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Paul Ehrlich & Pete Myers: Mass Extinction Event Now Under Way

Center for the Environment

Internationally renowned thought leaders Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Dr. Pete Myers will give a presentation on “The Current Mass Extinction Event: Causes and Cures” Oct. 20 at the Center for the Environment building on the Catawba College campus.

Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus at Stanford University and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology, is best known for his warnings about the consequences of population growth on limited resources. Myers, founder and CEO of Environmental Health Science, is now actively involved in work to anticipate the interactions among biogeochemical forces set in motion by humans.

Their presentation, scheduled for 7 p.m., is open to the public without charge, but registration is required. To register, visit CenterForTheEnvironment.org.

They recently talked with Juanita Teschner of the Center for the Environment. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Center: Dr. Myers has talked about the interactions of biogeochemical forces and the part they play in the extinction of much of our wildlife. Tell us about this in a historical context.

Ehrlich: The history of life has been uneven. For most of that history the rate of diversification of evolving new species – called “speciation” – has been somewhat ahead of the rate at which the new species replace the old ones, which go extinct. There have been five catastrophic events, the most recent one being 66 million years ago in which the rate of extinction has gone far beyond the rate of speciation. The one 66 million years ago, sometimes called the K-T extinction, is when the dinosaurs bit the dust along with a lot of other organisms. The thing that is stunning today is that we’re now well into a sixth mass extinction in which basically we have lost about half the wildlife on the planet already. That’s a very rough estimate, but it’s one that is supported by new data.

Center: What kind of ramifications does this have?

Ehrlich: This isn’t just a matter of people having a smaller and smaller chance of ever seeing an elephant or a lion in the wild. It’s hurting our life support systems. It’s important to remember that the planet itself has been shaped by life. It’s not trivial that we share the planet with the only other known living organisms in the universe. And we’re now, for example, setting ourselves up for agriculture to collapse because we’re wiping out the organisms that pollinate crops, the organisms that eat the pests of crops and the organisms that keep our climate in the kind of shape necessary for agriculture. I’ll mention some of the ethical issues surrounding that in my talk.

The loss of biodiversity is the most underrated and irreversible of the threats that Dr. Myers has been talking about. They all trace directly or indirectly to having too many people on the planet and particularly having too many rich people who consume too much. While we can do all sorts of things to try and preserve the pandas and the California condor, we’re going to lose our life-support systems if we continue with the perpetual growth regime that most silly economists and politicians seem to be following.

Myers: These biogeochemical forces interact both with themselves and with the international financial system in ways that make them force multipliers, likely to hit harder and faster than any one of them by itself. A good example is something that is unfolding today in the East China Sea where there’s a fishery that has fed people in North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China for a long, long time. It began to become a less successful fishery when the Chinese began to dam the Yangtze River and stop sediment from flowing into the sea. Most recently, the sea temperature has been driven up by climate change so the surface waters are warmer. It’s changing from a fish-based system to a jellyfish- and algal-based system, heightening tensions between those four countries that already are using conventional arms against one another and increasing the chances that North Korea will do something stupid.

Center: What role does plastic pollution play?

Myers: Micro-plastics get into the ocean and absorb persistent organic pollutants and other dangerous chemicals that are floating on the surface, and they are now being eaten by marine crustaceans and larval fish at the bottom of the food chain. They go up the food chain, and as higher and higher predators eat them, their concentrations magnify by a factor of over a million. They are ubiquitous in the ocean and inland waters … everywhere! We’re now even finding these micro-plastics in the tummies of larval fish at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Ehrlich: That’s one of the few areas in the planet that people have claimed were not yet polluted.

Myers: Micro-plastics are everywhere. From a scientific perspective there’s a thin layer of lipids on the surface of the ocean, and those lipids themselves concentrate persistent organic pollutants and then the plastics all around in that lipid layer absorb them, so there’s an enormous amount of pollution that begins moving up the food chain as larval fish and crustaceans eat the pollutants. There have been some experiments done with the fish which show they get fat and stupid as they eat this stuff.

Center: What are the signs that a mass extinction event is currently under way?

Ehrlich: One of the best signals is that the range of lots of animals is shrinking, with many or most of their populations already extinct. The species themselves are not extinct yet, but that’s where they’re headed. For instance, a huge percentage of mammals have lost 50 percent or more of their populations in the last century. Again, in the last 40 years about half of all wildlife is gone from the planet. That means individuals and populations. Very few species have disappeared because, of course, they are the last thing to go. Before a species becomes extinct, if it’s a widespread species, you may have to lose a million populations, but think of it this way. We’re losing honey bees. We’re losing pollinators all over North America. If the honey bee survives only in Africa as a single population, you will not have lost the species, but you will have lost $18 billion worth of services to agriculture in North America alone.

Bats are extremely important in eating mosquitoes which carry pathogens to us like the Zika and West Nile viruses. And the bats are being wiped out by a fungal disease, which we apparently transplanted from Europe to North America. Bats are also an extremely important destroyer of agricultural pests so we’re losing a lot when their populations go extinct.

Myers: Environment Canada recently reported that 1.5 billion birds are missing from the North American skies today compared to 1970. It mentions some trends and details like evening grosbeaks are down 92 percent since 1970; snowy owls, down 64 percent; Canada warblers, down 63 percent.

Center: Is this all caused by humans?

Ehrlich: Human overpopulation and overconsumption has caused the vast majority of it. We’re wiping the other animals off the face of the planet, and what’s even worse is the many things we know that are causing it are mostly getting worse. We use the same basic resources that other animals use. If we use them, the other animals don’t get to use them.

We have toxified the entire planet but, even more important, there’s a whole range of toxins that Dr. Myers talked about that attack biodiversity, that attack other organisms, that make it tough for polar bears and crocodiles to live right.

Myers: There was an incident recently in South Carolina where one spraying by a plane of a pesticide intended to kill Zika mosquitoes killed 2.5 million bees all at once in one beekeeper’s hives. That was area-wide spraying. I can’t imagine the number of native insects that died simultaneously.

Center: What can people expect if things continue on this trajectory?

Ehrlich: They can expect less food, more disease, more heat waves and other extreme weather and general running down of civilization.

Center: I take it you will talk about how we can avert this disaster in your presentation.

Ehrlich: We’ll both mention a lot of things we can do. The big issue is, “Will we have the political will to do it?”

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