Biodiversity Balderdash

Evidently 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, a year long celebration of Earth's glorious variety of species and ecosystems. Unfortunately, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has failed to meet its ambitious goal: a significant slowdown in biodiversity loss by 2010. The AAAS journal Science has acknowledged this celebration with special News Focus section and a Review article. “After failing to meet its major conservation goal, the Convention on Biological Diversity is setting new targets for stemming the loss of species,” its lead article states. But the news is not all bad. In some countries, conservation efforts have helped species recover and reportedly large-scale deforestation in the Amazon has declined by 47.5% over the past 12 months. With eco-alarmists shifting their panicked attention from climate change to biodiversity, it is time to look at the facts.

Biodiversity is the variety of genes, species, and ecosystems that constitute life on Earth. It represents the diversity of materials available from nature that we humans turn into food, timber, medicines, and fibers for clothing. Some estimate that the economic value of benefits from biodiverse natural ecosystems may be 10 to 100 times the cost of maintaining them. So how are we doing in this International Year of Biodiversity? In “Despite Progress, Biodiversity Declines ,” Science reporter Erik Stokstad lays out a number of key areas, taken directly from the CBD report Global Biodiversity Outlook 3:

Degradation of Habitat
The GoodThe Bad
Some progress. Canada's largest timber companies agreed to caribou protection and ecosystem-based management of 72 million hectares of boreal forest. Many regions rich in biodiversity, such as Indonesia, continue to lose habitat. In the Amazon and a few other places, conservation action or economic recession has slowed the loss. Sustainable forestry is expanding but remains small.
Conservation Status of Species
The GoodThe Bad
Some progress. In some countries, conservation efforts have helped species recover. The golden toad (Incilius periglenes) of the cloud forests in Costa Rica was declared extinct in 2008. Global warming, pollution, and disease contributed.
Funding for Conservation
The GoodThe Bad
Some progress. New money being invested to prevent climate emissions from deforestation will help save biodiversity. In 2008, Norway contributed $1 billion to Brazil's Amazon Fund. From 2005 to 2007, official aid increased from about $3.1 billion to nearly $3.9 billion, but the emphasis is shifting to fighting climate change. Even rich countries spend just a tiny fraction of their national budgets on biodiversity.
Consumption of Biological Resources
The GoodThe Bad
None. The goal has not been met globally and is a major reason for biodiversity loss. Prized for sushi, the northern bluefin tuna is considered critically endangered. In March, conservation groups failed in their attempt to get an international ban on trade.
Protected Areas
The GoodThe Bad
The target has been achieved for more than half of the terrestrial ecoregions. The United Kingdom recently designated the Chagos Archipelago as the largest marine reserve in the world, setting aside 544,000 square kilometers. Overall, 12% of all land is protected, but less than 0.5% of the oceans.
Invasive Species
The GoodThe Bad
Some progress. Global trade and travel continue to spread alien species, some of which become invasive. Most countries don't have management plans. The voracious snakehead fish (Channa striata) of tropical Asia has spread around the world. Around 2007, it arrived in southern Papua New Guinea and is eating native fishes.

While things could probably be better, this report does not sound like humans are creating a sixth major extinction event as some have claimed. Progress is being made all but one area, consumption of biological resources, and that is to be expected. We will either hunt/harvest some species to extinction or learn to conserve and manage those resources. If you are really into sushi, learn to protect the bluefin tuna. Many nations are taking active steps to protect and restore marine harvest, from cod to krill. What's more, nations like Brazil and Indonesia are taking steps to preserve their forests. Perhaps things are not as bad as some eco-alarmists would have us believe.

Besides, it is hard to judge humanity's impact on biodiversity when science still doesn't have a firm idea of how many species share the planet with us. Appearing in the same issue of Science, a news focus article by Dennis Normile, “Joint Expedition Discovers Deep-Sea Biodiversity, New Volcanoes,” report that scientists are still discovering new species by the thousands:

The shallow water reefs of the Coral Triangle, which stretches across Indonesia and north through the Philippines, host the world's greatest diversity of corals, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and marine plant species. Now preliminary results from a joint Indonesian–U.S. marine survey indicate that the biodiversity runs deep. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) has captured stunning images of massive corals, as well as unusual crustaceans and fish living at depths never before surveyed, thousands of meters below the surface.”

The deep ocean “is hugely unexplored,” states Stephen Hammond, chief scientist for ocean exploration at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Meryl Williams, a former director general of The WorldFish Center in Penang, Malaysia, and a member of the Census of Marine Life steering committee adds that large swaths of the oceans “haven't been touched yet.”

Some new species of ocean life recently discovered. Photos NOAA.

Back on land, large-scale deforestation in the Amazon has declined by 47.5% over the past 12 months, according to a preliminary survey by the Brazilian Ministry of Environment using a low-resolution satellite. This is one of the largest declines since measurements began 20 years ago. If confirmed by a second set of satellite measurements due out later this year, it would mean more than an 80% drop in forest loss since a 2004 peak.

According to the report “Brazil Says Rate of Deforestation in Amazon Continues to Plunge ,” by Antonio Regalado, recent decisions by large food processors and supermarkets not to buy soybeans and beef from newly deforested areas has helped to slow the rate of deforestation. Naturally this report is not welcome news to the professional eco-alarmists and green NGOs. Greenpeace in Brazil labeled the government's use of such preliminary figures as “propaganda.” Evidently, environmental activists are incapable of accepting good new.

In the review article, “Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010,” Michael R. W. Rands et al. paint a grimmer picture. In 2002, scientists with WWF published a map of 238 ecological regions selected to represent the range of Earth's ecosystems. The color coding, shown in the figure below, groups the terrestrial regions into 14 biome types. The eco-regions include areas with particularly rich biodiversity or unusual ecology or evolutionary phenomena, such as the radiation of Galápagos finches. Many of these areas face dire threats, whereas others are better protected.

Rands et al. claim that continued growth of human populations and rising individual consumption have resulted in unsustainable exploitation of Earth’s biological diversity. Exacerbated by climate change, ocean acidification, and other anthropogenic environmental impacts, biodiversity continues to decline. “We argue that effective conservation of biodiversity is essential for human survival and the maintenance of ecosystem processes,” the authors state. “Moving beyond 2010, successful conservation approaches need to be reinforced and adequately financed.” They sum up the current state of affairs this way:

Pressures on biodiversity continue to increase. The key pressures driving biodiversity loss are overexploitation of species, invasive alien species, pollution, climate change, and especially the degradation, fragmentation, and destruction of habitats. Agriculture is an expanding land use in about 70% of countries, generally at the expense of biodiversity. Much of the global timber trade is based on unsustainable or illegal logging that destroys biodiversity-rich habitat, as shown across five major timber-producing countries in 2009 where, on average, only 14% of licensed logging area was sustainability-certified, while up to half of all harvesting was illegal.

Increasing demand for vegetable oils—for food, cosmetics, and biofuels—has put further pressure on biodiversity. Expanded corn, sugar cane and palm oil production threatens uncleared forest lands. Marine biodiversity is also under increasing pressure, with steep declines in fish populations and loss of marine habitats resulting from over fishing. As though rapacious human nature isn't bad enough, some say we are also threatening biodiversity through anthropogenic climate change:

Further anthropogenic climate change and rising human resource demands will pose immense interlinked challenges. Climate change may force species to shift their ranges and disrupts ecological communities. Lack of continuous semi-natural habitat or networks of connected habitat patches can restrict the capacity of species to adjust to changing conditions. Enhanced levels of atmospheric CO2 also threaten corals through ocean acidification. New initiatives and technologies aimed at mitigating climate change may have negative effects on biodiversity. For example, technological developments in biofuel production from cellulose could drive the planting of high-yielding perennial C4 grasses, such as Miscanthus, on millions of hectares of temperate-zone land not currently used for agricultural production.

Some how you knew that AGW would enter the argument. And evidently, we are damned if we do and damned if we don't—mitigation strategies like biofuels make the cure worse than the disease. That is why this blog has called for the end of all government backing for the biofuel industry. Wind, solar, hydro and geothermal can also damage ecosystems. These facts have become clearer over time but that has not stopped fatuous ecotards like John Holdren from calling for the “de-development” of the industrial world.

I'm sorry, but all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth has a familiar sound to it. One would think that species had never before gone extinct or been forced to shift their ranges. I guess the all those glacial-interglacial and interglacial-glacial transitions don't count, only the supposedly man made changes. Or maybe, because it takes a long time for continents to bash into one another, it is only a terrible thing when humans introduce “invasive species.” Species invade new habitats all the time, and an invasion doesn't always require a new land bridge.

There used to be giant ground sloths in South America. The first sloths arrived in North America about 7 million years ago, presumably by swimming between islands from South America. Some sloths even evolved into fully aquatic creatures similar to modern seals, though they are now extinct. By 13,000 years ago, all North American ground sloths were also extinct, except for a few populations on Caribbean islands. H. sapiens did not create them, did not move them from continent to continent, and did not drive them to extinction. Face it, when it comes to killing off species, nature is the champion.

Aquatic sloths evolved and went extinct, with no interference from man.

Those who would vilify humanity while ignoring the sanguinary 4 billion year history of life on this planet are contemptible. No matter how bad you think humans are, nature is worse. Humans have even come close to going extinct. I have repeated this statement from the Smithsonian's paleobiology web site before:

Extinction is the complete demise of a species. It takes place when all individuals of a species die out. Extinction has occurred throughout the history of life on Earth. It is the ultimate fate of all species. In fact, it has been estimated that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct.

And while humans have undoubtedly become a significant additional cause of extinction for many species over the past 25,000 years, our impact is trivial compared with nature's own killing sprees. Again quoting from the Smithsonian site:

Species are constantly going extinct, often for reasons that are not particularly obvious, and at other times for reasons that are peculiar to the species in question. The processes that lead to this pattern of constant background extinction occur continuously, so that at any given time, while some species are going extinct, others are making their appearance for the first time. Over time, this process of continual turnover produces great changes in the species composition of the Earth’s ecosystems. However, there have been times in the past when rates of extinction have been significantly higher than normal background rates. These are referred to as mass extinctions. During such events, vast numbers of species disappear in a relatively short period of time.

Personally, I am all for preserving biodiversity. All of those field tested, successful genomes running around represent a wealth of useful information that mankind can tap. According to a PNAS article, “What lies underneath: Conserving the oceans’ genetic resources,” by Jesús M. Arrieta et al., “human appropriation of marine genetic resources (MGRs), with over 18,000 natural products and 4,900 patents associated with genes of marine organisms, with the latter growing at 12% per year, demonstrates that the use of MGRs is no longer a vision but a growing source of biotechnological and business opportunities.”

This reflects my long standing opinion that if you wish to save a species put it on the menu—cows and chickens are certainly not endangered species. While the growing commercial importance of MGRs bodes well for their future preservation, Arrieta et al. further state that diversified human use of marine resources calls for an urgent revision of the goals and policies of marine protected areas.

The protection of MGRs or any other natural genetic resources is a good thing, and better international laws, treaties and cooperation in this area are certainly called for. But trying to elevate biodiversity decline to the level of “crisis” or declaring the beginning of an Anthropocene Epoch will backfire, just like the climate change “crisis” self-imploded.

The CBD will meet soon to adopt a new strategic plan. The new plan revises several of the 21 previous sub-targets, such as controlling invasive species, creating more nature reserves and of course, climate change. “The challenges of addressing the social and behavioral contexts for biodiversity conservation are daunting,” state Rands et al. “This is the year in which governments, business, and civil society could decide to take seriously the central role of biodiversity in human well-being and quality of life and to invest in securing the sustainable flow of nature’s public goods for present and future generations.”

It could be, but I wouldn't bet on it. People are more interested in raising themselves out of poverty, curing the ravages of childhood diseases or simply eating regularly. Nature lovers and ecological NGOs must learn that people do not respond well to hyped up claims of a biodiversity “crisis.” Particularly calling humanity evil for the piddling impact we have had on biodiversity.

If the goal is to have people value nature more, then nature must be made more valuable to people. Stop trying to frighten people and work on the harder problem of convincing them that biodiversity is a good thing. Spreading frightening and accusatory biodiversity balderdash will not work, and for everyone's sake, stop yammering on about climate change.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.


Thank goodness for your sanity. Now let's cut - no, burn - down all the forest and enjoy the rest of our lives watching Fox news and ogling at Sarah Palin. What's more we can burn coal till the end of time and pollute the seas too. I am with you buddy!

Warmist ineptitude

What stunning wit, what cutting repartee, what blinding sarcasm! That's what I love about warmists, their total inability to frame a rational argument, avoid ad hominem attacks, or restrain hyperbole. You imply that I wish to cut down or burn the world's forests when many of my columns have argued for preservation of nature in general and rainforests in particular. You hint that I spend my time watching Fox News—surely a deadly insult among blindly ideological liberals—yet this site has previously selected Fox as a crank of the week for their uninformed remarks regarding plug-in hybrids.

You also suggest that I spend my time “ogling” Sarah Palin, who has never been mentioned on this site. I suppose that, because my stand on issues is pragmatic and well reasoned, you assume that I am a conservative and hence a fan of Ms Palin. Strange that someone who appears to be a liberal, or at least not a conservative, stoops to objectifying women by using sexist remarks.

Lastly, you state that we can burn coal till the end of time, a statement that is patently untrue as coal is a non-renewable resource. On top of that, if there is anything a reader of my articles would know it is that I hate coal. I have called it the dirtiest, most dangerous energy source on the planet on several occasions and in my book The Resilient Earth. Every point you make is in error, your intended insults flaccid and impotent. Grow up, seek an education, learn to actually read the articles you criticize, then perhaps you will be with me, buddy.

Salanoia durrelli found

Researchers have identified a previously unknown species of carnivore lurking in a lake in Madagascar. Durrell's vontsira is the first new carnivorous mammal discovered in Madagascar in 24 years. Little is known about the species, which is roughly the size of a cat and is described in the latest issue of the taxonomic journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli), named in honor of the late conservationist and writer Gerald Durrell, was first photographed swimming in Madagascar's Lake Alaotra in 2004. Subsequent surveys by scientists at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Natural History Museum, London, Nature Heritage, Jersey, and Conservation International confirmed the mongoose-like creature was indeed a new species.


Denialism and Doubt-Mongering

Your site and writings represent an interesting attempt at a compromise between outright ideologically predetermined denialism and an epistemic grappling with real-world science and evidence-based debate. But it still seems very much like a lot of knee-jerk amelioration-mongering and activist-bashing under a thin veil of pretend hard-headedness. Skepticism, of course, is incredibly necessary and valuable, but kabuki skepticism in the cause of tacit complacency, of an environmentally irresponsible defense of status quo trendlines, and of an appeal to the tyrrany of competing demands is just a dumb game. It sure isn’t taking a stand I can respect. Half-crazy reactionary propaganda larded with grudging acknowledgements that we’ve got big biodiversity and extinction-rate problems is still crazy.

I wonder how much of yourself you might recognize here:

Gnothi Seauton (know thyself)

With regard to global warming, rather than “epistemic grappling with real-world science and evidence-based debate” I would call it taking a skeptical view of a field of science that is still in its infancy. Regarding biodiversity, you say I defend the status quo while “grudgingly” admitting that we have a biodiversity problem. I don't think we have a big problem with biodiversity or extinctions, I was merely pointing out that preserving nature is probably a good idea and that having diverse natural organisms to draw on in the future could be both beneficial and profitable. I wouldn't call that hysterical.

As for that blog you referenced, I noticed that it basically said anyone who didn't accept the prevailing scientific opinion was wrong. Their stand is typical of those who are not scientists and do not understand how science works, and is not uncommon among those in the medical and legal professions (the site is run by a couple of MDs and a lawyer). “So while the denialists will inevitably show up and suggest my belief in the validity of carbon dating shows I'm a Bible denialist, or my inability to recognize the wisdom of some HIV/AIDS crank shows I don't understand biology, we won't tend to engage them,” they state. “They're cranks and we aim to show how you can instantly recognize and dismiss crank arguments.”

If you have actually read a significant number of my posts you must have noticed that I do not employ the tactics outlined on their site. The Resilient Earth site is not about conspiracy theories, though there are those involved in eco-advocacy who do have agendas that are not based in science but personal belief. The denialists bloggers keep rattling on about “creationists” and “holocaust deniers.” I make no religious arguments—this site is about science. Fringe science and conspiracy rants don't make it through the comment review process, save to allow me to illustrate a point (witness the appearance of your little screed).

I claim to posses no missing, secret or suppressed knowledge. My articles cite real scientific papers from real science journals. When the evidence has changed or new studies come to light, I have updated the columns by either adding comments or writing whole new articles. If the “overvalued idea” is central to being a crank/denier, perhaps you should consider anthropogenic global warming or claims that every species is infinity precious. Know thyself.

Quoting from the denialism blog: “We don't argue with cranks. Part of understanding denialism is knowing that it's futile to argue with them, and giving them yet another forum is unnecessary.” Change denialism to knee-jerk eco-whack-job and the same statement applies to this blog. You seem to think that using big words makes up for a lack of content, it does not. You have offered nothing in the way of scientific evidence to support your assertions—you are simply, and poorly, arguing for your biased and unsupported point of view.

Ignorance is the real enemy

as long as people are ignorant of a subject, then they are receptive to the fear and guilt these people spread. sadly it isn't confined to nature, but rears its head in all avenues of life, religion, politics, etc.

when more and more people start to make decisions based on FACTS instead of beliefs, then these groups will have much less sway.

but thats a LONG LONG road for humanity still.