Worldwatch Report:
Fastest mass extinction in Earth history

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 biodiversity."

"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 recognize it."

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.

Copyright 1998, Worldwatch Institute
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
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