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Wednesday, 20 February 2008 00:00

Resisting the prospect of extinction

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By Brent Martin

Almost 10 years ago, science writer David Quammen published an essay in Harper’s Magazine titled A Planet of Weeds, which was later selected for Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Essays, 1999. It made a lasting impression on me, and over the years I have loaned it out numerous times, thought about it in the middle of the night, told perfect strangers about it over drinks, and am now writing about it in response to several recent news stories.

One was the announcement by the Audubon Society in November that 56 bird species found in North Carolina are in serious decline and will face extinction unless recovery measures are taken. Another was a report in December by scientists from Conservation International, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Maryland that over half the world’s protected land will be seriously threatened by climate change, with some of these areas facing climatic change so drastic that their current climate conditions will disappear completely and change to conditions not known on earth in the last century. The result of these changes will lead to the extinction of species that are dependent upon these areas. Which brings me to Quammen’s essay.

Quammen’s essay deals largely with the history of major extinctions – five to be exact — over vast periods of geological time. Beginning with the Ordovician extinction some 439 million years ago that entailed the disappearance of 85 percent of marine animals (this was long before animals emerged on land), it moves rapidly through several others, such as the Permian extinction 245 million years ago that took out a whopping 95 percent of the animal kingdom, and our most recent, the Cretaceous extinction, which wiped out an estimated 76 percent of the animal kingdom. The essay also deals with the enormous global dilemma of invasive-exotic species — species that are being spread from one corner of the globe to another through various forms of human transportation — and the role that these introduced species (i.e. hemlock wooly adelgid) are having in the next mass extinction.

The Planet of Weeds that paleontologists and biologists are predicting is one where the most tolerant and adaptable species win out over everything else. Cockroaches, coyotes, privet, pigeons, ragweed, and the mimosa that I spend countless hours combating at my house, lest it devour every square inch should I ease up, are but a few examples. Many of these species spread widely and quickly due to land conversion and the habitat destruction of other more sensitive and native species. The effects of climate change on habitat will also facilitate their access to new areas.

But what is the most tolerant and adaptable species that is wreaking the most havoc on the planet at this point? You might have guessed by now — human beings. Yes, we are the most invasive species on the planet. If you doubt this, ask yourself when it was that you last saw a snow leopard clearcutting a forest, or a golden winged warbler clearing a roadway for a new superhighway. However, the conclusion from paleontologists such as Dr. David Jablonski, who figures prominently in Quammen’s essay, is that our own species is most likely not going to be part of the current mass extinction. No, far from it.

Jablonski considers Homo sapiens “one of the most bomb proof species on the planet,” and “the consummate weed.” We are geographically mobile, we have incredible reproductive rates, and we’re great at dominating and monopolizing the earth’s resources. So, we could live like rats at some point in time, but we’ll survive. It goes without saying that the poor will suffer the most and our planet will be depleted of much of the beauty and wonder that sustains many of us. Rush Limbaugh’s assertion that “If a species can’t adapt to the superiority of human beings, then screw it,” comes to mind. Cold comfort? Maybe so, but maybe this is all the hope that many people need.

It is a bleak scenario, and one that we should not swallow easily. Good things happen all the time and most people do genuinely care about the fate of our planet and its species. If we continue on our merry way, we might decide that such a crummy lifestyle isn’t something we can tolerate, and make the changes in our lifestyles and priorities that lead to a saner and more sustainable existence. Of course, nuclear holocaust, war and diseases yet unknown could knock our numbers down drastically and possibly kill us all, but even then there is hope.

If the current mass extinction continues, reducing life down to the levels earth experienced during the Ordovician extinction, and humans do eventually go down with it, the planet could recover in another five to 10 million years. It’s a long time, but who’s counting when there’s no one left to count?

But let’s not take this extinction stuff sitting down — it’s a good time to join your local land trust, watershed association, or an environmental organization that’s working on an issue you believe is important. It’s a good time to fight that local road project that makes no sense to you, and a good year to get out and pull up some privet. Or trade the V-8 in on a hybrid. Or buy fewer plastics. From where I sit writing, I can see the leafless and golden wands of mimosa sprouts from last year’s stumps. They look determined, but so am I.

(Brent Martin lives and writes in the Cowee Community of Macon County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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