WE ARE INTO THE OPENING STAGESof a human-caused biotic holocaust--a wholesale elimination of species--that could leave the planet impoverished for at least five million years. That's the worst news.
The better news is that this horrifying destruction still lies mostly ahead of us: There is time, though only just enough, to slow and stem the process.
The Die-Off Begins
My interest in the mass extinction of species goes back to the mid-1970s when I began to analyze rates of species loss. I knew then that at least half and maybe even three-quarters of all species had their homes in tropical forests, which are uniquely rich biologically (in a patch of Ecuador's Amazonia forest smaller than two football fields, for instance, there can be almost 500 tree species, or half as many as in the United States and Canada combined). I also knew that these forests were being degraded and destroyed faster than any other major ecological zone. From this, it was fairly simple for me to calculate that we were losing at least one species per day in these forests alone, never mind the rest of the Earth.
While this conclusion was called alarmist at the time, my estimate now turns out to have been way on the low side. Such conservation gurus as E.O. Wilson of Harvard University, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden reckon that the extinction rate in tropical forests is more like 50-150 species per day, and rising. Based on these figures, I now calculate that the world has lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 species out of a planetary total of 10 million since the onset of the holocaust--which I consider to be around the year 1950, when humans began to increase their numbers and environmental impacts at unprecedented rates.
To understand how this loss could be so rapid, look again at the coastal forests of northeastern Ecuador. As recently as 1960, they harbored at least 17,000 endemic species--that is, species found nowhere else--all crammed into an area no larger than Massachusetts. Within little over a decade, more than nine-tenths of these forests were cleared to make way for banana and other plantations.
We surely lost thousands of species in that blink of an evolutionary eye, but similar assaults on diversity are occurring everywhere. As a result, by the time a youthful reader of this magazine climbs into his or her rocking chair, we could well be saying goodbye to half of what we like to call our fellow species. That would put the present extinction episode on a par with the "great dying" of the dinosaurs and associated species 65 million years ago, and make it the sixth mass extinction since the first flickerings of modern life 650 million years back.
Rescuing Our Planet
And that's not the whole story. Populations--or species sub-groups made up of assemblies of individual organisms that resemble each other more than they do members of other populations--are also in decline. According to recent research by Jennifer Hughes and her colleagues at Stanford University, Earth's 10 million species feature a rough total of 2.2 billion populations--and we are losing these populations at a rate of 32,000 per day.
It is populations rather than species that reveal the true diversity of life and supply the many environmental services--from maintaining watersheds to generating topsoils, dispersing pollution to governing climate--that keep our ecosystems ticking along. Lose them and we will undermine the environmental security of the planetary ecosystem. Forests will shrink and deserts spread. Landscapes will erode away, and our very climate will be in disarray. We will face pollution of multiple kinds, together with a suite of other problems both familiar and unknown.
Of course, you might say that Earth has recovered from five biotic holocausts in the prehistoric past, so what's the big deal this time around? Well, it is being precipitated by a single species, whereas all the other five were due mainly to climatic upheavals. Since the single species is us, we can decide to stop, to change our behavior.
We have it in our hands to set the future of the biosphere for the next five million years, this being the minimum length of time it generally takes after a mass extinction for evolution to come up with a stock of replacement species with numbers and variety to match what was there before. Five million years is 20 times longer than humans have been a species themselves, and during the next five million years, perhaps 10,000 times more people will be born than have existed before. Their lives will be profoundly affected by what we do or don't do today. That's the significance of the "decision" we are taking right now about the survival of our fellow species.
Battle for the Wild
But how can we put a big brake on the holocaust? One obvious answer is to set aside parks and reserves. This strategy is hardly new, but we can still find more efficient ways to carry it out. How to get from here to there? Here's my list of actions we should undertake with all due dispatch:
1. Protect parks from encroachment. Ecologists believe we should at least double our networks of protected areas for minimum conservation. We also need to do a far better job of safeguarding existing protected areas, many of which are only "paper parks," protected in atlases but not in fact.
In the tropics, one-third of all parks are already subject to encroachment by landless and impoverished peasants. During the past few decades, 200 million of these people have found themselves squeezed out of traditional farmlands. With no other option if they are to keep getting supper onto the table, they pick up machete and matchbox and head off toward tropical forests. Or they take their digging hoes to savannas and grasslands, often desertifying them. Driven by their desperation and poverty, they are marginal people in marginal environments. Often enough, these marginal environments include parks and other protected areas.
The displaced peasants, or "shifted cultivators" as I call them, are no more to be castigated for trespassing onto parks than soldiers are to be blamed for fighting wars. They know little of the ultimate reasons why they are driven to do what they do, and even if they did understand, they would be largely powerless to do otherwise. Yet their impact is staggering, and their numbers are growing fast.
2. Identify biodiversity hotspots. When establishing new reserves, we need to do a better job of setting priorities. We don't have nearly enough money to fix all needs, so we should invest in those areas--especially tropical forests, coral reefs, wetlands and other prime localities in the tropics--that offer the best payoff in terms of total species safeguarded. This involves zeroing in on what I call hotspots. These are areas that a) feature exceptional concentrations of endemic species, and b) face exceptional threat of habitat destruction.
I originally pinpointed 18 of these hotspots, all in the tropics. More recently I have worked with Conservation International, an environmental group in Washington, D.C., to expand the list. We have identified 25 areas with aggregate expanse totalling 2 percent of Earth's land area. Within these areas are the sole habitats of almost half of Earth's plant species and well over one quarter of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians on land, plus probably one-third or more of Earth's insects and other invertebrates--all within an expanse roughly equivalent to the United States east of the Mississippi. These hotspots also contain well over half of all species and at least two-thirds of all land species listed by conservationists as threatened. Focus on the hotspots and we'll be using our limited resources where they do the most good.
3. Pinpoint mega-diversity countries. A related approach has been developed by Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International. He has come up with a list of 17 countries that hold around 70 percent of all land species. The leaders include Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Congo (formerly Zaire), India, China, Indonesia and Australia. We could get much more of a bang per buck in these countries than in less biologically well-endowed nations. Since funds for conservation are so limited, we need to spend most in countries with the most to lose.
Perilous Root Causes
Simply establishing many more protected areas in the overcrowded world of the late twentieth century is not enough, however. That is like building a sand castle on the seashore at a time when the tide is coming in higher, stronger and faster than ever. While building more and stronger sand castles, we must also do more about the tide--to deflect it and reduce it. We must find ways to curb population growth, to relieve poverty, to cut back on environmentally harmful forms of consumption.
For an example of just one of the new threats to species, look at the Cape Peninsula stretching southwards from Cape Town in South Africa. In its 180 square miles, no larger than metropolitan New York, there are 2,285 plant species, or one-seventh as many as in the United States and Canada combined. Of these, almost 200 are endemic. Given its small expanse, it is a global epicenter of species richness.
While the new South African government has taken bold measures to protect it from local threats such as the expansion of Cape Town, the government can do little about a larger, longer-term problem: global climate change, caused because too many people, especially in richer parts of the world, are burning fossil fuels. As the planet warms up, the Cape Peninsula's plants, "migrating" south, will have little place to go except into the sea.
To save the Peninsula's flora in the near term, South Africans will need to build bigger and better sand castles to deal with local threats. But to tackle the larger problem of global warming, countries that burn the most fossil fuels will have to change their ways. Since Americans burn much the most per person, they have a huge part to play in taming the tide.
If simply saving protected areas is no longer sufficient except as a short-term holding action, what then? Here's my list for what we must do to deal with the incoming tide:
1. Defuse the population bomb. It is difficult to think of a technology that can bring more well-being to more people at less cost than contraception for Third Worlders. One in five couples in developing countries--a total of 150 million couples--are strongly motivated to have no more kids, but they lack the contraceptive facilities to put their wish into practice. Provide them the facilities and we would cut the eventual global population by a whole one billion.
We in the rich countries must help fund the cost of this birth control, and so far we've fallen far short. Although wealthy nations could increase their share of the developing world's population budget from one quarter to one third, as they've pledged, overall spending is down. In late 1995, for example, the U.S. Congress slashed the population component of its foreign-aid budget by 35 percent, for a savings of $1 per taxpayer. That left 6.9 million developing-country couples unprotected and resulted in an additional 4 million unwanted pregnancies, 1.9 million additional unwanted births and 1.6 million additional abortions.
2. Reduce wasteful consumption. To understand how the consumption of a few people can have a disproportionate impact on species, consider Bangladesh and my country, Britain. Britain's population is increasing by 0.2 percent a year, or 120,000 new "Brits." This sounds so small as to be not worth bothering about, especially not in comparison with Bangladesh and its population growth rate of 1.9 percent a year, or almost 2.4 million new people--20 times more than in Britain. But because of our profligate use of fossil fuels, especially gasoline, each Brit kicks 50 times more carbon dioxide into the skies each year--the gas most responsible for changing climate. Thus, population growth in Britain, allied to consumption of fossil fuels, causes two and a half times more global warming than population growth in Bangladesh.
Now compare Britain, where we pay about $5 a gallon for gasoline, to the United States. Americans, with their fixation on cheap gasoline, are the world's most potent emitters of fossil-fuel-derived carbon dioxide. Gasoline in the United States now costs less than bottled water, and in real terms it is cheaper than at any time since Americans started to suck oil out of the ground.
So how do you persuade Americans to shift away from fossil fuels? The most persuasive instrument is probably the pocketbook, particularly since concealed costs of gasoline actually make it highly expensive. According to several separate assessments by economists, the full cost of burning gasoline includes the expenses of widespread pollution, road congestion, traffic accidents and the long-standing military task force in the Persian Gulf, let alone the impending costs of global warming. If all these costs were reflected in the pump price, Americans would be paying as much as $7 to $8 per gallon.
Right now, most of the additional costs are passed on to taxpayers and other citizens, rather than picked up by motorists. How about slowly ratcheting up the price of U.S. gasoline until it matches what most Europeans pay, $5-6 per gallon? If we don't, Americans may ultimately find that as the primary burners of fossil fuels, they are causing as much extinction mayhem as the burners of tropical forests.
3. Relieve Third World poverty. At the other end of the consumption scale, there are many people who need more, not less. In fact, 1.3 billion of them have cash incomes of under $1 a day. The Third World poor are the people who, out of sheer desperation, torch rain forests and wreak all kinds of other habitat destruction. Rather than try to ban them from parks and reserves, we should help relieve their plight. In the case of the United States, such help would cost the taxpayer less than $1 per week, and it would help protect other species in the process.
4. Get rid of perverse subsidies. The average American taxpayer shells out $2,500 a year to fund government support for fossil fuels, road transportation, agriculture, water and fisheries. Then the same taxpayer turns around and spends another $2,500 to fix the environmental problems those payments produce and to pay higher prices for consumer products. I call these payouts "perverse subsidies" because they are bad news for the environment and the economy alike. Worldwide, the total of such rat-hole subsidies amounts to a whopping $1.5 trillion per year.
The heavy subsidy of fossil fuels in the United States, especially gasoline, tilts the playing field against clean and renewable sources of energy. For every $1 of subsidy for wind power or solar energy, there are more than $10 for fossil fuels. If there were no subsidies for any sector, as would reflect the current credo of the open marketplace, many energy alternatives would immediately become commercially competitive with fossil fuels. The American economy would become more productive, and the habitat of species around the world would be protected from the ravages of global warming.
Cutting back on these subsidies won't be easy since throngs of special-interest groups protect them. Lobbyists in Washington spend $100 million a month to press their causes, with these subsidies at the top of their lists. But subsidy cutbacks can be accomplished. Since the early 1990s, India has slashed its fossil-fuel subsidies by almost 40 percent, and Russia and China by at least 60 percent, while Belgium and Spain, among industrialized countries, have also imposed deep cuts.
Doubters of a strategy to erase subsidies by hiking prices on commodities such as gasoline tell me that you can't alter people's consumption patterns, that they are set in concrete. I respond that during the past ten years, 55 million Americans have given up smoking. That has been a social earthquake, virtually overnight.
Doing What's Right
So much for an action agenda to get to grips with the biotic holocaust. Some measures will cost us, some will put money into our pockets. And some that require payments will be worthwhile for all kinds of reasons apart from saving species. But perhaps the greatest cost of inaction will not be to our pocketbooks but to our philosophies--to our ideas of how to run our world and our planet, to our views of what we want for other people as well as other species, to our hopes of what we want for our own lives as well as those of all fellow passengers on our "only one Earth."
Perhaps the biggest payoff will come through psychic income. Everyone has his own part to play. There are now 10 million Americans--almost one in 25--who are paid-up members of environmental groups, many more than registered as members of political parties. And in Denmark there are more members of environmental groups than there are Danes.
We live at an unprecedented time, and we live as a privileged people. No other human generation could ever encounter such a supreme challenge as ours. We have it in our hands to save millions of species that without our help will disappear into oblivion. And--here's the clincher--we are the sole generation to face such an extreme yet glorious prospect. People in the past have never enjoyed our chance because today's problems have simply never arisen before. Nor will any generation of the future have our chance, because if we do not get on with the job, our descendants will be left with nothing but to pick up the pieces.
It is up to us alone. Should we not delight in living at a time of unique challenge? Are we not fortunate beyond dreams to be conservationists and citizens of embattled Earth at this momentous stage? For sure, we face a super-scale challenge. If we measure up to it, we will feel like giants of the human condition.
Norman Myers, a British ecologist and environmental economist, has provided the intellectual underpinnings for many of the big ideas in conservation of natural resources around the world. His policy-altering thinking has changed the way governments, lending institutions, foundations and the scientific community have allocated monies for environmental protection. A visiting fellow of Green College, Oxford University, he has been a policy advisor to the White House, U.S. Departments of State and Defense, and NASA, among many other such bodies. Since 1973, Myers has been a roving editor of this magazine. Photographer Frans Lanting is also a roving editor. His latest book of wildlife photography is Eye to Eye (Terra Editions, 1997).
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