JULY 18, 2017 — For millions of years, Australia had no human inhabitants. When people finally arrived there some 45,000 years ago, the continent had 24 different creatures weighing 100 pounds or more. Within a few millennia, 23 were wiped out.
In his book “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari notes: “Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo Sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.”
From all indications, we are not about to be dethroned. A new study published in a journal of the National Academy of Sciences says nearly 200 species have vanished in the past century, and 9,000 have seen substantial reductions in their numbers. Only 7,000 cheetahs are left, and the population of West African lions is down to 400. Scientists suggest that Earth is well into the sixth mass extinction of the last half-billion years.
We are seeing “a massive erosion of the greatest biological diversity in the history of Earth,” which negatively affects the resources that sustain human life, says the article. The authors call for a reversal of “human overpopulation” and “overconsumption, especially by the rich.” One of the scholars, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, told The Washington Post, “I am an alarmist.”
But the alarmism may be overdone. Ehrlich is infamous for erroneously predicting imminent mass global famine in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” Humans turned out to be more adaptive and resourceful than he expected then, and there is no reason to believe they won’t act to prevent the catastrophe being predicted now.
Climate change is one significant factor in the loss of creatures, and the nations of the world have entered into an accord to combat it by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Even without the participation of the United States, that effort is bound to do some good — and it can be done without hobbling economic growth.
A materially richer world is likely to be a more ecologically conscientious one. “The countries that are wealthiest do the most to protect habitat and species health,” says Reed Watson, executive director the Property and Environment Research Center, a think tank in Bozeman, Montana.
That’s because conservation is one of the things people come to value more and more as their disposable income grows. Poor nations can’t afford to worry so much about the plight of animals because they are preoccupied with feeding and housing people.
Humans are good at finding ways to protect the environment and our fellow creatures when the need is there. When the federal Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, it designated 9 million acres of land as wilderness. Today, we have nearly 110 million acres that provide unspoiled habitat for innumerable species.
Other federal lands such as national parks and forests are also protected from most forms of development — amounting to more than one-seventh of all the land in the country. Neighboring residents have learned that they can profit from tourists who come to hike remote woodland trails and see grizzly bears, eagles and wolves. All this is the fruit of prosperity, not poverty.
One challenge in saving species is devising methods that encourage humans to see animals as an asset, not a burden or danger. American bison, once hunted almost to extinction, have rebounded partly because ranchers raise them for food. Ocean fisheries have been rebuilt by limiting the annual harvest while granting fisherman transferable rights to a share of it — thus giving them a stake in conservation.
Namibia has boosted the number of black rhinoceroses, once down to six, to more than 1,400, reports NPR, while doubling the numbers of both cheetahs and elephants. It has also virtually eliminated poaching. How? By enabling communities to establish conservation areas and administer them in ways that benefit the people living there. One element that PERC’s Watson acknowledges is “counterintuitive” is regulated trophy hunting, which generates income that rewards locals for protecting iconic species.
The report provides a sobering picture of how much irreversible damage could be done to worldwide biological diversity. Unlike other creatures, humans can consciously shape the future for generations to come. We should use ingenuity for the benefit of the countless creatures with which we share the Earth. That would also be good for our species.