Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Species extinctions and question begging

In the "it must be true because I said it myself" department comes a new "study" in Science on the species-extinction crisis authored by 174 conservation biologists who looked at their own list of species they considered to be threatened and concluded from this that many species are threatened.

As I noted in a previous post, the whole science behind the extinction crisis is riddled with circular reasoning, but this is an especially fine example. No new research was involved, no field studies, no nothing that involved actual science as we know it. (The researchers for example concluded that habitat loss is one of the "root causes" of global biodiversity loss; this conclusion was derived from the fact that many of the species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List were presumed to be threatened, and accordingly placed on the list in the first place, because of . . . habitat loss)

The timing of the paper is not coincidental; diplomats are currently meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to discuss new international agreements to protect biodiversity. Several of the co-authors of the Science paper offered the usual perfunctory quotations about the need to curtail human use of the earth's land and the exploitation of the developing countries as a source of food and timber; environmental groups are pressing for a pledge to place a quarter of the earth's land off-limits to human use.

Yet there is the striking fact that many parts of the earth (North America, coastal Brazil) have been heavily exploited for agriculture and logging for centuries with almost no species losses occurring; many species have shown that they can adapt to human-modified environments with aplomb. A priori there is no reason to believe that agriculture and species conservation are of necessity mutually incompatible goals. Other evidence suggests that focusing conservation measures on the relatively small number of "ecological hotspots" where highly endemic species are concentrated is a hugely more effective strategy than blanket, across-the board proscriptions fencing off vast portions of the planet.

And of course, if we really are serious about setting aside land for nature preserves, the most effective steps by far would be to support intensive research on new GM varieties of staple crops with higher yields, more disease and insect resistance, and higher nutrient content so that more people can be fed on fewer acres; discourage land-gobbling organic farming; and above all unequivocally endorse the intensive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which more than any other single technology has spared land from the plow. (But it's far easier to bemoan mankind's "disconnection from the natural world.")


By the way, in my earlier post on extinction alarmism, I made the point that exaggerated warnings of impending doom and politicized science "is already causing a dangerous political backlash that has handed ammunition (exactly as in the case of global warming) to those who want to reject any and all evidence of human impacts on the natural environment," to which one reader complained that I was inventing a "straw man." He obviously has not met the American "tea party" and its evangelical Christian wing in particular, which are inhabited by plenty of flesh and blood examples, such as the West Virginia electrician interviewed by the New York Times who declared that it was impossible for burning of coal to cause any trouble for the earth since God "made this earth for us to utilize," or the founder of an Indiana tea party group who similarly asserted, “Being a strong Christian, I cannot help but believe the Lord placed a lot of minerals in our country and it’s not there to destroy us.”