Even if the recent claim by the WWF, that the world’s animal population has declined by 52% since 1970s, were true, it would be a misleading statistic to report. Masters at fund-raising propaganda, the WWF turned out a gem of quotable nonsense.
If there was a performance bonus for most-improved propaganda, surely the spin doctors at the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) deserve the accolade. They issue The Living Planet Report every two years, and this year, they out-performed the 2012 report by a massive 86%. They produced stunner headlines: WWF: World has lost more than half its wildlife in 40 years.
As the Cape Times put it before reading the report, “We killed 52% animals in 44 years.” (You can tell they didn’t read it, because the data period is still 1970 to 2010, as it was in 2012, and that isn’t “44 years”. In case you noticed this, it is explained in the FAQs on page 140.)
In 2012, the WWF found that the average population size of animal species had only declined by 28% since 1970s. Either we went on an unprecedented slaughter spree in the last two years, or they found a way to make the numbers look almost twice as bad.
Let me stipulate from the outset that the idea that some animal and plant populations have declined, and some precipitously so, is uncontroversial. Human development historically came at a cost to the environment. It stands to reason that a doubling in the world’s population since 1970, from 3.7 billion to 7.2 billion, would have an impact on nature, even if economic development today is far less environmentally harmful than it was in the past.
That we need to be concerned about some species and ecosystems is not in dispute. The question is whether the sensational 52% headline can be supported, and if so, what it is supposed to achieve.
The first worry is that it is easily misinterpreted. For example, 702 Talk Radio reported the news ambiguously: “The 2014 #LivingPlanetReport shows a decline of 52% in our wildlife species in the last 4 decades.”
Its sister station, Cape Talk helpfully resolved the ambiguity: “The World has lost half the total wildlife species since 1970.”
Surely, if so many species had gone extinct, someone would have noticed? Why, then, can the wisdom of crowds not come up with more than 25 actual examples during that time, out of 1.9 million described species? (Forgive my resorting to Wikipedia in this case. The IUCN Red List has no means of searching extinctions by the year in which they were declared.)
The problem is that the WWF report didn’t say anything about species numbers, because the world has lost surprisingly few species. That we “lost half the total wildlife species” was, at best, a hurried misquote.
That nobody did a double-take at the claim that half of all species have disappeared shows the effectiveness of decades of propaganda. We’ve long been told that thousands of species go extinct every year, and some accounts number them in the millions. I rebutted this fear in detail last year.
The WWF has itself been guilty of such alarmist prophesies. In its Global 2000 Study Report to then-president Jimmy Carter in 1980, the organisation warned: “We are losing one more animal, plant or insect species every 10 minutes. Approximately one million different species will be gone by the year 2000.”
They appear to have documented only 10 of them, which seems a remarkably inefficient use of donor money. (For a detailed critique of that report, read Julian Simon’s hard look at it.)
Their claim is cleverly constructed, of course. It cannot really be disproven, because how many insects and plants there are on the planet is at best an educated guess. Nor do we know the rate at which extinctions happen in those categories, especially in what is by far the most populous class: insects. Who’s assumptions and extrapolations from known species are most valid? Who’s going to go back and check?
Let me try to do so. As best we know, there are 8.7 million plant and animal species on earth, give or take 1.3 million. Of those, about 1.9 million have been described, according to the IUCN. We know of 10 confirmed extinctions between 1980 and 2000. By extrapolation, that means there were 36 other extinctions during that period.
Of course, there are many reasons why some species might be more sensitive to external pressures than others. There are also many extinctions that have gone undocumented for other reasons. We tend to notice fluffy, pretty things going extinct, but not dull creatures that make little difference to our lives. Conversely, we tend to notice species that are in decline, but not those that are healthy – unless they’re pests. Any of these factors could make an order of magnitude difference, but it is going to take a lot of adjusting to get from 46 to a million (or 20% of all species, which is another way the Global 2000 Study put it.)
The WWF’s own current guess doesn’t support their 1980 thumb-suck either: “If there are 100,000,000 species on Earth, and the extinction rate is just 0.01% per year, at least 10,000 species go extinct every year” (their emphasis).
Hundred million was the top of an estimate range that had a lower bound of three million. Top tip for researchers: if your error margin runs into thousands of percent, you know nothing. Likewise, 0.01% is a guess. The total number of documented extinctions, counting plants, is somewhat north of a thousand in all of recorded history. That is one tenth of the WWF’s estimate for only one year.
If you guess at two numbers, multiplying them tells you only that you can do arithmetic. And when you multiply a high estimate by a high estimate you get a scary-big number that is only useful as fodder for sensational headlines. And after all that, for the period 1980 to 2000 that still works out to only 200,000 (which they can’t name) instead of 1,000,000 (which they had predicted).
The Living Planet Report was careful to talk about “vertebrate populations”, not “number of species”. The reason for this must be clear by now: despite the fact that the media uncritically accepts it, the species extinction argument isn’t nearly as scary as the WWF needs it to be.
Neither, evidently, was the fact that animal populations declined on average by 28% since 1970, which the group reported in 2012. Then, overall populations in temperate climes increased by 31%. In fact, all categories of species grew in temperate regions: 5% for terrestrial species, 53% for marine species, and 36% for freshwater species. All of the negative components in 2012 came from tropical zones, where the data sources are also most sparse.
But most of the rich world lives in temperate climes, so we can’t have that, can we? So they revised their numbers. Dramatically. Needless to say, there are a few curiosities about these numbers.
First, in the over-simplified media-friendly graph, 2012 does not reflect 28%. The entire graph, all the way back to 1970, was simply yanked downwards to match this year’s estimate of a 52% decline. How did the past change so dramatically? The authors claim it did so “by [an undisclosed] peer-reviewed method”. Perhaps that method was addition, perhaps it was multiplication, but it’s good to know history asks peers for approval before changing on us.
Equally surprising is a chart that the average species appears to be perfectly stable, and that is true for all classes: birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, as well as mammals. The number of species in decline is roughly equal to the number of growing populations. To get to an overall population decline of 52%, the data must be heavily skewed by a relatively small number of particularly large populations.
The index in temperate zones went from +31% to -36% in two years. What black magic happened here? This is not a “continuously evolving process”, as the report claims. This is a sign change, for heaven’s sake! How can the WWF possibly get it so wrong, and how does that make this year’s number any more credible? Are they likely to adjust it by 67 percentage points next year? In which direction?
The freshwater index went from -37% to -76%. I buy that many rivers are affected by weirs and dams, and that many are polluted by agricultural runoff or industrial pollution. I even buy that there are critters in rivers that they didn’t count the last time around and that things might be worse than they seemed in 2012. But how does the population decline index more than double?
What changed is hard to tell without an exhaustive species-by-species comparison of both this year’s report and previous editions. Life is too short for that.
In the appendices, the authors unhelpfully explain that they used 2,337 sources to document an increased number species (3,038). However, the total dataset has only increased by 15%. The magnitude of the change this addition produced suggests that these newly added populations must be like hippies: super abundant in 1970, but almost extinct today.
The authors also say they weighted the data by population size. Fish and birds are, accordingly, weighted higher than mammals, which suggests a bias towards species that are both more populous and harder to count. Tropical species were also weighted more heavily, because temperate species had until recently been doing so annoyingly well.
How those weightings were calculated is left as an exercise for the reader, but they act like a graphic equaliser: just move the sliders until you get exactly the answer you want.
I’m not the only one expressing skepticism. Scientists and green activists are raising eyebrows too.
National Geographic coyly phrased the headline as a question: “Has Half of World’s Wildlife Been Lost in Past 40 Years?”
It goes on to quote Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University who is certainly not prone to underestimating extinction threats.
“I’m not a fan of this planetary index because it mixes a lot of different numbers together in an essentially arbitrary way,” Pimm told them. “Therefore, it’s hard to know what exactly is meant by a 50 percent loss of vertebrates over the last 40 years. … It’s an apples and oranges and pears and grapes and cookies index that lumps a whole bunch of things together in a way that requires a lot of effort to dissect all the different pieces. It’s not ‘we lost half of all vertebrates’ – it’s more complex than that.”
The WWF’s factoid makes for sensational headline copy, but it offers little clarity, even to the people who study these things.
The BBC quoted Stephen Buckland, a director of the National Centre for Statistical Ecology, who also cast doubt on the numbers. “[There] is the question in the Living PIanet Index of why some populations are monitored when others are not. Those in decline are perhaps of greater interest, and hence more likely to be monitored, than those that are stable or increasing. For practical reasons, populations that are more impacted by man are more easily monitored.”
So we have selection bias in the underlying data, long before anyone even touched it with the statistical manipulation weapons of weightings, suppositions, adjustments and extrapolations.
“Further,” Buckland continued, “the quality of the data is highly variable from one population to another, and some population trends are likely to be biased. So is there a decline? Certainly. Are animal numbers around 52% lower than 40 years ago? Probably not.”
Remember, these are ecologists speaking. If even they can’t swallow the WWF’s propaganda, why should we?
Besides the great uncertainty in the data, which cautions against taking it seriously, aggregating all vertebrates into a single population number obscures a great many details. It simply is not helpful for anything, other than fundraising for the WWF.
Many species started off with a steep decline which has since slowed, or even reversed, for example. Marine species fall in this category, as do some mammals, like rhinos. Shouldn’t we want to know why? What has become so much better about fisheries management or big game conservation?
Instead of delving into the data so that we can get some idea of what changed, which species or ecosystems need attention, and what solutions might work, the WWF report quickly (by page 30 of 178) turns to blaming humans for their “ecological footprint”.
Most of the measures of ecological footprint (including forestry use, grazing, cropland, built-up land, and fishing grounds) have remained remarkably flat since 1970, despite a doubling of the world’s population. The Living Planet Report wastes no time marvelling at this amazing fact.
We know that the global poverty rate has been dropping like a stone, so clearly, economics is not a zero-sum game. But this extraordinary achievement and its implications are completely ignored. (Don’t tell them plastic is how the petroleum industry saved the forests, because that’ll just fry their brains.)
The one detail the report does embroider on is that wildlife has fared much better in rich countries than in the developing world. In fact, in the developed world, wildlife populations increased by 10%, while in poor countries, they declined by 58%.
Of course, in the zero-sum world of environmentalism, this seems to be a paradox. The rich must be “outsourcing” their environmental destruction; they must reduce their consumption and therefore also their production of the means to consume. Conversely, the poor couldn’t possibly cause environmental destruction, because when the West was much poorer it… oh, wait, they shot everything that moved and choked the rest with pea-soup fogs.
Without noticing the contradiction, the WWF tries to explain away the positive animal population index in the rich world by noting that the rich ruined their environment long before 1970. This is, of course, true. Because that is when most people countries that are now rich weren’t rich.
The real lesson is that there isn’t a simple trade-off between prosperity and environmental harm. On the contrary. We need the poor to get rich, so they too can afford to care about the environment.
The Living Planet report does nothing to explain which species are in decline and why. It doesn’t identify which animals are so populous and under so much pressure, that they account for 52% of the world’s supposedly lost animal population. Even if they could justify the 52% number, a simple average is meaningless. The report contains no answers.
So why publish a 178-page glossy brochure? The WWF, by its own account, exists to raise money. It hired candidates with big business, advertising and PR experience to achieve this objective.
It followed the advice of Stephen Schneider, the late climatologist who became infamous for a 1989 statement in Discover magazine that in order to garner public support and funding, scientists need to “offer up scary scenarios [and] make simplified, dramatic statements.”
(Schneider spent the rest of his life whining about out-of-context use of that quotation. You can read his own version on page five of the American Physical Society newsletter.)
This controversy, Schneider’s warning in a peer-reviewed journal that human pollution could trigger an ice age, and his alarmist self-contradiction over the years, appear nowhere in the numerous hagiographical obituaries in the mainstream media or elsewhere.
Likewise, the WWF’s Global 2000 Study, a 1,300-page tome dumped on the desk of the US President himself, does not appear on the WWF’s own history timeline. It doesn’t seem to exist anywhere on any of its websites. It is hard to find online at all. Besides the archived typescript I linked to above, all I could track down was a summary and an old photostat copy.
Then, as now, the detail behind the WWF’s “scary scenarios” is hidden under a mountain of paper and statistical trickery, and when history proves its hyperbole wrong, it is forgotten altogether.
Now that they found an eye-catching but weakly-constructed proxy to replace discredited claims of the past, it wouldn’t do if people found out the one thing that hasn’t changed since 1970 is how environmental pressure groups manipulate statistics for marketing purposes. DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.
Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé are our contribution to this unshakeable mission. It is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.
Join our mission to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.
In the final two years of his life Van Gogh averaged about three paintings per week.