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and found wanting. People now use about 2% of the NPP of the sea, and the prospects even for doubling that yield are dim. The basic reason is that efficient harvesting of the sea requires the exploitation of concentrated pools of resources—schools of fishes and larger invertebrates. People cannot efficiently harvest much of the NPP that resides in tiny phytoplankton (the green plants of the sea) or in the zooplankton (animals too small to swim against the currents). Humanity appears to be already utilizing about as much of oceanic NPP as it can on a sustainable basis.
This discrepancy in the ability of Homo sapiens to exploit terrestrial and oceanic NPP is reflected in the general lack of an extinction crisis in the seas. Except for such organisms as some whales and fishes that are threatened by direct exploitation, animals that spend their entire lives in the open sea are relatively secure. Aside from some limited environments, such as certain coral reefs, the effects of habitat destruction are relatively small away from shorelines and estuaries. This situation could, of course, change rapidly if marine pollution increases—a distinct possibility.
The extirpation of populations and species of organisms exerts its primary impact on society through the impairment of ecosystem services. All plants, animals, and microorganisms exchange gases with their environments and are thus directly or indirectly involved in maintaining the mix of gases in the atmosphere. Changes in that mix (such as increases in carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and methane) can lead to rapid climate change and, in turn, agricultural disaster. As physicist John Holdren put it, a carbon dioxide-induced climatic change could lead to the deaths by famine of as many as a billion people before 2020. Destroying forests deprives humanity not only of timber but also of dependable freshwater supplies and furthermore increases the danger of floods. Destruction of insects can lead to the failure of crops that depend upon insect pollination. Extermination of the enemies of insect pests (a usual result of ad lib pesticide spraying) can terminate the pest control services of an ecosystem and often leads to severe pest outbreaks. The extinction of subterranean organisms can destroy the fertility of the soil. Natural ecosystems maintain a vast genetic library that has already provided people with countless benefits and has the potential for providing many, many more.
These examples can be multiplied manyfold—the basic point is that organisms, most of which are obscure to nonbiologists, play roles in ecological systems that are essential to civilization. When a population playing a certain role is wiped out, ecosystem services suffer, even if many other populations of the same organism are still extant. If the population of Engelmann spruce trees (Picea engelmanni) in the watershed above your Colorado home is chopped down, you could be killed in a resulting flood, even though the species of spruce is not endangered. Equally, if that were the last population and it were reduced to just a dozen trees (so that, technically, the species still existed), you would not be spared the flood, and chance events would likely finish off the Engelmann spruce eventually anyway.
In most cases, numerous genetically diverse populations are necessary to ensure the persistence of a species in the face of inevitable environmental changes that occur naturally. The existence of many populations spreads the risk so that unfavorable conditions in one or a few habitats do not threaten the entire species. And the presence of abundant genetic variation within a species (virtually assured