Much of the time we worry about threats which are very unlikely ever to affect us. What are your chances of being killed by a terrorist? According to the Cato Institute, “The annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States from 2001 to 2017 is about 1 in 1.6 million per year.”  https://www.cato.org/blog/european-terrorism-fatalities-annual-chance-being-murdered Normally we pay no attention to risks that unlikely. Yet terrorism of various kinds—foreign and domestic— dominates the news and the national discussion.

In today’s NYT, The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know”, Edward O. Wilson discusses a different kind of threat, one that is rarely discussed but which has potentially a very large impact on human life: the extinction of vast numbers of animal and plant species. 

The extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century…

The worldwide extinction of species and natural ecosystems is not reversible. Once species are gone, they’re gone forever. Even if the climate is stabilized, the extinction of species will remove Earth’s foundational, billion-year-old environmental support system…

Paleontologists estimate that before the global spread of humankind the average rate of species extinction was one species per million in each one- to 10-million-year interval. Human activity has driven up the average global rate of extinction to 100 to 1,000 times that baseline rate. What ensues is a tragedy upon a tragedy: Most species still alive will disappear without ever having been recorded. 

Wilson thinks that only 20% of all the species in nature have been discovered by science.

The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can be only roughly calculated. A widely accepted estimate by scientists puts the number at about 10 million. In contrast, those formally described, classified and given two-part Latinized names (Homo sapiens for humans, for example) number slightly more than two million. With only about 20 percent of its species known and 80 percent undiscovered, it is fair to call Earth a little-known planet. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/03/opinion/sunday/species-conservation-extinction.html?

We are familiar with the threat to large animals like whales and elephants posed by hunting and habitat destruction. Wilson is thinking about the elimination of millions of species of small and single-celled organisms.

If half of all the earth’s species are eliminated, what happens to the other half? If the Earth’s “foundational, billion-year-old environmental support system” is destroyed, can life itself continue? And if so, in what form?



88-year-old Edward O. Wilson is probably the best known living biologist. His original specialty was social insects, so he well understands the planet’s biodiversity below our awareness of the best loved cuddly mammals and birds.

The best-explored groups of organisms are the vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes), along with plants, especially trees and shrubs. Being conspicuous, they are what we familiarly call “wildlife.” A great majority of other species, however, are by far also the most abundant. I like to call them “the little things that run the world.” They teem everywhere, in great number and variety in and on all plants, throughout the soil at our feet and in the air around us. They are the protists, fungi, insects, crustaceans, spiders, pauropods, centipedes, mites, nematodes and legions of others whose scientific names are seldom heard by the bulk of humanity. In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of the other living world — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, priapulids, coral, loriciferans and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life.

Do not call these organisms “bugs” or “critters.” They too are wildlife. Let us learn their correct names and care about their safety. Their existence makes possible our own. We are wholly dependent on them.

Wilson has been sounding the alarm for decades. From a talk in 1998:

Now when you cut a forest, an ancient forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. … Many of them are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects. Wilson, Edward Osborne (28 April 1998) saveamericasforests.org. p. 2

His call to action is daunting:

A growing number of researchers, myself included, believe that the only way to reverse the extinction crisis is through a conservation moonshot: We have to enlarge the area of Earth devoted to the natural world enough to save the variety of life within it.

The formula widely agreed upon by conservation scientists is to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible. This conservation goal did not come out of the blue. Its conception, called the Half-Earth Project, is an initiative led by a group of biodiversity and conservation experts (I serve as one of the project’s lead scientists).

Moonshot indeed. “Half the land and half the sea of the planet” sounds like a lot and it’s hard to imagine much enthusiasm for restricting human activity over such a large area. Trump is shrinking national monuments as fast as he can.

“Some people think that the natural resources should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said at Utah’s domed State Capitol. “And guess what: They’re wrong.” https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/12/trump-shrinks-bears-ears-grand-staircase-escalante-national-monuments/

Trump and his followers hate academics like Wilson even more than they hate “bureaucrats”. Although nobody is as bad as the Trump administration, neither the Russians nor the Chinese are noted environmentalists. This could get a lot worse before it gets better.

Wilson is optimistic about global warming and implies that biodiversity is a tougher problem than climate change, which gets most of the environmental attention, such as there is. 

Unless humanity is suicidal (which, granted, is a possibility), we will solve the problem of climate change. Yes, the problem is enormous, but we have both the knowledge and the resources to do this and require only the will.

Slowing the extinction of the planet’s species will require an even larger political commitment. The first step is scientific.

Within one to three decades, candidate conservation areas can be selected with confidence by construction of biodiversity inventories that list all of the species within a given area. The expansion of this scientific activity will enable global conservation while adding immense amounts of knowledge in biology not achievable by any other means. By understanding our planet, we have the opportunity to save it.

Saving the planet is a noble sounding goal. However, many people think “who gives a shit about the natural world”? We only care about humans. How could we possibly owe a moral duty to unknown species of bugs and critters? Bugs bug us. Good riddance. 

The political pitch needs to be focused on human welfare. We are not saving the planet for the sake of “the little things that run the world”; we’re doing it for our own sake. In the long run, the planet will recover. In a million years—still a brief timescale geologically— new species will evolve to replace the ones we destroy. Life, in some form, will go on. But in the short term—the next century to the next thousand years—we will be coping with a damaged, diminished, half-sterilized planet. That denuded biosphere we do not deserve.

As we focus on climate change, we must also act decisively to protect the living world while we still have time. It would be humanity’s ultimate achievement.



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