Biodiversity: Manufacturing a Crisis
With the UN trying to promote diminishing biodiversity as the NEXT BIG CRISIS it is interesting to note the chaos among diversity researchers. It is hard to make definitive statements regarding loss of diversity when science can not even tell us how many different creatures there are on the planet. Nevertheless, the UN has launched the International Year of Biodiversity, warning that the ongoing loss of species around the world is affecting human well-being. Yet another UN generated “science based” crisis to keep the world's citizens in a frenzy—shades of the failed global warming crisis, which the UN is rather hoping we all will forget.
In the July 2, 2010, issue of Science, Robert M. May from the Zoology Department, University of Oxford, offered a perspective on Earth's species count. In “Tropical Arthropod Species, More or Less?” May notes that scientists began systematically naming species just a little over two centuries ago. His best estimate is 1.6 to 1.7 million, with an additional 15,000 new species identified each year. Here is how he opened his article:
If some alien version of the Starship Enterprise visited Earth, what might be the visitors' first question? I think it would be: "How many distinct life forms—species—does your planet have?" Embarrassingly, our best-guess answer would be in the range of 5 to 10 million eukaryotes (never mind the viruses and bacteria), but we could defend numbers exceeding 100 million, or as low as 3 million.
Eukaryotes have cells with a defined nucleus containing genetic material and include all complex forms of multicellular life. May suggests “it makes sense to begin an estimate of global arthropod species numbers by focusing on tropical beetles, partly because tropical arthropods dominate the global total, and partly because beetle species are both functionally diverse and represent roughly one-third of all arthropods.” He then goes on to issue some other scientific guesstimates. But his attempt at clarifying the situation did not set well with all taxonomists.
Just a typical Earth creature.
Jaboury Ghazoul, of the Department of Environmental Sciences, ETH Zurich, is demanding a recount. In a letter published in the September 24 issue of Science, Ghazoul suggests that May has got his sums wrong and has only contributed to further confusion. Ghazoul concludes that science needs greater “rigor” to avoid carelessness. Here is his rebuttal to May's article:
If aliens visited earth, perhaps they would wonder how many distinct life forms our planet has. With their advanced intellect and technology, they might well have the answer. It is clear from R. M. May's Perspective "Tropical arthropod species, more or less?" (2 July, p. 41) that we do not. May inadvertently adds to the confusion by indicating that New Guinea is home to roughly one-third of tropical tree species. Given that about 6000 tropical tree species are from New Guinea out of 37,000 tree species in all rainforests, only about 16% of tropical tree species are from this region—about half the estimate provided by May.
Once again the truth has slipped out—science has no idea how many species share the planet with us. Not how many arthropods (animals with exoskeletons, including insects, arachnids, and crustaceans), not how many tropical trees, not how many simple bacteria. Yet the UN in its various guises has been clamoring about a “crisis” in biodiversity. This not withstanding good news on several fronts, including a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that finds deforestation has diminished over the past decade.
According to the document, entitled “Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010,” forest loss rates are highest in Africa and South America, where methods of controlling the phenomenon are lacking. Even so, the global average deforestation rate is going down. Reportedly, this is not due to more people becoming aware of the importance of forests, but to the fact that China has been planting enormous amounts of new trees yearly. Additionally, Brazil and Indonesia have been implementing programs to preserve their rain forests, punishing those who cut down trees illegally.
Forest area as percent of total land area by country, 2010.
The true nature of the biodiversity crisis can be seen in a local grocery store. Ecologically aware consumers are urged to only buy fish that come with a distinctive blue eco-label. This stamp of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a rapidly growing nonprofit based in London, means that the associated fishing operation only catches a sustainable number of fish. Moreover, only fishing techniques that minimize collateral damage to the ecosystem, such as accidentally catching sea birds or turtles, are employed in the harvest. Of course, guilt-free eating comes with a premium price since approved fish can be sold for higher prices. Supposedly, this makes everybody happy, including the fish.
Things start to get a bit fuzzy when the approval process is examined in detail. MSC sets the general policies and technical guidance but does not certify fisheries itself. Fishing companies are free to select any approved certifier and in 2007 several companies contracted with Moody Marine Ltd. to evaluate the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) fishery. The toothfish is commonly known as Chilean sea bass and is valued for its succulent, mild tasting flesh. The outcome of the Moody contract is described in “Behind the Eco-Label, a Debate Over Antarctic Toothfish,” in Science:
In November 2009, Moody decided that Antarctic toothfish caught by the three companies should be certified as sustainable. A month later, the decision was appealed by the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. After paying MSC a $23,000 fee to appeal, ASOC—backed by a group of 39 scientists—argued that the certification wasn't justified because of a dearth of key data, such as whether or how the size of the stock has changed over the past several years or the ecosystem effects of fishing there. Weddell seals are known to prey on toothfish, for example, but it's not clear how important the fish is to the seals' diet.
The MSC was conceived in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, one of the largest manufacturers of frozen fish products. As a cooperative venture between environmentalists and the fishing industry some activists suspect its methods, if not its motives. One such group of suspicious environmentalists is Greenpeace International. It maintains a seafood red list—a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries. In 2010, Greenpeace added the toothfish to its red list.
The Antarctic toothfish may or may not be certified.
As of the September report in Science the toothfish's MCS certification was still under review. This is a big deal to the fishing industry since a number of retailers, including Wal-Mart, will only carry fish that have been certified. According to the Science news focus: “some 130 other fisheries are being evaluated for certification, so the toothfish most likely won't be the last controversy over the adequacy of the science.”
So the biodiversity debate muddles on—over fish, forests and other wildlife. Wolves reintroduced to areas around the Great Lakes and Yellowstone National Park are doing so well that the government wants to shoot some of them. A number of naturalists blame the decline of elk in the Rocky Mountain states on predation by wolves and Alaskan wolves are reportedly killing an inordinate number of young moose. A US District ruled against the Alaska Fish and Game Department in their desire to kill seven wolves on Unimak Island, even though the wolves have reduced the island's caribou herd from 1,200 to fewer than 400.
In Florida, concern over inbreeding among the indigenous Florida panther led scientists to introduce 8 breeding females from Texas (see “A Bit of Texas in Florida”). “Big cats may be popular in places where they've become scarce and most people live in cities, but the rest of the world still struggles to deal with the dangers that man-eaters and cattle-killers pose to rural residents,” states the perspective by Craig Packer. “Lions attacked more than 100 Tanzanians every year for the first few years of this millennium, and thousands of livestock are killed by lions, leopards, and jaguars throughout the world each year.”
The endangered Florida panther.
The vigor of individual panthers and the size of the Florida panther population have both increased since the Texas relocation. But more panthers means more incidents between humans and the big cats, who can reach a weight of 170 lbs (80 kg). It remains to be seen how the public will react to increased pet and livestock deaths, let alone any attacks on humans. Panthers lose some of their apeal when they have just made a meal out of little fluffy or little Susie.
Several American states have raised their yearly trophy hunting limits for panthers (called pumas or cougars in other locations). In Africa, retaliatory poisoning is increasing outside of national parks and protected areas. It would seem that there is ongoing conflict between environmentalists' efforts to preserve biodiversity and humans exercising their fundamental rights as animals—protection of life and territory.
Lack of proper science, contradictory claims by activists and experts, conflicts with the needs of average people just trying to live their lives—yes, this sounds like a UN generated, politically motivated “crisis.” After all, the bureaucrats and parasites at the UN rode the global warming gravy train for more than a quarter century. Now, with the panic over global warming all but vanished, they have started pushing a new biodiversity crisis. The economic case for global action to stop the destruction of the natural world is even more powerful than the argument for tackling climate change, claims a major report from the United Nations,the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report. Characteristically, the science behind the biodiversity crisis is even shakier than for global warming.
The words of Henry Louis Mencken we quoted in The Resilient Earth put it best: “The fundamental aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamoring to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” This is a tactic that the UN has turned into an art form. Having succeeded with turning global warming into a “crisis” they are now giving biodiversity a go.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.