Two Stanford University scientists have just authored a stunningly graphic book that Interior Secretary James Watt probably will never read. It is too factual, too enlightening and too disturbing for his extremist brand of environmental pillage.
Called Extinction, the Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species (Random House, New York), the 290-page volume takes the readers on gripping geographical, botanical and biological journeys around the Earth. Paul and Anne Ehrlich chose to make their points both from their own field research and from a synthesis of a vast amount of scientific literature.
Their thesis is summed up with an introductory excerpt from E.O. Wilson’s writings: “The worst thing that can happen…is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
Such a message places quite an explanatory burden on the authors, but they are up to it. Their range is an exhilarating testament to the multiple effects of the accelerating process of extinction moving on flora, fauna and life-sustaining regions as large as the Amazonian tropical forests.
The Amazon has become the intense focus of multinational corporate exploitation—for beginners, forest chopping, mineral digs, erosion of the fragile soil. “It is likely,” write the Ehrlichs, “that destruction of the rich complex of species on the Amazon basin would trigger rapid changes in global climatic patterns.” That could, in turn, lead to a serious decline in food production for a heavily populated world where hundreds of millions are quietly starving already.
So what, says-the skeptic. Science will save us. The glaciers may partially melt with the buildup of planetary heat from the burning of fossil fuels, but science can keep the coastal cities from being flooded. More food can be produced on less acreage. There is always a scientific solution around the corner.
Maybe there is. But, if so, it will have to be interplanetary immigration to other worlds. Because this world and its preservation for the exercise of scientific progress and the maintenance of peace are also the very basis for scientific potential.
It was an obscure mold that Sir Alexander Fleming was examining in 1928. From that study came the most famous antibiotic, penicillin. What if the bacterial substance from the mold had become extinct through the mindlessness of mankind in the last century?
Or, take a more personal illustration from the book. Paul Ehrlich’s father died in 1955 after a 13-year battle with Hodgkin’s disease. A few years later, scientists found an extract from the leaves of the periwinkle plant from Madagascar that led to an effective treatment for remission of Hodgkin’s disease. Illustration after illustration is provided to rebut the ridicule that would destroy “snail darters” carelessly or, worse, not even know what intricate little creatures or plants are heading for extinction.
“The estimated quarter-million flowering plant species are potentially a gold mine of additional beneficial chemicals,” say the authors. Yet, the accelerating pressure toward extinction of such species is rising. The Ehrlichs warn that “without a major change in attitudes and behavior toward nature, the consequences for all species, including our own, will be catastrophic.” ‑
All these cautions are not merely predictive. The bones and ruins of past civilizations all over the world can be explained not only by war or pestilence. but also by erosion and destruction of habitats through societal myopia or greed.
Many schoolchildren learn of one interrelated system in nature. Birds keep the number of insects from tilting natural balances and eating crops. If pesticides are used rampantly in ways that destroy the birds, the volume of insects mushrooms. Whole crops are threatened. More pesticides are sprayed. More reduction of the insects’ natural predators occurs. More adaptable mutations by insects requiring stronger pesticides follow. And the macabre cycle persists with serious harm to soil fertility, food production and human health.
This familiar cycle is only the tip of the iceberg; but at least it is visible. What of ‘the invisible (except to the trained scientist) cycles of destruction that are going on every day?
The Ehrlichs make clear that there are many values—beauty, health, economic self-interest and the survival of Homo sapiens—that can be drawn upon to justify preservation of other living creatures and plants. But, underneath all these values must arise an awareness that speaks to a longer-range philosophy of life, production and consumption than the present mercantile juggernaut running roughshod in all countries of the planet.