The Price of Biodiversity
There has been a resurgence of alarmist claims regarding the pending extinction of a majority of Earth's lifeforms due to human misdeeds—clearing rain forests, polluting the oceans and, of course, causing global warming. Perennial crank and misanthrope E. O. Wilson leads the parade of doomsayers, claiming that biodiversity is dropping and a sixth major extinction event is just around the corner. What evidence backs these claims? Why, computer model projections, naturally. The facts are researchers have identified 1.4 million animal species so far, and recently a pair of Brazilian researchers estimated that there are estimated 5.4 million yet-to-be-discovered animal species alone. The truth is, scientists have no idea how fast biodiversity is falling because they have no idea how many species there are on Earth. And the researchers put a price tag on finding out that is simply stunning.
But you can't quantify species extinction if you can't identify the species in the first place. Back in 2000, famed Harvard University ant biologist Edward O. Wilson estimated that it would cost $5 billion to identify every species on Earth, not just animals. Wilson admitted at the time that, even among the small minority of all species diagnosed and named, fewer than 1% have been subject to the kind of careful biological studies needed to undergird ecology and conservation biology. “The cost per species, using newly available informatics technology, might be $500, for a total of $5 billion spread over 10 to 20 years,” Wilson stated.
Antonio Marques and Fernando Carbayo, both at of the University of São Paulo in Brazil, have recalculated the cost of getting a real handle on biodiversity in a paper published online last month in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Their new estimate: $263 billion (€189 billion). And at the current pace of 16,000 new animal species cataloged annually, Marques and Carbayo estimate it will take 360 years to complete the job. The paper summed things up this way:
A complete inventory of the animal diversity of the world might remain an elusive goal. Even this considerable achievement would provide only the ‘leftovers’ of biological diversity after the effects of evolution and human intervention on natural habitats have been considered. However, some crucial future actions should be considered for cataloguing biodiversity other than those related purely to funding for conservation and sustainable use of living organisms. The most essential action now would be a concerted effort to raise the image of taxonomy from being seen merely as an ‘old’ and ‘simple’ task of biologists that is unfashionable and horribly constricted to low-impact-factor journals to being viewed instead as a fundamental, indispensable, and vibrant branch of the life sciences.
Not knowing how many species are out there has not prevented Anthony D. Barnosky et al. from declaring the next mass extinction imminent. In “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?,” published in the journal Nature, studied the differences between fossil and modern data, coming to the conclusion that the end is nigh for most of the world's creatures. From that paper's abstract:
Palaeontologists characterize mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval, as has happened only five times in the past 540 million years or so. Biologists now suggest that a sixth mass extinction may be under way, given the known species losses over the past few centuries and millennia. Here we review how differences between fossil and modern data and the addition of recently available palaeontological information influence our understanding of the current extinction crisis. Our results confirm that current extinction rates are higher than would be expected from the fossil record, highlighting the need for effective conservation measures.
This new paper has brought scathing reviews from other researchers and even a few ecologists. Greenpeace Co-Founder and ecologist Dr. Patrick Moore, slammed the new study for claiming a dramatic and irreversible mass species extinction was underway. “This [journal Nature] article should never have made it through the peer-review process,” Moore told Climate Depot in an interview. “The fact that the study did make it through peer-review indicates that the peer review process has become corrupted,”
Moore has previously criticized others who have tried to declare a 6th extinction event, most notably Wilson, who has made a career out of prediction ecological doom. A decade ago, Wilson estimated that up to 50,000 species go extinct every year based on computer models of the number of potential but as yet undiscovered species in the world. Moore said in 2000: “There's no scientific basis for saying that 50,000 species are going extinct. The only place you can find them is in Edward O. Wilson's computer at Harvard University. They're actually electrons on a hard drive. I want a list of Latin names of actual species.”
And therein lies the central problem with all this decreasing biodiversity bombast: no one really knows how many species we are dealing with. It is simply impossible to say “50% of Earth's species are in danger of extinction by 2050” without knowing how many species exist and being able to identify the ones supposedly in danger. Yet, whether it is polar bears or coral reefs, eco-alarmists would have us believe they will be extinct by next Tuesday if we don't park our cars, close our factories and turn out the lights, right now! The tipping point is just ahead! Of course, the cost of getting a feel for Earth's actual biodiversity pales when compared to the cost of switching to renewable energy.
Ecologists and many scientists are quick to blame people for the demise of any species, but the simple truth is that species go extinct all the time—with or without human help. A prime example is the sudden decline in amphibian species around the world. Scientists now know the proximate cause is the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (see “Tackling the Mystery of the Disappearing Frogs”). The results of new gene sequencing technologies suggest that in susceptible frogs, the immune system doesn't go on the defensive. The fungi somehow manages to evade the frogs immune system defenses and has wiped out amphibians around the globe.
Humans have no doubt contributed to extinctions of individual species in the past, as have other species through predation, competition and habitat destruction—survival in the natural world is a blood sport. But when green fanatics like Wilson and Barnosky et al. start shouting extinction in a crowded biosphere it serves no useful purpose. I have said it before, if you want to preserve nature you need to make nature more attractive or more useful to people. Running around screaming “extinction” only upsets the weak minded and annoys the rest of us.
It should come as no surprise that there are many trying to profit off of biodiversity. In 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, business leaders from around the world converged on a conference in London to discuss the Business of Biodiversity. “To debate the issues, consider the risks and view the opportunities that are emerging, which are linked to declining biodiversity and ecosystem services,” proclaimed the online announcement.
Bottom line, papers announcing a 6th extinction event caused by H. sapiens are more about profit than science. It is the biodiversity lobby trying to do for their cause what the global warming scam has done for climate science. The formula is simple—scare the public with lurid predictions of an apocalypse, then wait for the research funding to pour in. But greens need to consider this: with the US House of Representatives voting to defund the IPCC, oil prices rising, the world economy reeling from the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and governments around the world tightening their belts, the chance that the US or any other nation will pony up $263 billion to study biodiversity is precisely zero.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
Chill out dude. Nobody's going extinct around here.