play in providing free ecosystem services, without which society in its present form could not persist (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 1981; Holdren and Ehrlich, 1974).

  • The loss of genetically distinct populations within species is, at the moment, at least as important a problem as the loss of entire species. Once a species is reduced to a remnant, its ability to benefit humanity ordinarily declines greatly, and its total extinction in the relatively near future becomes much more likely. By the time an organism is recognized as endangered, it is often too late to save it.

  • Extrapolation of current trends in the reduction of diversity implies a denouement for civilization within the next 100 years comparable to a nuclear winter.

  • Arresting the loss of diversity will be extremely difficult. The traditional “just set aside a preserve” approach is almost certain to be inadequate because of factors such as runaway human population growth, acid rains, and climate change induced by human beings. A quasi-religious transformation leading to the appreciation of diversity for its own sake, apart from the obvious direct benefits to humanity, may be required to save other organisms and ourselves.

Let us examine some of these propositions more closely. While a mere handful of species is now being subjected to purposeful overexploitation, thousands are formally recognized in one way or another as threatened or endangered. The vast majority of these are on the road to extinction, because humanity is destroying habitats: paving them over, plowing them under, logging, overgrazing, flooding, draining, or transporting exotic organisms into them while subjecting them to an assault by a great variety of toxins and changing their climate.

As anyone who has raised tropical fishes knows, all organisms require appropriate habitats if they are to survive. Just as people cannot exist in an atmosphere with too little oxygen, so neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi) cannot survive in water that is 40F (4.4C) or breed in highly alkaline water. Trout, on the other hand, cannot breed in water that is too warm or too acid. And the bacteria that produce the tetanus toxin cannot reproduce in the presence of oxygen. In order to persist, Bay checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas editha bayensis) must have areas of serpentine grassland (to support the growth of plants that serve as food for their caterpillars and supply nectar to the adults). Whip-poor-wills, red-eyed vireos, Blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers, and dozens of other North American birds must have mature tropical forest in which to overwinter (see Terborgh, 1980, for example). Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) require prairie that still supports the prairie dogs on which the ferrets dine.

This utter dependence of organisms on appropriate environments (Ehrlich, 1986) is what makes ecologists so certain that today’s trends of habitat destruction and modification—especially in the high-diversity tropical forest (where at least one-half of all species are believed to dwell)—are an infallible recipe for biological impoverishment. Those politicians and social scientists who have questioned the extent of current extinctions are simply displaying their deep ignorance of ecology;



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement