In a recent OpEd (22 Nov 2017) in the Washington Post, I attempted to lay out an overview of the 5 mass extinctions in relation to the present-day Sixth Extinction, and relate the lessons from the past to a vision of the future of conservation and a recovery from the anthropogenic degradation of Earth. In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent, and succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument. Furthermore, I made the mistake of not showing the piece to my colleagues at GWU first; their dismay mirrored that of many in the broader community. As I’ve explained to them, and now I wish to explain to the field at large, my views and opinions were not accurately captured by the piece, and I hope the record can now be corrected. In particular, the headlines inserted for the piece for publication said "We don't need to save endangered species," and that "we should only worry about preserving biodiversity when it helps us." I did not write these words, I do not believe these things, and I do not support them.
I attempted to integrate multiple fields and viewpoints from evolution, ecology, and conservation, some of which I have the expertise to discuss in depth, and others of which I do not. Therefore, I cavalierly glossed over several complex issues in a way that did not represent them accurately or enhance a robust, consequential debate. Regardless of particular arguments I made regarding when and where biodiversity conservation is necessary or appropriate, I fully support both legislative and scientific efforts for conservation and preservation of biodiversity. I have researched the effects of climate change and extinction risk on reptiles and amphibians for over a decade. I am saddened by the fragmentation of habitat and the decline of the planet's amazing biodiversity at the numerous field sites I have visited. In no way do I condone extinction, or the exploitation of the natural environment, for short-term gain. Researchers engaged in biodiversity conservation have been some of my closest friends and colleagues, and their reaction to the piece and the perceived insult and attack on their work saddens me immensely.
What I intended to express and to bring to the public consciousness, is a merging of the timescales: getting people to think from the distant past into the vague future at the geological scale of evolutionary time, and across the ecological time that affects us as humans. There will likely come a day when there are no longer humans on earth, during this decline the remaining biodiversity will likely blossom again as it has done repeatedly through time. Then, there will likely be a Seventh Extinction, an Eighth, a Ninth. This is a powerful perspective, and one that contextualizes the drastic need for short-term conservation efforts, so that humanity does not go extinct as a result of our short-sighted exploitation of the biosphere.
The other point I tried to lay bare is the inevitability of more anthropogenic extinctions; many, many more species will go extinct soon, despite our best efforts, and this is an eventuality with which we have to deal. Our impacts in the short term are vast and negative. Therefore, in the face of inexorable extinction from a combination of factors including habitat loss and existentially threatening climate change, both of which we are causing, it is imperative that we engage in conservation to create a biodiverse, stable world, for ourselves and for future generations. The conclusion that I attempted to draw from this is that from the coming billions of people soon to be added, more habitat conversion, more ecological impact, more global change, more extinction will take place. This is whole-scale unstoppable although we may be able to make some impacts. I don't want species to go extinct, nobody does, but many will. So, how are we to deal with this?
I tried to conclude by illustrating the pressing need to focus on what we can control: emissions, pollution, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, etc.. Initiatives like the ESA, CBD, and CITES have made great strides to protect imperiled biodiversity worldwide. Numerous areas of the world provide hopeful models for future ecological stability and sustainability, such as Costa Rica, running on ~100% renewable energy. Much of Europe, the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, or Japan, with high environmental security (relatively speaking) and standards of living, represent a vision for the future for both humanity and biodiversity. Achieving these standards won’t be easy, and will require great financial and logistical commitments and technological innovation, as our lifestyles in the developed world represent huge amounts of resource consumption. Darker implications of things such as conservation triage, development vs. protection, and the "acceptability" of extinction are omnipresent and endemic to the world we live in, and will continue to be hotly debated.
My own view, embraced wholeheartedly and backed up by my lifetime's scientific work, is that there is a clear and pressing need for the comprehensive conservation of biodiversity. The process of extinction may be amoral (at least, extinctions not caused by humans), but I didn't intend to state that we had no moral obligation to our environment. Biodiversity conservation is needed so that the greatest possible amount of the biosphere is preserved intact through the Sixth Extinction, for two reasons. First is to support a burgeoning global population of humans over the next few centuries, while technologies for sustainability and renewable energy are enhanced, and ecologically stable co-existence is brought to the fore. Every human being deserves a safe, stable, secure, and happy life. Second is to promote the inevitable long-term recovery from the Sixth Extinction that will occur over millions of years in the future, either in the presence of a sustainable human population, or in the eventuality that humanity goes extinct.
My intent was to add shape and perspective from a long-term evolutionary viewpoint to the discussions on effective conservation actions and priorities for public policy, not to undermine them. I humbly ask that my intentions be judged by pointing to my scientific research, steeped in biodiversity discovery and analysis, with many publications on direct conservation topics and many more to come on the global threats affecting reptiles and amphibians. Many readers found a nihilistic viewpoint in my piece, but I deeply believe in and promote a philosophy of global compassion for the biosphere and humanity, that holds hope for prosperity and diversity in the future, transcending the inevitable degradation that our short-term impacts are causing. Ultimately, life will continue on in some way, with or without us. Life itself is unlikely to end in the Sixth Extinction. We can work now to ensure the best possible outcome of this tenuous and unstable passage. As I stated at the end: The Tree of Life will continue branching without us, even if we prune it back. The question is: how will we live in the meantime?