the real thing.

    It seems to me like most people (and university paid social scientists, for that matter) are finding it extremely difficult to admit that all this talk about a world crisis can have anything to do with anything that stands any chance of making any sense to anyone … I believe you can catch my drift? … 😉

  24. Magne,

    Yep, I hear you. 🙂 This is something very fundamental, deeply ingrained in human society today.

    On greed, here’s a link to something I still need to read, but on which I may base a post in the future:

    Julian Edney, the author, taught an “environmental psychology” class I took in college. It was one of my favorite classes as an undergraduate. In Part I (as I recall… I skimmed them a couple of months ago) he makes a mistake, from my point of view, in kind of dismissing limits to growth. But it’s just a quick mention, so I’m not sure what his real view on that is. Overall, though, it looks like a very interesting read.

  25. Magne Karlsen

    I stumbled across this pointed remark some time ago; it was published on some eco-blog (I don’t remember which). –

    Question: “Does the subject of mass extinction have a unique place in our toolbox of ways to wake people up to the realities of our ecological crisis?”

  26. Hey, that quote has a nice ring to it. 😉 One wrench in the toolbox perhaps?

    Oh, I should clarify that the “environmental psychology” class I mentioned above was not environmental in the sense of ecological; it was just in the sense of one’s surroundings. But Edney is a very bright guy, and I have high hopes for those articles on greed — whenever I’m able to get to them. :-/

  27. Magne Karlsen

    I quote from Edney’s Issue 32: “In our own society, we love competition and we promote inequality.”

    Unfortunately, this is the culture that has been exported to the rest of the world, for decades already.

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