Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species,

by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Mike Vandeman, September 17, 1995

I am adding this book to my list of Required Reading for the Entire Planet, right after "The Ecological Effects of Roads" (Reed "Diamondback" Noss) and Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (Dave Foreman) and beside Saving Nature's Legacy (Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider) and Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management (Norman Myers).

I cannot think of any book that is as important and as enjoyable to read as this one. It covers the entire field of biodiversity, and yet is concise, lucid, interesting, witty, enjoyable, and easy to read. All technical concepts are explained simply and clearly, as they are presented -- no glossary needed! The authors are able to make any species seem interesting, attractive, and valuable -- exactly what is needed in a book aimed at persuading humanity that other species are valuable and should be protected.

They explain what species are, and how they evolve and become extinct. They describe in detail why we should care about other species (examples: compassion, aesthetic values, fascination, ethics) and how they benefit us, both directly (medical benefits, food sources, biological control) and indirectly ("ecosystem services": food chains, nutrient cycles, energy, waste recycling, pest and disease control, pollination, and creation and maintenance of the atmosphere, climate, fresh water supply, and soil). They are very persuasive!

Next, they describe exactly how we are endangering species (directly: overexploitation, both now and in our prehistoric past, for food, the wildlife trade, fur, other products, and via predator control; indirectly: paving and urbanization, agriculture, habitat degradation and fragmentation, flooding, draining, spraying pesticides, polluting, logging, mining, transplanting species, and recreation).

And finally, they recount several interesting examples of the politics of extinction (e.g. the snail darter, whaling, the wildlife trade, and the destruction of tropical rainforests) and evaluate some tactics (zoos, captive breeding, reserves, and rehabilitation) and long-range strategies (population control, redirecting the growth economy, and sharing the wealth with the poor, who hold much of the world's biodiversity in their hands).

Some suggestions, which also apply to every other author I have read on biodiversity, including Stephen J. Gould, E. O. Wilson, and Reed Noss:

No one adequately explains how biodiversity originates, and consequently, how it should be measured and preserved. Don't new genes originate by chemical- or radiation-induced "accidents"? In other words, genetic change originates as a single mutation in a single individual! Such changes are usually detrimental, but some of them turn out to be beneficial, and give the organism and its offspring a survival advantage.

The reason this is important is that it implies that biodiversity can reside in individuals! The Ehrlichs imply that biodiversity resides in species, and that, therefore, if the species survives, we haven't lost anything important. What if one individual happens to contain a unique, new gene that will allow the species to survive global warming? In that case, the loss of a single individual can be devastating. This also refutes those who say that the loss of one or more individuals isn't important, such as the park ranger who told me recently that the killing, by a mountain biker, of one of the largest Alameda Whipsnakes ever found "wasn't significant".

Does this mean that we should never kill anything? No, facts do not imply actions; actions (what to do about a given fact) always require an ethical judgment. But it does suggest that killing (directly or indirectly) should never be taken lightly, and that killing for frivolous reasons (e.g. killing birds in order to decorate ladies' hats with feathers) will probably be condemned by anyone familiar with the biodiversity crisis. Eliminating just the frivolous abuses of wildlife would still provide them a significant benefit to, since such abuses are ubiquitous. For example, my park district is planning to complete a road around one of its lakes, simply so that hikers and bikers won't be bored by having to return by the same route! The keeping of pets and the wearing furs are other obvious abuses that most of us have at one time considered acceptable.

The Ehrlichs are particularly vehement in condemning another such frivolous abuse -- off-road vehicles: "When it comes to pure recreational destructiveness, however, off-road vehicles (ORVs) far surpass powerboats. ... It is a rare environment indeed where a vehicle can be taken off-road without damage. ... Standard ORVs with their knobby tires are almost ideal devices for smashing plant life and destroying soil. Even driven with extreme care, a dirt bike will degrade about an acre of land in a twenty-mile drive. ... Not only do the ORVs exterminate animals by exterminating plants, they attack them directly as well. Individual animals on the surface and in shallow burrows ... are crushed. ... One great problem with ORVs is that they supply easy access to wilderness areas for unsupervised people who have ... no conception of the damage they are doing." (pp.169-171) (Although mountain bikes had not been invented, or were hardly known, when this was written, it is obvious that the same applies to them.)

At one point, the authors implied that loss of species can be mitigated by a concurrent creation of new species: "Throughout most of Earth's history, the faucet has been running species in a little faster on the average than they have been going down the drain. As a result, the number of living species has generally increased over the ages. ... Even if speciation was not being inhibited by the same processes that cause extinction and was proceeding at normal rates, it could not compensate for the extinctions projected for the next few decades rapidly enough to be meaningful to humanity." (pp.26-27) [emphasis added] I think there are two fallacies here: first, the number of species is not a good measure of diversity; a new species of butterfly doesn't add as much diversity as a species that represents a completely new phylum. Stephen J. Gould, in Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, described how in the great Precambrian extinction event most types of arthropods went extinct, leaving only the four body types we still have today.

Plants are frequently ignored or undervalued. Actually, the "plant" (photosynthesizing) kingdom preceded and probably gave rise to the "animal" kingdom, and contains far more biodiversity. Similarly, among plants there is far more diversity (different lifestyles) in the ocean plants than in land plants, which are derived from them. There may be more species of insects, but not more diversity. The first time I began seriously studying botany, reading E. J. H. Corner's The Life of Plants, I was shocked at how long he took to get to land plants: I was almost halfway through the book before we got out of the ocean!

Second, I don't think most people would be happy losing the species we currently have, even if they are replaced by new ones. We don't want to lose what we have now! At the very least, we don't want to contribute to any extinctions.

I think there is a lot of confusion about facts and behaviour. Many people seem to compromise in their pursuit of the truth, for fear of appearing too "radical". This is particularly unfortunate when that person is a scientist: we desperately need scientists, because of their consummate skill in determining facts. Facts provide our surest, most solid foundation for action. It is detrimental, and completely unnecessary, to compromise on matters of fact. And it is refreshing and inspiring to see scientists (such as Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy, who study the negative effects of road building on the environment) who fearlessly seek and publicise the truth in spite of pressure to be silent. (Most transportation researchers receive money from highway interests, and consequently don't study the negative aspects of road construction.)

The confusion arises when we consider actions. Believing that facts imply that certain actions must be performed, some people compromise their statement of the facts. For example, perhaps no one talks about the biodiversity contained in individuals, because they fear the "implication" that we should never kill anything. Maybe no scientists have been willing to admit that some species need to have habitat that is off-limits to humans, because it would "imply" that they themselves would have to be excluded. Facts do not "imply" ("entail") behaviour. We may know that a given development will drive a species to extinction, but what we do about that fact is still a moral decision. We may have to compromise in what we do ("on the ground"), but there is no reason to compromise in facing the truth -- particularly in a nation where we cherish a right to freedom of speech. Scientists are usually honest in their statement of their findings, but in their choice of what to study, not always.

Although we need facts (e.g. knowledge of the genetic similarities between us and other species can be a powerful motivator toward empathizing with and caring for those species), facts aren't enough. We aren't completely rational (else, for example, no one would smoke). People who are profiting from a situation are amazingly resistant to learning facts that might persuade them to change. Thus, I think the authors are wrong in saying that the most persuasive arguments for preserving biodiversity are the selfish, logical arguments. We humans are obviously not smart enough to always act in our own best interest. The only way to leap from facts to action is through the application of emotion: to take the position that killing and endangering other species (especially for frivolous, trivial, or unnecessary reasons) is just plain wrong.

This is actually not such a big leap. We already consider ourselves gifted in empathy. We invented the Golden Rule. Now all we need to do is extend it to cover other species. If we simply try to understand how they think and feel, and act accordingly (e.g. afford them the same rights that we claim for ourselves, such as the right to exist, to travel where we need to, to eat what we need to, etc.), I think they will automatically be protected. (Incidentally, I think this idea gives religious people a natural way to join in the campaign to protect the Earth's biodiversity.)

The legal status of wildlife is also affected by this notion of rights. Our revered "democratic" form of government is based on the consent of the governed. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, by the people, for the people", where we at least theoretically have the opportunity to vote on the laws that govern us. But we don't afford wildlife that same right. Consequently, we have the spectacle of a federal judge in effect sentencing a species (subspecies?) (the California Gnatcatcher) to extinction, when by our own principles, our laws and judges don't even have jurisdiction over wildlife! Next, we will be giving jaywalking tickets to rackoons! I think it is absurd for any humans to claim a "legal" right to harm wildlife. Wildlife are above our laws. The best that our laws can do is govern human interactions.

It may seem fanciful to suggest that we can guess what other species are thinking or feeling, but we actually have quite a lot of genetic commonality, so it isn't really so far-fetched to think that we might be able to have similar thoughts and feelings. For example, my cat and I have developed a language that we both understand: when he stands next to the door and stares at the doorknob, I know that he wants to go outside. I always respond quickly, to reinforce that "phrase". Similarly, I know that when I approach an animal and it runs or flies away, it indicates that it doesn't like having me around (on the other hand, if it did nothing, I couldn't draw any conclusion, at least not without more study). This is a good indication that, in order to preserve such a species, we need to provide habitat that is off-limits to humans!

In spite of all their excellent and very persuasive arguments in favor of preserving other species, I think that the authors missed one of the best reasons of all. All over the world, humans are fighting. In every case, the motivations are selfish ones. One country wants resources that another one has. Everyone wants to live next to pristine wilderness untouched by other humans. Hikers want to hike in peace, unbothered by mountain bikers, while the mountain bikers want to bicycle in the very same places. I believe that the only way for humans to get along is for both sides to put aside their selfish pursuits and join in giving aid to a third party. Native peoples cannot protect themselves from dominant, oil-fueled cultures. Children cannot protect themselves from abusive adults (e.g. smokers, which may be their own parents!). And on the bottom of the totem pole (so to speak) are wildlife, who cannot protect themselves from humans.

How ironic it would be, if, in spite of all the abuse we have given wildlife, they taught us how to live together in peace and (sustainable, mutual) prosperity.