Scientists believe we are in the midst of a mass extinction faster even than the crash which occurred when the
dinosaurs died some 65 million years ago.
Seven out of 10 biologists believe the world is now in the midst of
the fastest mass extinction of living things in the 4.5 billion-year
history of the planet, according to a poll conducted by the American
Museum of Natural History and the Louis Harris survey research firm.
That makes it faster even than the crash which occurred when the
dinosaurs died some 65 million years ago. Unlike that and other mass
extinctions of the pre-human past, the current one is the result of
human activity, and not natural phenomena, say the scientists.
The scientists surveyed rated biodiversity loss as a more serious
environmental problem than the depletion of the ozone layer, global
warming or pollution and contamination. A majority (70 percent) said
they believe that during the next 30 years as many as one-fifth of
all species alive today will become extinct, and a third of the
respondents think as many as half the species on Earth will die out
in that time.
"This survey is a dramatic wake-up call to individuals, governments
and institutions that we are facing a truly formidable threat not
only to the health of the planet but also to humanity's own
well-being and survival -- a threat that is virtually unrecognized
by the public at large," commented Museum of Natural History
president Ellen V. Futter.
The Biodiversity in the Next Millennium survey was administered to
400 members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
Respondents included experts in biochemistry, botany, conservation
biology, entomology, genetics, marine biology, molecular biology,
neuroscience, physiology and other fields. A parallel survey was
given to 100 middle-school and high-school science teachers drawn
from the National Science Teachers' Association and to 1,000
members of the general public in order to gauge differences in their
views on biodiversity issues.
The comparisons revealed that "the general public is relatively
unaware of the loss of species and the threats that it poses," said
museum spokesman Elizabeth Chapman. The survey also found that
"while science teachers have a much clearer sense of the dimensions
and urgency of the biodiversity crisis than the general public, more
than 50 percent of science teachers do not believe that we are in
the midst of a mass extinction, and only 38 percent describe
themselves as being very familiar with the concept of
"Notwithstanding the public's lack of recognition of the
significance of biodiversity loss, scientists feel that it is
critical to act now to stem the tide of extinction," said Chapman.
"Overwhelmingly, scientists think that the threat of the
biodiversity crisis is underestimated by most segments of society:
95 percent think the general public underestimates the threat; 87
percent think the government underestimates it; 80 percent think the
media does; and 58 percent felt that educators do not accurately
Both the scientific experts and the science teachers were willing to
admit that they themselves are part of the communication problem.
Seventy percent of the scientists and 67 percent of the science
teachers say they have not done an adequate job of disseminating
information about the consequences of the biodiversity crisis. "I
can think of no generation of scientists that has faced a greater
challenge than we confront today, for no other generation has stood
at the cross roads between the continued existence of the Earth's
biological diversity and an irrevocable catastrophe to the biota,"
commented Museum Provost of Science Michael J. Novacek.