Sunday, July 16, 2017

GWPF Newsletter: Population Doomster Paul Ehrlich’s New Eco-Scare: ‘Biological Annihilation’

We Are in Era of Mass Extinction — Of Reason

In this newsletter:

1) Population Doomster Paul Ehrlich’s New Eco-Scare: ‘Biological Annihilation’
Reason Online, 12 July 2017

2) Earth Is Not In The Midst Of A Sixth Mass Extinction
The Atlantic, 13 June 2017

3) We’re in Era of Mass Extinction — Of Reason
The New American, 13 July 2017

4) Matt Ridley: New Book On How Humans Are Increasing Biodiversity
The Times, 5 July 2017

5) And Finally: Only A Few Weeks Left Until The Maldives Drown
The Deplorable Climate Science Blog, 13 July 2017

Full details:

1) Population Doomster Paul Ehrlich’s New Eco-Scare: ‘Biological Annihilation’
Reason Online, 12 July 2017
Ron Bailey

Paul Ehrlich’s new extinction predictions are likely to be as accurate as his famine forecasts.

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich has made a gaudy career of prophesying imminent ecological doom. “In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now,” he declared in his 1968 manifesto The Population Bomb. In the subsequent 50 years, as world population more than doubled, the proportion of chronically undernourished people in the world dropped from 33 percent in 1968 to 11 percent now.

Ehrlich is now predicting population doom for the world’s animals. The cause? Human overpopulation, naturally. Ehrlich and his colleagues Gerardo Ceballos and Rodolfo Dirzo describe the allegedly impending “biological annihilation” of about a third of all vertebrate land species in a paper for The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The ultimate drivers of those immediate causes of biotic destruction [are] human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich,” they argue. “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.” The crisis supposedly results from “the fiction that perpetual growth can occur on a finite planet”; meanwhile, “the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most.”

Ehrlich and his colleagues reached those conclusions by taking the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s data on populations of 27,600 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians and overlaying those figures on a grid of 22,000 plots measuring 10,000 square kilometers across all of the continents. The goal is to identify areas where local populations of each species has been extirpated. They report that since 1900 “nearly half of known vertebrate species, 32% (8,851/27,600) are decreasing; that is, they have decreased in population size and range.”

This is not the first time the alarms of mass extinction has been raised. In 1970, Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, predicted that between 75 and 80 percent of all species of animals would be extinct by 1995. In 1979, the Oxford biologist Norman Myers suggested that the world could “lose one-quarter of all species by the year 2000.” Also in 1979, the Heinz Center biologist Thomas Lovejoy chimed in, estimating that between a seventh and a fifth of global diversity would become extinct by 2000. None of those dire predictions came true.

Ehrlich and his dour colleagues are probably wrong too, thanks to human ingenuity and the very trends in “perpetual growth” that they think are threats to biodiversity.

First, human population will peak this century at perhaps as few as 8.2 billion people. The United Nations projects that 80 percent of those will be living in cities by 2100, meaning that fewer than 1.6 billion people will be living on the landscape, down from 3.2 billion now. Humanity may already be at peak farmland. If biofuel subsidies are stopped, some researchers project that as much as 400 million hectares of land would be returned to nature by 2060; that is an area double the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Many countries have now gone through the forest transition and their forests are expanding. More broadly, the global rate of deforestation has been declining. Furthermore, there is evidence that “dematerialization“: Thanks to technological progress, humanity is using relatively less stuff to obtain more services. Current trends suggest that humanity is likely to withdraw increasingly from nature over the course of this century, thus relinquishing a great deal of territory in which our fellow creatures will be able to thrive.

In fact, a very different and much more positive story can be told about how biodiversity is faring around the world. In a forthcoming book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, University of York conservation biologist Chris Thomas points out that at reasonable scales — say, regions the size of Vermont — humanity has actually been enriching local biodiversity. How? By moving around and introducing species to areas they were previously absent. New Zealand’s 2,000 native plant species have been joined by 2,000 from elsewhere, doubling the plant biodiversity of its islands. Meanwhile, only three species of native plants have gone extinct.

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2) Earth Is Not In The Midst Of A Sixth Mass Extinction
The Atlantic, 13 June 2017
Peter Brannen

At the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin took the podium to address a ballroom full of geologists on the dynamics of mass extinctions and power grid failures—which, he claimed, unfold in the same way.

“These are images from the NOAA website of the US blackout in 2003,” he said, pulling up a nighttime satellite picture of the glowing northeastern megalopolis, megawatts afire under the cold dark of space. “This is 20 hours before the blackout. You can see Long Island and New York City.”

“And this is seven hours into the blackout,” he said, pulling up a new map, cloaked in darkness. “New York City is almost dark. The blackout extended all the way up into Toronto, all the way out to Michigan and Ohio. It covered a huge section of both Canada and the United States. And it was largely due to a software bug in a control room in Ohio.”

Erwin is one of the world’s experts on the End-Permian mass extinction, an unthinkable volcanic nightmare that nearly ended life on earth 252 million years ago. He proposed that earth’s great mass extinctions might unfold like these power grid failures: most of the losses may come, not from the initial shock—software glitches in the case of power grid failures, and asteroids and volcanoes in the case of ancient mass extinctions—but from the secondary cascade of failures that follow. These are devastating chain reactions that no one understands. Erwin thinks that most mass extinctions in earth’s history—global die-offs that killed the majority of animal life on earth—ultimately resulted, not from external shocks, but from the internal dynamics of food webs that faltered and failed catastrophically in unexpected ways, just as the darkening eastern seaboard did in 2003.

“Because it was not clear how to manage that collapse—although after the fact it was clear that it should have been easily contained—it cascaded into failure of grids across the northeastern United States …  I mention this because it turns out that, from a mathematical point of view, the problem of understanding these food webs is exactly the [same] problem as understanding the nature of the power grid. There’s a very rapid collapse of the ecosystem during these mass extinctions,” he said.

“Wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals—human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent”

I had written to Erwin to get his take on the contemporary idea that there is currently a sixth mass extinction under way on our planet on par with the so-called Big Five mass extinctions in the history of animal life. Many popular science articles take this as a given, and indeed, there’s something emotionally satisfying about the idea that humans’ hubris and shortsightedness are so profound that we’re bringing down the whole planet with us.

Given how severely humans have damaged the natural world over the millennia, it was an idea I found attractive, and it’s one even shared by many geologists and paleontologists. Our destruction is so familiar—so synonymous with civilization—in fact, that we tend to overlook how strange the world that we’ve made has become. For instance, it stands to reason that, until very recently, all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass. This Frankenstein biosphere is due both to the explosion of industrial agriculture and to a hollowing out of wildlife itself, which has decreased in abundance by as much as 50 percent since 1970. This cull is from both direct hunting and global-scale habitat destruction: almost half of the earth’s land has been converted to farmland.

The oceans have endured a similar transformation in only the past few decades as the industrial might developed during World War II has been trained on the seas. [….]

So things don’t look so good, no matter where we look. Yes, the victims in the animal world include scary apex predators that pose obvious threats to humans, like lions, whose numbers have dropped from 1 million at the time of Jesus to 450,000 in the 1940s to 20,000 today—a decline of 98 percent. But also included have been unexpected victims, like butterflies and moths, which have declined in abundance by 35 percent since the 1970s.

Like all extinction events, so far this one has been phased and complex, spanning tens of thousands of years and starting when our kind left Africa. Other mass extinctions buried deep in earth’s history have similarly played out over tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years. To future geologists, then, the huge wave of extinctions a few thousand years ago as First Peoples spread out into new continents and remote archipelagoes will be all but indistinguishable from the current wave of destruction loosed by modernity and its growing appetites. Surely we’ve earned our place in the pantheon next to the greatest ecological catastrophes of all time: the so-called Big Five mass extinctions of earth history. 
Surely our Anthropocene extinction can confidently take its place next to the juggernauts of deep time—the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous extinctions.
Erwin says no. He thinks it’s junk science. 
“Many of those making facile comparisons between the current situation and past mass extinctions don’t have a clue about the difference in the nature of the data, much less how truly awful the mass extinctions recorded in the marine fossil record actually were,” he wrote me in an email. “It is absolutely critical to recognize that I am NOT claiming that humans haven’t done great damage to marine and terrestrial [ecosystems], nor that many extinctions have not occurred and more will certainly occur in the near future. But I do think that as scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons.”

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3) We’re in Era of Mass Extinction — Of Reason
The New American, 13 July 2017
Selwyn Duke

“Earth is on its way to the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, scientists warn,” reads a recent headline. “Era of ‘Biological Annihilation’ Is Underway, Scientists Warn,” proclaims another. And this is all bunk, a different scientist tells us

Of course, that man has driven and is driving certain species to extinction is true and tragic. We’re obliged to be good shepherds of the Earth and respect creation. But we can’t solve problems if we prefer fiction to fact.

The headline-spawning study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes the case that “thousands of animal species are in precipitous decline, a sign that an irreversible era of mass extinction is underway,” as the New York Times puts it. “In most parts of the world,” the paper later writes, “mammal populations are losing 70 percent of their members because of habitat loss.”

The Atlantic provides the example of lions, “whose numbers have dropped from 1 million at the time of Jesus to 450,000 in the 1940s to 20,000 today — a decline of 98 percent.”

Interestingly, one of the study’s authors is Stanford University biology professor Paul Ehrlich, who penned the 1968 book The Population Bomb. He has admitted in reference to the current research, “I am an alarmist. My colleagues are alarmists,” and this is true. What he’s not is generally honest.

As Walter E. Williams pointed out in 2008, Ehrlich “predicted there would be a major food shortage in the U.S. and [that] ‘in the 1970s … hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.’ Ehrlich forecasted that 65 million Americans would die of starvation between 1980 and 1989, and by 1999 the U.S. population would have declined to 22.6 million [it’s now 326 million]. Ehrlich’s predictions about England were gloomier: ‘If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.’”

Today Ehrlich says about mass-extinction episodes, “We are now moving into another one of these events that could easily, easily ruin the lives of everybody on the planet.”

Question: Would you take investment advice from someone with a history of losing stock predictions? Why is anyone still listening to this man?

Smithsonian paleontologist and extinction-event expert Doug Erwin implies that we shouldn’t because we’re not — in a mass extinction. Quoting him, the Atlantic writes, “‘If it’s actually true we’re in a sixth mass extinction, then there’s no point in conservation biology.’ … This is because by the time a mass extinction starts, the world would already be over.”

It’s also true that 99 percent of the Earth species that ever existed no longer do; as with individuals and civilizations, species eventually die.

None of this means we should dismiss matters here, because there is a problem: Species are disappearing and many more are threatened. But upon reading people’s conceptions of the causes (in comments sections, for example) — mainly, overpopulation, consumption, and climate change — it’s clear our cures may be errant because our diagnoses are. […]

Myth: The problem is that the Third World wants to live like us, when in reality consumption must be curtailed.

Reality: Most of the habitat loss and threatened species are in Third World countries. In contrast, the United States has more forested area now than 100 years ago, with the forest volume being 380 percent greater than in 1920. Consequently, animals such as bears, cougars (a friend saw one in upstate New York), and moose are returning to old northeastern habitats.

Why more forest now? The modern economic phenomenon of urbanization, while causing city sprawl, also means people live more densely clustered. Moreover, industrial farming and livestock production mean far greater yield per acre, reducing the land area needed to feed the population. And abandoned land returns to nature.

In addition, wealthy peoples care about, and can afford to, take care of the environment. A Third World family suffering privation won’t hesitate to burn jungle for subsistence farming or kill an endangered animal to feed the children. They’re desperate.

The point? If this Western economic phenomenon — associated with wealth creation and far greater consumption — means more wildlife in the United States, why wouldn’t it mean the same in Africa? So it’s not that Third Worlders can’t live as we do. It’s that they must live as we do.

The first step in preserving the environment is to stop polluting the environmental debate with lies.  

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4) Matt Ridley: New Book On How Humans Are Increasing Biodiversity
The Times, 5 July 2017

Book Review: Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction by Chris Thomas 

Humans haven’t destroyed the planet. This biologist argues that our presence has boosted biodiversity, says Matt Ridley
If human beings were to vanish from the Earth, what would their effect on wildlife have been? A rash of extinctions, a lot of mixing up so that wallabies and parakeets live in England and rabbits and sparrows in Australia, but also — according to Chris Thomas — an eventual doubling in the number of species on the planet: a “sixth genesis”, as he calls it in reference to the five previous times that biodiversity has expanded rapidly after a mass extinction. We are causing a mass speciation.

At a local scale diversity has increased a lot: “The number of species living in virtually every country or island has already increased during the period of human influence, and numbers continue to increase.” The fauna and flora of Britain are much richer today than 10,000 years ago as a result of farming, towns, gardening, climate change and the deliberate introduction of exotic species. Thomas finds the same to be true in tropical forests in Cameroon, Costa Rica and Brazil: the net effect of some human disturbance can be more biodiversity.

You can resent some of the exotic species (I do) but you should pause to recognise that in terms of the functioning of ecosystems, there has been mostly improvement. In an extreme case, Ascension Island was a barren volcanic rock with a few ferns on its summit. It is now a semi-green island capturing more moisture from the wind, thanks to a deliberate effort, begun by Charles Darwin, to enrich its ecosystem.

Professor Thomas, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist from York University, has produced an immensely significant book. It is fluently written, carefully thought through, ruthlessly argued, neatly illustrated with case studies — and shockingly contrarian. He shows the upside for wildlife in the Anthropocene. He does not deny that human beings also cause problems for wildlife, far from it, but he does think we have almost entirely overlooked the gains for wildlife that our presence is also creating.

I have for some time been thinking that while human beings have caused many species extinctions, they must also be causing many speciations. I have not quite had the courage to say so, for fear of being accused by the green thought police of going too far. While watching sparrows on a recent trip to Hawaii, it occurred to me that, though they were little different from the ones I see in London, they must, through isolation, be on the way to becoming a new species of sparrow. Just as a flock of Asian rosefinches shipwrecked on one of the Hawaiian islands six million years ago have turned into scores of species of honeycreeper, half of which are now sadly extinct.

Thomas has the courage I lack. He begins his book with sparrows, as it happens. Sparrows are not native to Britain at all. They spread from central Asia with people, the first of many birds to exploit the urban habitat. In Italy they hybridised with Spanish sparrows to produce a new true-breeding species, the Italian sparrow, already almost reproductively isolated from its parent species. Add one to the list of bird species. Sparrows are persecuted in America for stealing nest sites from native bluebirds, but protected and encouraged in Britain, where a short-lived (and now reversed) decline in the 1980s and 1990s led to concern that we might lose them. This contradictory attitude makes no sense: they are man-assisted exotics in both places.

Thomas documents the way new species are evolving. There is an ex-Australian cricket on a Hawaiian island that has fallen silent in the past few decades because of a mutation. This has been caused by the predation of a parasitic fly from North America that hunts down its mating call. And there is a species of fly that eats hawthorn berries, some of whose members have switched to eating apples. They are evolving towards a distinct species, together with their three species of parasite wasp — turning four species into eight.

The old idea that evolution happens only very slowly is being cast aside. “The biological processes of evolutionary divergence and speciation have not been broken in the Anthropocene. They have gone into overdrive. We have created a global archipelago, a species generator.”

And then there is hybridisation. In America a blueberry fly and a snowberry fly, separate species, have hybridised to form a honeysuckle fly to eat non-native honeysuckle, itself a hybrid of various Asian species. In the city of York, growing on a roundabout, there is a unique species of flower called Yorkwort, recently rescued from extinction by using saved seeds. But Yorkwort was only born as a species in 1979 when the railways allowed Oxford ragwort — itself a natural hybrid from Mount Etna, collected by a botanist in the 18th century — to spread around the country and hybridise with groundsel in, for some reason, York.

“More new plant species have come into hybrid existence in Britain in the last 300 years than are listed as having died out in the whole of Europe,” writes Thomas. If you are sniffy about hybrids, remember you probably are one: all people with any non-African ancestry have genes from Neanderthals (Europeans) or Denisovans (Asians) in them.

Thomas’s argument is that “humans must adapt and help direct change, rather than attempt to preserve the world in aspic”. Nature is much more dynamic than we generally admit. Species move about, become rare, become common again. In time and space nature is constantly on the move. In Ice Age deposits in Britain you find frequent remains of a dung beetle species today known only from the high Tibetan plateau — how did that happen? The Monterey pine is barely clinging on to a few tiny refuges on the California coast, but is the mainstay of a vast timber industry in New Zealand, Chile, Australia and elsewhere. Blue gums from Australia are found throughout California, thickets of Chinese palms blanket the shores of Lake Maggiore in the Alps and Himalayan balsam invades British river valleys.

It is only here that I begin to part company with Thomas. While he accepts that the eradication of rats from South Georgia, to save the seabirds, was a good thing, he is not convinced that New Zealand should, let alone could, eradicate its mammals — none of which is native — for the sake of its birds. Just let them evolve instead.

He is right that not all non-natives are bad, but in conceding that human beings should actively manage the process of natural change, he should perhaps look on pest eradication more favourably as an example of just such management.

For instance, I cannot stand idly by and watch three species disappear from my farm, all as a result of American invasive species: the water vole (eradicated by mink); the native crayfish (eradicated by signal crayfish); and the red squirrel (being eradicated by grey squirrels). So I trap mink, signal crayfish and grey squirrels whenever possible. It may be a futile, Sisyphean task for the moment, but in the long run new genetic techniques may make it easier. Invasive species are by far the greatest cause of local and global extinction, not habitat loss or hunting.

Thomas briefly blames the extinction of harlequin frogs in Central America partly on climate change before correcting himself later to agree that the cause was a fungus spread around the world from Africa, partly in pregnancy-testing kits. He is far more balanced than most academics on the topic of global warming, conceding, for example, that “the basic expectation of a warmer and slightly wetter world is that the diversity of many – and perhaps most – regions in the world will increase”.

This is certainly true in Britain, where more warm-loving species are arriving than cold-loving species are leaving. Oddly, he omits any mention of global greening, the phenomenon by which the global vegetation has grown greener over 33 years by the equivalent of a continent twice the size of the United States, 70 per cent of the cause of which is extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That surely rates a mention in a book celebrating the gains from man-made interference with nature.

When he writes that “it is difficult to understand why any particular moment in the continuous passage of time should have special significance”, this surely applies to climate change too. The world was much warmer than today in times past and much colder at others. The rate of change was much faster at the end of the last Ice Age.

We think of human beings as unnatural, as separate from nature, and a “separation myth” permeates our writing about the natural world, but it is nonsense. Thomas writes: “We may not be happy about some of the changes that are taking place as a consequence of our existence, but they are still natural.” We caused many extinctions, especially of large mammals and birds, when we were hunter-gatherers fully embedded in natural ecosystems. Wherever human beings appeared 50,000 years ago, there followed a disappearance of mammoths and rhinos, of diprotodons and giant kangaroos, of moas and rocs, of giant elks and great auks.

Modern technology is not the problem: we caused twice as many extinctions of birds and mammals before 1700 as we have caused since.

Full review
5) And Finally: Only A Few Weeks Left Until The Maldives Drown
The Deplorable Climate Science Blog, 13 July 2017

According to government experts, all 1200 of the Maldives Islands will be gone by the end of this year, and they ran out water 25 years ago.

26 Sep 1988 – Threat to islands

In this shocking imagery taken earlier today, you can see dehydrated native islanders fleeing the seas.

Full post

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