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Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Recently, Carte Blanche ran an insert based on an interview with a “sixth extinction activist”. Predictably, it is riddled with exaggeration, and paints a false picture of both biodiversity and human activity.

On Sunday 17 March 2013, Carte Blanche featured a paleontologist Dr John Anderson, speaking about the notion of a “sixth extinction”. This is the premise that human progress is causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, comparable to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years before the present.

This kind of narrative was made for Carte Blanche. It dubbed its guest a “sixth extinction activist”, and the programme duly starts off with a clanger: “Each of the previous five extinctions saw up to 95% of living species disappear.”

This is, of course, nonsense. By some estimates, 95% of all species that ever existed are now extinct, and most of them probably perished in one of the five major extinction events, but the claim that each event saw the loss of 95% of species appears to be made up out of whole cloth.

Perhaps Carte Blanche learnt that trick from extinction alarmists like Norman Myers, who famously claimed in his 1979 book, The Sinking Ark, that 40,000 species go extinct every year. This number was based entirely on circular reasoning from an assumption. He said “let us suppose” that a million species go extinct in the last quarter of the 20th century, and does some arithmetic to discover an answer he liked: 40,000. It was 400 times higher than the worst estimates of the time, and it was made up. Fiction. Advertising, if you will.

That figure became “common knowledge” via several publications that cited Myers, including the Carter administration’s influential Global 2000 report of 1980, in which Thomas Lovejoy, a biologist employed by the environmental lobby group WWF, wrote that 20% of all species could be extinct by 2000. Al Gore, the former next president of the United States, also cites the 40,000 number in his 1993 manifesto, Earth in the Balance.

In 2009, Nigel Stork, a zoologist who has worked all over the world and wrote more than 10 books and 150 papers, published a long-overdue re-assessment of extinction rates.

He shows predictions of between 5% and 30% per decade to have been common, citing besides Myers and Lovejoy also the butterfly collector and inveterate alarmist Paul Ehrlich, and the ant-watcher and author of Biophilia, Edward O Wilson. They were invariably blamed on deforestation, which was the cause du jour before global warming came along.

Stark notes that if these predictions were true, we ought to have already seen the loss of 50% of the world’s species in the last 30 years. We haven’t.

As he points out: “…over time, as data have become more available and as methods of analyses have improved, the … estimates have reduced very considerably. Indeed if … calculations [based on slowing human population growth and urbanisation] are correct then there may even be a recovery of some species rather than extinctions in the long-term.”

Undeterred Carte Blanche cuts to an anecdotal tale of a botanist in search of a rare protea. He admits he’s never tried to find it before, because “we heard there was a hostile landowner”. However hostile, that landowner appears to have preserved the rare plant, because the botanist promptly finds a specimen for the camera. So, no extinction there, then.

A bit later, it features a rare (but not extinct) rabbit. Cue some editorialising that, “With nearly a quarter of South Africa’s biodiverse flora threatened with extinction, or considered of conservation concern, we can’t be doing too well.”

No, but given the inability to find a single example of an actual case of extinction, perhaps we’re not doing quite as badly as Carte Blanche claims, either.

How many species really do go extinct? Anderson gives Carte Blanche a number of between 0.01% and 1% of all species per decade. That’s a staggeringly large range. Combined with the high level of uncertainty about how many species there are in the first place – Anderson says five million – it’s hardly a sound basis for a robust scientific assessment.

In his paper, Stork points out that only about 1,200 species, including plants, are known to have gone extinct in the last 400 years. He says that represents “less than 1% of all organisms”, although it’s actually less than 0.02% of the numbers – about 7.5 million – he uses as a species total. Despite this, one has to concede Stork’s observation that there is “almost no empirical data to support estimates of current extinctions of 100 or even one species a day.”

If you doubt this, ask yourself: can you name any species that went extinct last year? What’s your top 10 list? Which were your favourites? I’ve asked several audiences this question, and not one person could name even one species that went extinct in 2012.

Let’s see if crowdsourcing can help. Here’s the list of extinctions Wikipedia compiled for 2012: the Pinta Island tortoise and the Japanese river otter. In 2011, we lost the eastern cougar and the western black rhinoceros. In 2010, the rusty grebe.

Presumably, there are a few more, but we’re a long way from 40,000. This dearth of actual examples should give us pause. It should lead us to question claims of a “human-caused biotic holocaust”, as Myers calls it.

The “state of affairs” of an asteroid-scale impact on earth having been established in the viewer’s mind, however, Carte Blanche ploughs ahead to get to the good part, in which it gets to blame human activity, progress and prosperity.

The culprits? “Pollution, over-fishing, deforestation and spreading agriculture.”

Two of those – fishing and forestry – are problems known as “the tragedy of the commons”. They are not symptoms of progress or prosperity, but of the difficulty of establishing legal protections such as property rights for some classes of resource.

In the case of over-fishing, the problem has solutions in ideas such as individually tradeable fishing quotas, but that fishing places pressure on some marine species is hard to dispute.

In the case of deforestation, the scale of the problem is wildly exaggerated. Despite all the headlines, petitions and trite slogans about being “lungs of the earth” – a title rightfully held by phytoplankton – some 82% of the Amazon rain forest survives today, and deforestation rates have been at all-time lows in recent years. Yet even in the most severely razed regions, on islands and in the rich world, evidence of actual extinctions is very rare, as Stork’s analysis confirms.

Such discrepancies between theories and models and the observed reality are as common in the field of biodiversity as they are in any area of science that has been hijacked to serve the misanthropic narrative of modern environmentalism, which seeks to exaggerate every natural ill and then blame it on human progress.

Pollution and agriculture are even more questionable causes of extinction.

As societies get more prosperous, they care more about pollution. Since data for London goes back a long way, it makes a good example. Its air pollution levels peaked in the second half of the 19th century, about 100 times higher than today. Modern air quality is comparable with that of the thoroughly pre-industrial 16th century.

Can parts of the world be cleaner? Surely. Especially in the developing world. Are we on a one-way trip to pollution hell? Surely not. Especially in the developed world. Ergo, what is the best way to clean up our act? Let the poor world get rich, like the rich world did before it, so its people can also enjoy the luxury of caring more about a healthy environment than about where their next meal will come from.

A similar argument goes for agriculture. Some experts say we’ve already reached the point at which our total demand for farmland has peaked, as discussed in last week’s column, “Feeding the world is getting easier”.

That said, species do go extinct. They always have done so. It happens as a consequence of external catastrophes like meteorite impacts, dramatic changes in climate, and due to competition for food and habitat with other species, including humans. This is a necessary part of evolution. We have more species on the planet today than we ever had before, so we’re surely due for a few extinctions. By themselves, they’re no big deal, other than for sentimental reasons.

Humans have a significant impact on biodiversity. Especially in the past, we’ve been fairly rash, and undoubtedly contributed to a rise in the so-called “background rate” of extinctions. As a consequence, it is probably true that species are going extinct faster than before the rise of human civilisation.

Stork, and known sceptics he dismisses as unscientific, such as Bjørn Lomborg, consider a prediction of 0.7% per 50 years to be plausible. This is still high compared to empirical data, but it is a far cry from the catastrophic projections of Lovejoy, Myers, Wilson and Gore. And it is 21,000 years away from threatening the 95% extinction levels Carte Blanche appears to fear.

But “we may run into trouble thousands of years from now” wouldn’t be as dramatic a conclusion as Anderson’s pronouncement: “If we do not do something on a huge scale, we’re probably out of here within a hundred years.”

Stork blames the dramatic failure of empirical data to conform to expert predictions on a number of factors. Most are excuses, but one, conservation efforts, is worth noting because it is a feature of human prosperity and progress. Private conservation areas occupy 13.1% of South Africa’s land area, or more than twice the land area under government protection in South Africa.

Stork explicitly mentions urbanisation, conservation and the declining demand for farmland as reasons why we’re seeing far fewer extinctions than even the most optimistic expert predictions. These are all features of human prosperity and technological progress.

Despite finding historical biodiversity predictions to have been wildly exaggerated, Stork remains a very concerned scientist. He debunked earlier alarmists, but promptly taps climate change as a likely future cause for accelerated extinction rates, even though he admits the extent of this is still “largely unknown”.

Our intrepid television journalists show no such caution, however. They rush to reach their conclusion: “Renewable energy, living sustainably, and controlling our population are measures that need to be put into practice if we are to stem the sixth extinction.”

The problem with this kind of “science” is that it is highly speculative even when it is not harnessed in service of clearly political policy goals, such as those expressed by Carte Blanche.

The truth is, as expanding conservation areas, improving pollution statistics, decreasing deforestation rates and easing farmland demand all show, we already are doing something on a huge scale, even though there is little danger of being “out of here within a hundred years”. We’re getting more prosperous, which makes us both more able and more inclined to care about nature conservation.

The kind of misanthropic fear-mongering that blames humans for a so-called “sixth extinction” should be beneath a supposedly serious investigative programme like Carte Blanche. Instead, it might consider asking why it is that the models and theories of the supposed experts have such a terrible record of matching observed fact. It might question whether we ought to be basing costly policy recommendations on such false alarmism.

Sadly, environmental sensationalism is the status quo in the media. In part because exaggeration sells well and in part because too many journalists themselves buy into the “four legs good, two legs bad” mythology of the modern green movement, we end up with this kind of credulous junk on TV.

I can’t say I miss having one. DM


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