Friday, December 01, 2017

Rationalizing Extinction

I know. A lot of you have been feeling guilty about how we humans are causing the 6th great extinction event in earth's history. 40% of all species on earth are predicted to slip quietly into history. But we're good people! For the most part. How could this happen? Well, no use wringing your hands, you hand wringers, you. Because, voila!, extinction turns out to be good, after all, according to R. Alexander Pyron, an associate professor at George Washington University who is trying his hand at opinion writing. Why change our destructive behavior when we can change our ethical standards instead? Demonizing the human race is so last century. Time to rationalize! Time to get anthropocentric about the Anthropocene.

A colleague had sent me the link. The headline (written by the newspaper's editors) sounded like a troll from an online comment section. "We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution: The only creatures we should go out of our way to protect are Homo sapiens."

"Cool!", I exclaimed, looking at the headline on my phone while standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve, getting ready to lead a nature walk on a Sunday afternoon. I shared the provocative title with others who had gathered. We reveled in relief as all that species-guilt we'd been feeling for as long as we could remember drained away, melting into the pavement beneath our feet.

By chance, I'd been analyzing a book with a similar message, "Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, " by Chris D. Thomas. The book may well have emboldened Pyron to write his opinion piece, and given the Washington Post a rationale for publishing it. Both the book and the oped seduce uninformed readers by upsetting the applecart of mainstream thinking, and by letting the reader off the hook. Remember Dr. Strangelove and "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb?" Doctors Thomas and Pyron are doing something similar with the Anthropocene, but with no sense of satire.

Much of their thinking is rooted in books published some years ago--by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--that vilified habitat restoration and invasion biologists and portrayed invasive species as a blessing in disguise. I thought that line of thinking had long since died of its own strained logic, but Thomas's book appeared this summer, presenting the old arguments in an even more nihilistic form.

If nothing else, Pyron's essay is useful for pointing out some recurrent habits of this genre, which seeks to undermine our trust in mainstream scientific thought. Below are some typical techniques, with quotes from his opinion piece:


Portray the “Other” as emotional, sentimental, and self-serving. In this case, the "Other" is mainstream biological and environmental thinking about habitat restoration and extinction.
  • “Yet we are obsessed with reviving the status quo ante.”
  • “And if biodiversity is the goal of extinction fearmongers, ...“
Claim that working to restore nature, or otherwise expend conscious effort to reduce humanity's negative impacts, is a waste of time and money.
  • “But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency.”
  • “Conserving a species … serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.”
  • “whatever effort we make to maintain the current climate will eventually be overrun by the inexorable forces of space and geology.”
Declare the conservationist Other’s words to be meaningless, either by erasing distinctions or mocking the Other’s words with quotation marks.
  • "There is no such thing as an 'endangered species,' except for all species."
  • “We are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural.”
  • “alien species will disrupt formerly 'pristine' native ecosystems.”
Manage guilt or purge it altogether.
  • “extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it.”
  • “Humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs.”
  • "Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves."
Play tricks with time frame. Sure, we're doing harm to nature, but all will be fine a million years from now. Can you imagine such reasoning being used for any other problem we face?
  • "Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years..."
  • “If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time."
Cherry pick evidence. Oftentimes, one positive trait is used to supposedly compensate for all the negative traits of invasive species. The positive trait might be a pretty flower, or nitrogen-fixing ability, or erosion control.
  • “ Studies have shown that when humans introduce invasive plant species, native diversity sometimes suffers, but productivity — the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem — frequently increases. Invasives can bring other benefits, too: Plants such as the Phragmites reed have been shown to perform better at reducing coastal erosion and storing carbon than native vegetation in some areas, like the Chesapeake.”
Most writings in this genre use extinction as the only measure of damage to native species, but Pyron's oped is even more heartless, claiming that extinction is all part of the game, neither good nor bad.
  • “Invasion and extinction are the regenerative and rejuvenating mechanisms of evolution, the engines of biodiversity.”
  • "The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings."
Make biodiversity purely a numbers game; minimize or ignore the evolution of complex interactions between species
  • "South Florida, where about 140 new reptile species accidentally introduced by the wildlife trade are now breeding successfully? No extinctions of native species have been recorded, and, at least anecdotally, most natives are still thriving. The ones that are endangered, such as gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, are threatened mostly by habitat destruction. Even if all the native reptiles in the Everglades, about 50, went extinct, the region would still be gaining 90 new species — a biodiversity bounty."
Present evolution as winners and losers
  • “Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. “
Overall, Pyron's writing has an "abandon ship" quality. Ayn Rand's "In Defense of Selfishness" comes to mind. Libertarianism, as described at lp.org, envisions "a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others." This sort of thinking leaves us helpless to prevent collectively created crises. Opposition to collective action to slow or prevent climate change then necessitates a way to rationalize the tragic consequences. Pyron's political views are unknown, but he essentially extends the libertarian view of the individual to the species as a whole. Hope is invested not in proactive avoidance of disaster, but in the endgame: "we will find a way to adapt." And if that fails, then come back in a million years. Everything's sure to be fine then.

2 comments:

Marc Imlay said...

In the Washington Post Nov 26, 2017 in Outlook, Mr. only humans count, made many mistakes of course. I would like to start with his summary of mass extinctions that “come every 50 million to 100 million years, and scientists agree that we are now in the middle of the sixth extinction, this one caused primarily by humans… the sixth extinction will be followed by a recovery, and later a seventh extinction, and so on.” We should read the scientific literature on mass extinctions. The first mass extinction eliminated two thirds of the fundamental basic forms of life forever. Over all there is a threshold level of degree of damage from mass extinction so that for some there is recovery, although it takes millions of years, and above that threshold there is not recovery. Studies have shown that with our current conservation efforts we can keep the sixth extinction below that threshold, but only if we continue that effort. So set aside natural areas making sure that keystone species are kept there. For example, the keystone crayfish burrows in wetlands that freeze over, support about a dozen aquatic species about a foot or two below ground level because the temperature is about 50 degrees (symbiosis). When the endangered species Act of 1973 was passed studies showed that new species evolved at less than 1 percent of the rate they were becoming extinct, because of us. Responses to that Act has helped a lot. Host specific, effective, biological controls of non-native species has helped a lot. Japanese Knotweed is no longer as bad a problem that it was in Great Britain as a result. Cheers
Marc Imlay, PhD
MD Chapter, Sierra Club, Natural Places Working Group Chair

Marc Imlay said...

In the Washington Post Nov 26, 2017 in Outlook, Mr. only humans count, made many mistakes of course. I would like to start with his summary of mass extinctions that “come every 50 million to 100 million years, and scientists agree that we are now in the middle of the sixth extinction, this one caused primarily by humans… the sixth extinction will be followed by a recovery, and later a seventh extinction, and so on.” We should read the scientific literature on mass extinctions. The first mass extinction eliminated two thirds of the fundamental basic forms of life forever. Over all there is a threshold level of degree of damage from mass extinction so that for some there is recovery, although it takes millions of years, and above that threshold there is not recovery. Studies have shown that with our current conservation efforts we can keep the sixth extinction below that threshold, but only if we continue that effort. So set aside natural areas making sure that keystone species are kept there. For example, the keystone crayfish burrows in wetlands that freeze over, support about a dozen aquatic species about a foot or two below ground level because the temperature is about 50 degrees (symbiosis). When the endangered species Act of 1973 was passed studies showed that new species evolved at less than 1 percent of the rate they were becoming extinct, because of us. Responses to that Act has helped a lot. Host specific, effective, biological controls of non-native species has helped a lot. Japanese Knotweed is no longer as bad a problem that it was in Great Britain as a result. Cheers
Marc Imlay, PhD
MD Chapter, Sierra Club, Natural Places Working Group Chair