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Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife? (smithsonianmag.com)
237 points by benbreen on Sept 19, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 193 comments

> the sixth mass extinction event, the only one caused not by some cataclysm but by a single species—us.

Not so sure. IIRC there are reasons to believe that the big one, the Permian-Triassic extinction, was due to methanosarcina, an archaean genus. OK, that's not a species but a genus, but still.

It's a bit naive to think that all extinctions events happen because of some geologic or celestial event. Sometimes, evolution goes terribly wrong and sh.t hits the fan. Either it is by releasing nefarious gazes in the atmosphere, or creating a Primate intelligent enough to rule and consume most of biosphere.

The largest environmental impact the Earth has ever seen was caused by its original life form (probably some type of cyanobacteria.) They depleted most of the atmosphere's CO2 and replaced it with toxic gas. (O2) It caused the oceans to rust. It is hard to know the exact scope of the effects, but they were significant.

The earliest life forms where not photosynthetic. Further the change was slow enough to give life plenty of time to adapt.


We're watching a second family of mammals adapt and speciate a bunch of new winners in this domain of man, in in our own homes!

Even the human mass extinction has given life time to adapt, by way of crops, farm animals, pets, etc. We've even helped make sure that hundreds or thousands of species across many different kinds of life are 100% going to survive along with us if it's remotely in our power.

There are likely hundreds or thousands of other species like raccoons, pigeons, rats, jellyfish, various kinds of insects, etc that are going to thrive in our cities and continue to coevolve as parasites.

I'm not entirely convinced a human caused mass extinction is really all that much worse than other kinds, because we provide some guaranteed survival routes to animals that can coevolve with us, and be useful in some way.

I've never heard this apologetic argument for mass extinction, it's somewhat disheartening. Do you think domesticated animals and scavengers are going to make up for the lost in biodiversity and ecological damage? Basically whatever can survive in our concrete jungles and farms will be alright, screw the rest?

The other parts of this earth play an essential role in maintaining ecological balance on this planet, and a world with just farms and cities and the animals that can survive within is not going to bode well for us or any other species. Hopefully that's a good enough argument if you still don't think that mass extinction and habitat lose isn't a negative outcome in and of itself.

> a world with just farms and cities and the animals that can survive within is not going to bode well for us or any other species

In what way?

The main threat is disease if we shift to being large aggregations of essentially the same animals. We've run in to this problem before, with bananas as a particular case. However, we already know the solution to that. The answer is that you preserve several cultivars of the species, and intermingle them. We already see this kind of behavior with pets, gardens, zoos, etc. I fail to see why you think we're likely to end up with anything but more of the same kinds of pruning-but-not-completely-destroying-families behavior.

I'm also failing to see why you think we need thousands of kinds of lizards that are all basically the same, rather than a few hundred, and why such a bottle neck is either unnatural (hint: we've hit smaller choke points before) or why it would be particularly dangerous.

Ed: A key word.

>In what way?

Because we are all completely dependent on ecosystem services provided by those species, such as erosion control (without which your country erodes away to desert), rainwater buffering (without which you experience catastrophic flooding), and transpiration (without which you lose almost all inland rainfall[1]).

Loss of individual species is just the symptom. The real problem—and what this article discusses—is wholesale destruction of wilderness.

Don't imagine that just a handful of species can provide these services either. Since ecosystems are complex adaptive systems, a particular species' role is almost always subtle and interconnected. See: the services provided by wolves in Yellowstone, which were never fully understood until they were removed and then re-introduced[2].

So why is wilderness important? Fundamentally, wilderness is arranged (and so, it functions) in completely different ways than human-tended landscapes. Now it's obvious that a suburb is different from a forest, but what's less obvious is that the way wilderness works is much more efficient. It's not dependent on a constant stream of material extracted from "somewhere else", but on average it produces far more economic value when ecosystem services are accurately accounted for.

Surprise, surprise: economics seems to suggest that those living on a spaceship shouldn't take a sledgehammer to the life support system…

(of course, the ultimate trick would be to design human landscapes that also function like wilderness ecosystems)

[1] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v496/n7445/abs/nature11...

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q

I don't think your evaluation of human ability to cultivate environments realistic.

The vast majority of the external effects of forests and wildernesses is the effect of a few major species. In nature, those species are supported and interacted with by a complex network of other species. However, this established relationship isn't necessarily optimal for the few species of interest to us.

I find it likely that we're able to cultivate select main species of interest in forests if we set our minds to it, especially considering the large scale agriculture that we already do.

There's simply nothing to suggest that you can't construct an ecosystem with many fewer elements or the elements rearranged to, say, make room for houses, that has the same external effects as other ones. In fact, the success of many environments-in-a-bottle, indoor marijuana production, etc, suggests that we do have the ability to make relatively stable environments in which the necessary components of an ecosystem can thrive.

No one is suggesting that we do something silly like wipe out all the major predators while we let herd animals run free (which is the case with wiping out the wolves in Yellowstone), but rather that we can get away with a lot less moving parts and that we can tune the parts quite a bit to suite our fancy.

The only large scale human dependencies on plants relate to weather, oxygenation, water flow, and soil control. The last two we know we can do with intentionally seeded groves and other such constructs of plants we choose (using a reasonable selection), and don't need to replicate the full array of plants. In terms of oxygen, seeding the oceans with an algae would be far more efficient, but we really only need ferns, which are incredibly efficient at producing oxygen and are relatively hardy plants.

The final complexity is weather, which I must admit I know relatively little about, but am dubious there's any material reason it wouldn't work fine with planned forests.

Again, no one is saying "Fuck it, kill all the things". I just think we can get away with many fewer species - and sometimes who groups of species, where another can reasonably fill its role.

Or are you telling me we couldn't survive with 3,500 kinds of beetle... we really need all 350,000.

we do have the ability to make relatively stable environments in which the necessary components of an ecosystem can thrive.

Only with the inputs of massive amounts of energy and additives -- fertilizers, pesticides, and cultivation supplied directly by humans (or our machines).

The energy intensity of modern ag is many, many times higher than of natural environmentments. Food production in the US requires ten calories of fossil energy for every calorie of food energy produced, in Europe it's closer to a 5:1 ratio.

A sustainable agricultural system would require that the output energy be greater than the input.

We have only been at it for so long, and barely gotten started in earnest. Plus... energy and additives are not "external" to the system: they are provided by a natural species in the system, us.

Yes, we do need to get to a point where we are not relying on expendable reserves to run the system. But it certainly is possible that we will engineer a better ecosystem (robot cultivators and solar panels included) that results in a more efficient net benefit for us.

May I suggest Howard T. Odum's works, in particular Environment, Power, and Society and Energy Basis for Man and Nature.

In the former he argues strongly about the mechanisms by which humans have enhanced ag productivity in plants and animals.

Generally, there are the following methods:

Mechanical tillage, breaking up soil to make it easier for plants to grow and spread roots. This also, incidentally, increases topsoil loss to wind and water, such that many farms are effectively "mining" topsoil faster than it's being replaced.

Artificial irrigation. This varies from simply collecting and distributing water via gravity-flow reservoirs and irrigation ditches to transporting water and irrigation pumps and pipes to water mines which, again, deplete a resource faster than it is restored -- as is the case throughout the eastern Plains states in the US, much of China, and especially in the Sahara and Arabian penninsula where water tens of thousands of years old is used to irrigate crops, from underground reserves which aren't being replenished. Water availability itself is becoming a significant concern, with major droughts in the past 5 years disrupting crops in Russia, the United States, China, India, and of course, as is rather chronically the case, Africa.

Fertilizer. Nitrogen, fixed at great energy cost from the air using fossil fuels (mostly natural gas). Phosphorus, which is in extremely limited supply. Potash, rather more abundant, but still with only a century or three of reserves at present rates of use.

Selective breeding. Plants and animals have only so much metabolic budget. By diverting energy away from specific uses, especially immune response, physical activity, and foraging needs, more can be devoted to growth. This works to an extent, but is greatly facilitated by ...

Antibiotics and pesticides to reduce illness and parasites. Fun fact: the first virus identified wasn't a human illness but the tobacco mosaic virus. Antibiotics and pesticides mean that animals and plants need devote less of their own energy to competing in their environment. Unfortuately, both ultimately create resistance, a problem later to both the ag products themselves and quite possibly humans, especially in the case of antibiotics. Moreover, bred cultivars requiring such treatments don't compete where they're not available (similarly for fertilized crops, above).

Mechanical pest reduction. Removal of weeds, or native long-lasting plants which compete for ag lang productivity (e.g., natural plains, tropical rainforest).

Solar panels compete directly with plants for solar energy. At best you want to put them in regions plants cannot grow.

The history of ag enhancement is relatively brief, but it's all been accompanied either by vast investments of energy, or by the application of either materials or technologies themselves requiring or based on vast applications of energy. Even the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, cautioned that he'd only provided at best a brief respite from hunger.

It's not so long ago that major famines still ruled the world, with major instances in the 19th century (Ireland 1845-52 killing 1.5 million, China 1850-73 with a population drop of 60 million), and 20th (1920s in Russia, 5 million, and China, 3 million, 1930s Ukrain Holdomor, 7-10 million and China, 5 million, and the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-61, 15-43 million). And that's just a set of highlights, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_famines

In many cases, 30% of regional populations died (or in some lucky cases, emigrated elsewhere, as in Ireland), in others historically 50-90% of populations were wiped out. I'd suggest you not think this cannot happen again.

I'll also advise you that this is a topic I studied, extensively, in school.

Some of your problem predictions are 100+ years in the future. I generally regard these as nonsense.

Looking at the relative rates of technical growth and computing power, it's incredibly unlikely that we'll be able to accurately pick out what the future is going to bring.

Examples of technologies that are expected in the next 50-100 years: 3D printable organs which can be transplanted, based on your own stem cells; the first smarter-than-human general purpose AI; fusion power; the ability for bioengineering to be done with a home lab kit. (We're actually at the cusp of the first and last of these now.)

That level of bioengineering, computing prowess, and cheap power will have an incredibly hard to predict effect on issues like food production, ecosystem maintenance, etc.

So which of your warnings are only problematic at 100+ years?

Some of your problem predictions are 100+ years in the future. I generally regard these as nonsense.


I don't.

Technology is a function of available energy (Tainter, White, Prigogine), not vice versa.

I find projections of viable sustained fusion nonsense given 62 years of failure to achieve it. Every last single other energy source tapped by humans, sustained nuclear fission included, had previous exemplars occurring on Earth, and was adapted by humans either before history, or (in the case of fission) within a matter of single-digit years of initial attempts.

But enjoy your Panglossian vista.

> I find projections of viable sustained fusion nonsense given 62 years of failure to achieve it. Every last single other energy source tapped by humans, sustained nuclear fission included, had previous exemplars occurring on Earth, and was adapted by humans either before history, or (in the case of fission) within a matter of single-digit years of initial attempts.

We have a precious example occurring not on Earth, and within a few decades had figured out how to make large pulses out of it.

Your summary also does a great disservice to the history of using assorted biochemicals as fuel, from various plant and animal oils through initial study in refinements and use of various technologies to aid in their burning.

You can hardly claim, as your statement implied, that we had full mastery of burning hydrocarbons the first time we tried - or that it was anything like when we tried to scale that technology up.

Given 62 years, we have systems with controlled fusion and systems without energy reclaim that are energy positive. A lot of the lack of progress is due to the relatively low level of funding. (The entire cost of fusion research so far is about the same as one stealth bomber.)

I find it unlikely that over doubling the time, with better technology, won't let us solve the capture problem, especially since the facilities of many studies are actually using old technology which we already know how to do better than. (Example: the ignition laser could be purchased in reduced size and with more efficiency for much less than it cost to initially build the laser.)

Your argument seems to largely be "It's complicated to me compared to what I know about these other methods, so can't happen!"

> Technology is a function of available energy (Tainter, White, Prigogine), not vice versa.

This is super unrelated to what we're talking about, because not even you are arguing that we're going to run out of the ability to produce electricity in <100 years.

Mass agriculture works despite of our enormous ignorance of how the ecosystem works... you really shouldn't take our ability to manipulate corn or soybeans as indications that humans know how to create "relatively stable environments." We haven't and we don't.

Neither of those were examples I cited, and I cited two other, specific examples.

I have the feeling you didn't read what I wrote.

>The other parts of this earth play an essential role in maintaining ecological balance on this planet, and a world with just farms and cities and the animals that can survive within is not going to bode well for us or any other species. Hopefully that's a good enough argument if you still don't think that mass extinction and habitat lose isn't a negative outcome in and of itself.


Humans don't even need animals. It's brutally cruel to enslave, torture, kill and eat animals the way we do. Humanity can be fine on its own.

Regardless of whether or not you like things like, say, hippos, or mosquitoes, or prairie voles, humanity does not need them.

Should we set half the earth aside for wildlife? I think it'd be better used by humans.

You can't be serious. First of all, wildlife and the rich biodiversity of nature has its own intrinsic value without needing to be "useful" to humans. Second, we're constantly learning from other species and I doubt we're even close to knowing everything there is to know about them. Some of our best tech was inspired by wildlife (sonar, swarm robotics, aviation, the list goes on).

Let's be frank. I don't need you. So if I see you being mugged/raped/beaten, should I just go on my merry way or should I help you?

Saying "I don't need animals so fuck them" is not a great attitude to have.

Not to mention that we do need plants/trees, and we'd find it difficult to keep them going without the biospheres that they survive in.

> Let's be frank. I don't need you. So if I see you being mugged/raped/beaten, should I just go on my merry way or should I help you?

Yes... you should unless is someone that you care enough to risk abandon every loved one that you have by dying for a stranger.

I'm an extremelly pragmatic a-hole when we are speaking about eco-nonsense.

We will not change on time. We will destroy the planet. This is fine as we are, acording to Darwin, the current fittest animal in the planet.

So... what's the worst that can happen? We will be extincted by ourselves (carring several "not-good-enough-for-evolution" species with us... but, they weren't good enough so, who cares?)... and this my friend, is also fine.

And to close... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NL8HP1WzbDk

"The Planet is fine... we are fd" :)

"The Planet" is just a big ball of rock. People are usually talking about the ecosystems that exist on the surface of the planet when they talk about "destroying the planet." The play on words to say "don't worry, this big ball of rock will keep spinning" is tired and played out.

I think the person is confusing needing animals for food versus needing animals in general. We certainly don't enslave and eat ALL animals.

I think you're misrepresenting my argument, which isn't "actively perpetuate harm on non-humans", but rather "let's build a world with mostly humans via the most humane way possible."

>if I see you being mugged/raped/beaten, should I just go on my merry way or should I help you?

Please avoid casually triggering rape survivors; 1/4 women has suffered sexual assault and using thought experiments that are triggering without any reason to (mugged/murdered would have sufficed) is a way to exclude women from spaces.

But as to your question, that depends. Do you think anything sentient has some sort of right not to suffer, or do you generally prefer a world without sentient suffering? If so, it'd be morally consistent to help me, and it'd also be morally inconsistent to eat meat or consume animal products in general.

As a vegan myself, I'm generally opposed to actions that perpetuate the suffering of sentient life. However, this only applies, critically, to life which exists. I have no moral obligation to perpetuate a species, because a species is a concept, not an actual thing, and it does not have the ability to suffer.

So, I'd be totally supportive of diffusing birth control for non-human species and just letting them go extinct. I'd honestly rather use that space and resources for humans than animals. I care about humans more and I generally think a world with more humans is more interesting and diverse (information-theoretically) than a world with more animals than humans.

We need oxygen, not trees. Algae makes most oxygen. As a matter of self-preservation I'm okay with algae; we can eat them anyway so it's a useful symbiosis.

> Please avoid casually triggering rape survivors; 1/4 women has suffered sexual assault and using thought experiments that are triggering without any reason to (mugged/murdered would have sufficed) is a way to exclude women from spaces.

Many men (or gender-fluid people) are raped/molested too. Why is your focus so intensely on women when talking about something that should be common all rape-survivors?

Also, first you say:

> I have no moral obligation to perpetuate a species, because a species is a concept, not an actual thing, and it does not have the ability to suffer.

Then you go on to say:

> So, I'd be totally supportive of diffusing birth control for non-human species and just letting them go extinct.

Having no moral obligation towards action (actively supporting a species) doesn't imply the a moral obligation towards the opposite action (actively 'destroying' a species).

>Many men (or gender-fluid people) are raped/molested too. Why is your focus so intensely on women when talking about something that should be common all rape-survivors?

Because women are excluded from tech communities more than men.

Try not to make everything about yourself.

I'd like to sidestep the moral argument for a moment.

One major assumption in your argument is that there wouldn't be unintended consequences. I think humanity should either stop increasing the population or should place a great emphasis on space colonies. Repurposing earth resources from animals to humans is just delaying the inevitable point where human consumption outstrips resources available.

> Repurposing earth resources from animals to humans is just delaying the inevitable point where human consumption outstrips resources available.

Don't worry. The 'market' will find a way. Just place your faith^Wtrust in the 'market' and all will be well!

>Please avoid casually triggering rape survivors

Please avoid insulting people with PTSD by promoting the absurd misappropriation of "triggers".

>1/4 women has suffered sexual assault

That is not true. Repeating made up figures that have been debunked for decades makes it very hard to take you seriously.

If most people thought like you, I'd rather see an Earth without humans than an Earth with just humans.

In the next 200-300 years, I consider it highly likely that either A: humankind's population will shrink enough to satisfy all but the wildest econaut's dreams or B: biodiversity will incomprehensibly explode as we start tinkering with genes directly. We may fancy ourselves masters of the process and ecologists may decry it as being "unnatural", but in the end it really won't be. Evolution will be as functional as ever, even if the link between genes and reproduction becomes more complicated. Indeed if anything it threatens to become far too functional for our likings.

In the grand scheme of things, the idea that setting aside "half the planet" will somehow fix, well, anything is really quite a parochial viewpoint. We either won't need to because biodiversity will be getting along just fine, or we'll be setting aside a great deal more than "half"....

I always think it's useful to think of species, like humans, less as an individual organism, and more of a menagerie. The human menagerie stretches from gut bacteria all the way to elephants, with homo sapiens lodges somewhere in the middle of the bunch.

We're approaching an ecological collapse that will wipe us out, too.

What, specifically, do you think is going to collapse in the ecosystem that not just kills billions of humans, but actually poses an existential threat to humanity?

To be an existential threat, there have to be less than 5 million humans left (in my mind, at least, and this is probably a really high figure to be 'existential'). This means whatever you propose has to be at least 99.9% deadly.

To put that in perspective, that's three viruses each as deadly as ebola at its worst (~90% deadly) striking humanity one after the other. /That/ would leave ~5-10 million humans alive.

So I'm actually sincerely curious: what do you think is going to happen that will wipe out all of humanity?

Here's a hint: 12 to 16 degrees of warming spaces out over 100 to 1000 years (why so unprecise? because we haven't got a good grasp of the incredibly complex machine with lots of explosive outcomes we're currently toying with - we can only infer from our best models, and the more precise they get, the worse the predictions become). That's 4 to 8 degrees because of our own greenhouse gases and an estimated additional 8 degrees from runaway warming effects that are getting triggered somewhere between +2 and +6.

Hint: That's 12 to 16 global average temperature increase. Ice age was only 4 degrees colder than now. 12 to 16 creates a desert planet. If I had to bet what brings humanity at least to the brink of extinction, it would be this.

There's basically one way out that's still realistic: Creating a more reflective atmosphere. But we only have one shot at this. I'm afraid that when +4 degrees already create utter chaos from rising sea levels, hurricanes, landslides and the following mass migration, the one shot won't be aimed well - it will be done by politicians pressured by screaming masses.

> 12 to 16 degrees of warming spaces out over 100 to 1000 years

Where are you getting those numbers from?

IPCC expressed in Farhenheit. 12°F == 6.7°C.

I don't know, I haven't been following the IPCC closely.

However their latest executive summary is here:


"Without additional efforts to reduce GHG emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C com- pared to pre-industrial levels10 (median values; the range is 2.5 °C to 7.8 °C when including climate uncertainty, see Table SPM.1)11 (high confidence). The emission scenarios collected for this assessment represent full radiative forcing including GHGs, tropospheric ozone, aerosols and albedo change. Baseline scenarios (scenarios without explicit additional efforts to constrain emissions) exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) CO2eq by 2030 and reach CO2eq concentration levels between 750 and more than 1300 ppm CO2eq by 2100. This is similar to the range in atmospheric concentration levels between the RCP 6.0 and RCP 8.5 pathways in 2100.12 For comparison, the CO2eq concentration in 2011 is estimated to be 430 ppm (uncertainty range 340 – 520 ppm)13. [6.3, Box TS.6; WGI Figure SPM.5, WGI 8.5, WGI 12.3]"

Didn't that number (which is the extreme upper end of the predicted range for the most extreme scenario the IPCC considered, and so not really the right number to quote anyway) get lowered in the AR5, to something like 4.8 degrees C?

5 millions is fairly conservative, considering our species may have already experienced a bottleneck of less than 100,000 individuals.


My number is high partly to account for humans being more spread out.

A lot of our bottle necks occurred at times before we really spread out all over the place.

>So I'm actually sincerely curious: what do you think is going to happen that will wipe out all of humanity?

One possibility: global warming, war, and desperate overexpansion of agriculture causing complete terrestrial desertification.

> One possibility: global warming, war, and desperate overexpansion of agriculture causing complete terrestrial desertification.

I'm considerably more worried that a giant space rock is going to come turn my continent in to a pool of molten rock.

I agree that we as a species can probably survive nearly anything.

Derailing, I think it's also pretty reasonable to worry about events that will only wipe out 99.9% of humanity. Statistically, I'm probably dead in such a case. Probably everyone I know is dead. My back-of-the-envelope calculation says that I probably can't expect more than a fifth cousin to survive if 99.9% of people are dead. I don't even know any of my fifth cousins.

"Existential risk to humans" tends to be at the outer range of my own fairly pessimistic set of scenarios, but several global warming situations could run that far out.

Yonatan Zunger posted an especially pessimisstic bit about global warming in April of 2013. In particular he noted:

_The last big spike like this was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, about 55 million years ago. Average temperatures rose by 6C over a period of 20,000 years -- which is enough to look like a giant, sharp spike on the history-of-the-entire-planet graph...._

_When the biota of a planet get rewritten, the creatures that require the most delicate maintenance die first. This tends to mean really big creatures, that rely on large supplies of their foods; apex predators, which rely on the entire food chain beneath them; and "canary" species like many frogs, which are very sensitive and tend to be the first to die when something is going wrong. Historically, the cutoff for "large creatures" (that tend to not survive extinction events) seems to be in the ballpark of 20 pounds; things bigger than that just require the ecosystem to be too healthy._

IPCC's estimates call for a global rise in temperatures of anywhere from 2-6°C, (3.6 - 10.8 °F). First thing to realize is that this is an average rise. Which means that in some areas (mostly over oceans, with higher albedo and greater thermal mass) it will be lower, and in others (mostly inland regions) it's likely to be much higher. Overland temperatures much over 49°C (about 120°F) are problematic as they tend to rule out much plant life. Above about 65°C (about 150°F), many forms of animal life cannot keep themselves cool, even in the shade. The result would be potentially large areas of land in which life would literally cook to death.

Even if we don't go that far, there are a number of other challenges humans face, all of which tie back to population, resource consumption, and overflowing pollution sinks.

If you think of systems layered on top of one another, you've got the global financial system, global, regional, national, and local economies, governmental systems, social systems, infrastructure, and more, layered on top of ecological, biological, meteorological, oceanographic, and other systems. Disruptions of lower systems will propogate through higher ones.

Disrupt enough human systems and things start to fall apart. The claim by numerous authorities in the Collapse space is that the collapse of Western Civilization isn't something that's going to happen, it's something that's happening, and likely will be for some time. There are definitely global trends which have been pointing downward for some time, many since the 1970s, some from before that.

Both the Arab Spring and the Ebola outbreak are examples people point to. Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere gives a capsule summary of the dynamic of the wave of global revolutions which started in 2009. The original essay coves the basics: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/newsnight/paulmason/2011/0...

The Ebola outbreak is being exacerbated by numerous factors -- perversely, both lack of technology and its presence are playing a role. Many people, living close to their limits, with few resources, in crowded conditions, but with access to transportation (both ground and air) have created conditions for the disease and facilitated its spread. Lack of literacy, ineffective communications, and other factors are also at play. Airplanes could transfer the disease around the planet in under a day. Nightmare scenarios have it breaking out, not in New York or London, but in Kolkata, Manilla, Cairo, or Sao Paulo.

The CDC predicts as many as 500,000 cases (of a disease with 70-90% mortality), I've seen projections far above that, though from less credible sources. Much of this depends on how rapidly exponential growth takes off, and when, if ever, inhibitory effects start slowing the spread.

Where things get interesting though, for ... interesting values of interesting, is when you consider the systemic effects of disruption.

In her letter to President Obama, Liberia's President Sirleaf gives one small example of this:

With blanket travel bans, border closures and interactions on vessels berthing at our ports, this has become more than a humanitarian emergency. In a country that has barely emerged from a 30-year period of civil and political unrest, with the presence of a large youthful(mainly unemployed)population, some of whom were child soldiers-this health emergency threatens civil order. What is even more heartbreaking is that we are unable to reopen our basic and secondary health facilities because terrified health workers, who have watched colleagues die, are afraid to return to work.

That is: disease has disrupted transport, which means commerce, which means civil unrest.

At a global scale, breakdowns in one portion of a globalized system (finance, trade, energy, raw materials, gas, water, food) could lead to a domino effect in others. David Korowicz's "Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: a study in global systemic collapse" takes a look at this: http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Trade-Off1....

While it might not reduce the total population to 5 million or fewer, it could well disrupt systems to a level that modern industrialized economies simply could not function. Which might be a pretty big deal in some areas.

What data suggests that? The data I've seen (and I'll admit I have no relevant expertise and therefore little more than intuition on what sources to trust) seems to suggest that climate change will likely impose costs on humanity in the tens of billions, but that those costs are probably quite low in the grand scheme of things. I certainly haven't seen any data to suggest a credible threat of significant human population decline, much less human extinction.

If the infrastructure that we have collapses there will be mass starvation. Probably more so in 1st world countries than in places where people are basically hand-to-mouth.

Why would the infrastructure collapse?

Regardless of how slow the environment changes, there is no "adapt" without individuals dying (and not reproducing) due to changes in the environment.

Known as the Great Oxygenation Event, the effects were actually quite dramatic including killing most life on earth and triggering a 300 million year ice age as well as creating most of the world's iron deposits.


In addition to poisoning the atmosphere, Cyanobacteria's oxigination of the atmosphere is also thought to have caused a major global cooling event by reducing CO2 concentrations.

Well, I was thinking about it when I talked about releasing nefarious gazes, but I did not want to digress too much.

Regardless of what is natural or has occurred before, reduction of biodiversity is dangerous to our own safety as a species - monocultures are more easily wiped out. If there were a terrible cow virus, we might be thankful to have emus around for example. Edit: and far more pertinent, particularly in the American Midwest, is our reliance on large quantities of single strains of corn...

Hopefully our seed vaults, and cataloging DNA of species before they die off, will let us re-introduce biodiversity into our agriculture.

Of course, I doubt we will attempt to do so until after the first monoculture collapse, but that is a (relativly) short term catastraphy.

Dessert bananas aren't a super important food, but the first monoculture collapse arguably already happened:


Said primate could potentially avert its own extinction, is I think the point of this article.

That may be the point of the article, but I was commenting on a very specific assertion.

>Said primate could potentially avert its own extinction

There is no reason to believe that a mass extinction of other species would effect a human extinction.

Even now, with only a few decades of genomics under our belt, we could probably replace every single food source humans currently rely on with genetically engineered algae/fungi/etc.

That is the worst-case scenario for mass extinction caused by habitat shift, and doesn't result in the extinction of humans.

How about sources of oxygen? What if we kill off species that are vital to the reproduction of plants? I highly doubt that we're scientifically advanced enough to replace anything we rely on considering we've yet to be able to replace fossil fuels.

>How about sources of oxygen?

Algae produce oxygen.

>What if we kill off species that are vital to the reproduction of plants?

Whatever simple dependency chains algae may have, we can engineer them away (or maintain them).

>I highly doubt that we're scientifically advanced enough to replace anything we rely on considering we've yet to be able to replace fossil fuels.

You're wrong on both counts. If the demand was there, we could switch to solar power now. We have the production capacity.

If I'm wrong, can you provide evidence that we have all the capabilities that you claim? I find it hard to believe we're at all prepared for potential cataclysmic situations.

The wide range of environments in which algae thrive is something any biologist could tell you.

The availability of electric generation capacity, and the prices thereof, is a matter of public knowledge. The fact that coal burning is still cheaper than many "renewable" power sources is a contingent if not trivial fact. Any human on a greater than subsistence income who wanted to use only solar power, could.

Of course, asking for proof that we're "prepared for potential cataclysmic situations" is the mother of all goalpost maneuvers.

It's hard to believe only if you understand it as "everybody would be fine". A cataclysm would probably kill or starve many people, but what is hard to believe is that there would be no survivor at all.

Consider a nuclear submarine for instance. This facility is capable of remaining totally autonomous during half-a-year (it even produces its own oxygen). It's not too hard to imagine that something similar could protect a fair amount of men and women from basically anything, and for a longer period, if it only is modified to do so.

Consider also this non-exhaustive list of underground bunkers: http://io9.com/the-secret-world-of-underground-bunkers-51160... You could probably store enough food and other resources to survive during decades in these. Certainly enough time to figure out how to eventually survive outside, regardless of what exactly happened there.

And finally, remember that there are already thousands of survivalists all over the world, actively preparing for the end-of-the-world.

What is hard to believe is that a few environmental factors would cause the death of absolutely all human beings on Earth.

You're not going to lack oxygen any time soon. And not all plants need animals to reproduce. If we were to kill all fauna, the impact on flora would be huge, and it would certainly induce a very substantial decrease in our food production, but it would not reduce it to zero. Not to mention that we're capable of storing large amounts of food for very long periods. There would be human losses, lots of it, but there would almost as certainly be survivors.

It's very difficult to imagine a scenario that would absolutely wipe out all mankind. At least not an environmentalist one. Annalee Lewitz wrote a whole book about it: http://scatteradaptandremember.com/

It's nice to hear from you, Dr. Strangelove. How is life in the bunker?

There are so many unanticipated consequences of the extinction event we are currently slipping into that I think it is pointless to speculate in a sentence or two. The geologic record of past major extinctions (there have probably been many more minor ones) is extremely fragmentary and inconclusive. How fast can species, including ours, adapt to huge change? It is all about mutation and speciation rates. In some ways we have suppressed mutation rates by limiting disease and lengethning life; in other ways we have sped it up with synthetic chemicals and genetic engineering. Who's to say?

> It's nice to hear from you, Dr. Strangelove. How is life in the bunker?

I'm not discussing how good or bad life would be if we were to mitigate a severe environmental crisis. I'm discussing whether or not it would provoke human extinction. And to me that seems very much unlikely.

Well, I don't think the question at hand is simply how to avert human extinction, but how to avert disaster for humankind.

It pretty much was, for the word "extinction" was indeed used.

Would a severe environmental crisis be a disaster for Mankind? Sure, I can totally agree with that. But I will object if you say it would cause its extinction.

We do not have the technology to kill all oxygen producing species even if we tried. We some (many) species do die off, there will be room for other species to use the resources the extinct species were using and increase in population.

This change would have dramatic effects on the entire ecosystem, but deoxigination is not one of them.

I don't think it's possible to rely solely on genetic engineering for natural substances at the massive scales we consume them.

>I don't think it's possible to rely solely on genetic engineering for natural substances at the massive scales we consume them

Why not?

Good point, but if the goal is to avoid extinction, the fortunate few who make it into the biodome might not require "massive scales".

There are also reasons to think the Permian-Triassic was caused by volcanic activity burning a lot of coal.


These kind of arguments were used not only for the animals issue, but also among humans, to justify killing by the most monstrous regimes in history. Taking out any moral stand, and classifying these issues as a given "scientific" or "force of nature" phenomenon, is wrong. Very wrong. Living elephants are more important than ivory jewels. Although it's a possible (devastating) path, it's our duty to avoid consuming of the biosphere.

I'm not trying to justify anything and if other people did, it's not my fault. I was merely questioning an assertion made in the article. It is not necessarily true that the current extinction is the only one caused by a particular species, and anyway it's almost certainly not the only one with a biotic cause.

> Either it is by releasing nefarious gazes in the atmosphere, or creating a Primate intelligent enough to rule and consume most of biosphere.

This sentence says that consuming the biosphere is natural as gas release. This colours a choice as an unavoidable step, and thus justify it. And this kind of logic was used by nations against other (as a side issue, disagree with other opinion is OK, downvote it - no. unless it's a Parimate evolution thing).

> This sentence says that consuming the biosphere is natural as gas release. This colours a choice as an unavoidable step, and thus justify it.

You don't even have to see it as a choice. I mean, even if we ignore the present and the future, thus avoiding any kind of moral issues, we can look at the past and see what Homo Sapiens has already done. It did provoke the extinction of a whole bunch of large mammals and insular birds, deforested extremely large areas and many other things. To a large degree, most of the impact of our species on nature is already done, so we should be able to look at it objectively, as if we were talking about an other species (to some extent we are, considering how different we are from say our Mammoth-hunting ancestors). And when we do, we should not let someone say that this was the only extinction to occur because of a biological species, because that is just not true.

You can't pretend to protect nature if you refuse to look at it for what it is.

Funny thing is that "these kind of arguments" are arguments enough — that is, be they true or false, they are logical. And the only argument from the opposing side is "this is wrong!". Which is not argument enough.

Sorry for the way I put it. The meaning was "argument without a moral stand". If moral is considered logic, they are false. If moral is not considered automatically as logic, then most of us faced, or will face, a situation where their choice will be based on moral, and thus not logic?

Let me replace the issue in its context. In the article it is written that the current extinction is the only one that is due to a singular species. I do believe this is pretty much wrong considering how likely it is that the biggest paleontological extinction event was due to an archaean genus (not a species, but pretty damn close).

If someone states that 2+2 = 5, should I shut up and not state that 2+2 = 4 in case some people give this fact some bad moral interpretation?

I would suggest a different context. If someone states that 2+2 = 5, and at the same time he/she states that somebody is bleeding to death nearby, now - than the 2+2=5 is the less important statement, if at all. But the real issue is that it's far from 2+2=5. Consuming the biosphere is not gas release. It is a moral choice that individuals, communities and nations can change daily.

> Consuming the biosphere is not gas release. It is a moral choice that individuals, communities and nations can change daily.

They can, but they don't. I don't understand your point. The choice you're talking about is being made. It's not because you don't like it that it doesn't exist. In any case what matters is what is actually done, not what could be done in an ideal world.

So to me the impact of methanosarcina on the environment is indeed comparable to the impact of Homo sapiens, in the sense that both are extinctions induced by biotic agents.

What is "moral"? I can ask 5 different people and get 5 different answers, unless they are all raised and properly brainwashed in the same cultural group.

Correct. When we speak of moral we assume that there are choices, and then you pick one. If there is no choice, there is no moral. The description of what happened to animals and wildlife (especially from the 20th century) as a deterministic force of nature, a.k.a gas release, can lead us to think that this is how evolution works, no choice, no moral. You can say "I support ivory jewels" or "I object ivory jewels". Both opinions are very different than saying "ivory jewels is a natural force of nature like gas release". The level of nature depletion by humans is, to some extent, a choice.

Not really. You can speak of moral only if you are one of these 5 people who made a "choice". And, in fact, only if you are talking to people, that support your choice. In other case your speaking of moral is nothing more than saying "I'm right because I think I'm right" which isn't really an argument.

So, to be able to think about the world more clearly the "neutral position" is invented. There's no moral, no good or bad, there's just stuff that happens, causes and effects. And from that point of view primate, making nuclear weapons and causing extinction of the species is no different from some bacteria, who filled atmosphere with metane.

But that, again, has nothing to do with what actual author of this thread was saying. So I'm saying it only to point out that your appeal to morality is invalid. And if you'd ask me, I don't want elephants to extinct, but that doesn't make neutral arguments bad. It might be my position that goes against neutral one, but speaking is not really of much value in that case.

That's my point. We are one of those 5 people. Daily. What we consume, eat, how we influence others, the agenda we vote for, is a choice. The bacteria has no such choice, we do. So we can, and should, take a moral stand. Always.

Choice is not black and white. Bacteria have a low amount of choice. Most humans have a fairly high choice compared to most animals. Among humans, some have more choice then others. We can pretend that morals are special and different, but they too are the product of some chemical machinery.

The question is not can we.

The question is what standard of living do we want for species in the long term.

We can always live more comfortably today by consuming non-renewable resources that make our world sustainably enjoyable, but at the loss of the benefit that resource would later give. Slash-and-burn farming does this. As do putting up a mall over untouched land, burning fossil fuels, and overpopulation, for example, all of which do the opposite of setting aside part of the planet.

Business people know the concept better than anyone. They know a company is in trouble if it sells an asset whose operation produces profit to pay for current operations.

We can set off as much of the planet as we like and live in as much abundance per person as the planet can sustain indefinitely, though not as much abundance per person as we can today by consuming non-renewable resources. Using up those resources today only impoverishes future generations.

We can do either. What do we choose?

I think the problem is that it's not possible (or rather, extremely difficult) to choose in any global sense, due to co-ordination problems. A very interesting (though long and occasionally whimsical) essay called "Meditations on Moloch" dwells on this problem:

"A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse."


So, basically we can't choose your former path above because we're stuck in one of these "multipolar traps." I recommend checking out the entire essay. It's long but rewarding.

One of the purposes international treaties and organizations attempt to solve is this very coordination problem. The fact that such organizations have had a certain level of success as far as deweaponization (as far as biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons), commerce treaties, and pollution control guidelines means that a global framework for reducing carbon emissions and increasing land conservation efforts is possible.

A minor example of this is the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which have a certain protected legal standing, which has been fairly effective in its goal. Maritime laws and emissions control for large ships is another one where global legal frameworks have worked.

So far the emphasis has been on the wrong end --≥ final emissions.

Don't get me wrong, those have to stop. But all current treaties, carbon taxes and unilateral actions have focussed on emissions from trackable sources.

I think the only reliable way to stop emissions is to stop extraction at the source. So far, our global policy appears to be to extract every fossil fuel we can economically extract.

At the other end, debates go on about whether to tax this emission or ban that emission. But there will always be leaks.

Tax one type of emission, and fossil fuels will flow to other sources that aren't taxed. Markets are very good at this. Make it more expensive for a car to burn gasoline, the price of gas falls, and it becomes economical to use gas in some way that wasn't covered in the regulation.

Shut down the oil field and the refinery, and you have an effective solution. An effective solution we are making no efforts to pursue.

You'll know something has changed when the policy is no longer "extract all that can be extracted".

If you wanted coordinated global action on climate change, with teeth, you would make it a prerequisite of the trade treaties.

We might be getting there, since the Chinese have most of the parts in place for a carbon tax framework. The only question is whether it's too little, too late.

Sounds like a Nash equilibrium.

I think you're saying the path of using up non-renewable resources and maximally populating is a Nash equilibrium so stable we can't get out of it, I admit it could be a possibility.

If you assume that the basic intent of human life is to grow population then we self organise very effectively. The only way we will ever make room for nature is if population growth becomes dependant on other forms of agriculture that do not need large amounts of land and sunlight.

That quote is a perfect summation of all software engineering projects.

So. It might not need to be a global effort. A handful of large countries could foster their forests and get near half. Here's an article about Brazil successfully reducing the destruction of their rainforests: http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/2160340...

> The question is what standard of living do we want for species in the long term.

Your framing assumes a fixed supply of non-renewable resources and rough stability in our technology for both extracting and consuming them. Yes we should minimize irreparable harm to the planet, and yes we should obey the precautionary principle, but it would be silly to plan our current consumption of resources as if we will have the same technology in a thousand years.

I can't imagine us doing something like this for animals when we can't even do it for Ukrainians. From a political perspective, aggressive nations will always be seeking out annexations/territorial control and limiting the amount of land for human use would only encourage this. I mean, we're already discussing oil territorial disputes in multiple locales as well as upcoming "water wars" as unavoidable.

I don't think humanity is up to the task. This proposal sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel where everyone is a Marty or Mary Sue or some benevolant engineer dictator is running the show. In real life, guys like Putin don't give two shits about life and will march troops on a whim to obtain resources.

It's a far off goal to be sure. But they're already making progress. Changing it to "Half of North America" seems quite doable as more and more people are living in cities. We just need wealthy benefactors to continue buying up useless land and committing it to the cause.

When speaking about aggressive governments, the elephant in the room is the US, waging war everywhere with a military bigger than all other countries combined...

How can we citizens of the world figure out a way to if not stop then exterminate this brutal force that has grown out of proportion? Can we do it without human sacrifice, and in a way that does not harm the american people who the US military is "protecting"?

Ninja edit: No I'm not saying a good solution is for the worlds government to wage world war against the US. Just trying to say that there is little difference between Ukraine and Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan, except that the war in Ukraine is a piss in the ocean in comparison to the sins of the American government and military.

The joker in me wants to say that they already have more the half, but most of them can't swim.

The serious me thinks that trying to prevent a mass extinction is noble, and should be widely supported.

I was going to take it a step farther and say we divide on a volume basis, and the wildlife gets the inner half.

This would have been a terrible joke considering the state of our oceans.

Preventing a mass extinction is impossible; at this point we are in damage control.

To your first point, aren't most species ocean-dwelling?

> To your first point, aren't most species ocean-dwelling?

Indeed, it part if the joke that most people think of elephants and rhinos as animals under threat before they think about the abundance of life on our oceans.

I believe that the highest concentration if species is found in the rainforest though.

The rainforest is substantial, but it only produces about 20-30% of the oxygen that we breathe, the ocean and all of the life within it form a machine that processes most of our CO2 and CO into the O2 which we breathe.

A frightening amount of the ocean is completely dead, even before deepwater horizon the gulf of mexico was home to one of the largest dead zones in the world - entire collapsed ecosystems.

For ages we have treated the ocean as our geological /dev/null, tossing all manner of stuff into it that we didn't have a better idea for how to deal with, and that is coming home to roost.

It's pointless to protect the rest of the wildlife without protecting the oceans. Check out Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue:


It needs to be a HARD set aside.. perhaps only trials and fire roads too.

NOT what the US does with "national forest"... IE it's pseudo wilderness. They let ranchers use it to raise their cattle and lets companies harvest trees and mine it.

I recently tried to go hiking in Colorado with my dad in an area that he remembered being a great hike ~20 years ago. Well, we get there, and we realize the majority of the area has become an RV camp littered with dirt bike trails, despite it being managed by the National Forest Service. We still had an okay time hiking once we got to the main trail, but the whole area around it was a dust bowl, certainly not helped by all of the erosion.

As we were leaving, he remarked that this is what happens when your country's forest service is part of the Department of Agriculture (tasked with policy on farming, agriculture, food, and using resources economically) instead of the Department of the Interior (housing the National Park Service and the Fish & Wildlife Service, among others, and tasked with conserving federal land and resources).

It's a real shame that the Forest Service, while doing an okay job maintaining much of the land, is part of a wider branch that is incentivized to promote economic growth and treat resources as things to be used instead of preserved. It just doesn't seem to fit in with that branch of the government.

That structure isn't a mistake. The USFS & the NPS have distinct goals.

Borrowing from Wiki:

Land management of (national forests) focuses on conservation, timber harvesting, livestock grazing, watershed protection, wildlife, and recreation. Unlike national parks and other federal lands managed by the National Park Service, extraction of natural resources from national forests is permitted, and in many cases encouraged.

USFS does not exist for pristine preservation of deep wilderness. The goal of the NPS is preservation & low-impact recreation. The goal of the USFS is responsible resource exploitation.

Both goals have their place. We need both organizations. The key then is wise choices in designating the land.

I understand the distinction and the philosophical differences. The USFS and USDA are, overall, a good thing for us to have, and they clearly serve a different role from the National Park Service, et. al.

That said, having seen first-hand an example of "low-impact recreation", I felt that the USFS was over-stepping its bounds. There was even a recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office on whether or not the USFS should be moved from Agriculture to Interior[1], the result of which seems to have re-enforced the cultural differences these two departments have had since their founding.

But I'll admit that the case of the RVs and dirt bikes might have been an outlier. I was simply not impressed by what I saw, and I hope that it's not happening much elsewhere in our national forests.

[1]: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-223

The problem, then, is somehow getting rid of the four-wheeler and jeep drivers. (I actually haven't noticed dirt-bikers themselves causing many problems, but they're often accompanied by the others.) As long as they exist they'll be able to lobby the USFS for off-trail access rights to certain locations. In the vast majority of national forest acreage, they are restricted to roads and trails that can handle them just fine.

However, a part of me wants to keep the motor enthusiasts around. They obviously cause more damage than I do as a hunter, so while they are tolerated in places I expect I'll also be tolerated.

I think a less black and white approach needs to be taken with recreation in our parks. You alienate a whole group of people that could be some of your greatest supporters by not creating an environment of trust and mutual respect. Increasing programs to educate and incorporate people that want to explore recreation activities outside of traditional hiking will be a huge aid in getting people interested in conservation.

...instead of the Department of the Interior...

Before praising that department too much, you might want to visit some BLM land. You might be disappointed. The rule seems to be that locals can do or dump anything they want there, unless it interferes with mineral extraction.

Yeah, my intent is not to overly praise that particular department, as much as highlight the difference in their mission statements. Whether or not they adhere to those is another thing.

Harvesting of trees can be both very profitable and of low impact. There's very high biodiversity on the edges transitioning between forest and clearings. Of course, it's easy to do it poorly, but it's a very useful source of income for many preserved areas.

Also, everybody still wants and needs wood. It's just an incredibly useful material, as well as being renewable and generally carbon-negative. So, trees are going to be cut down somewhere. Better the national forests where there is at least some stewardship going on than elsewhere.

And as the perennial summer fires show us year after year, the forests need to be turned over more frequently than they have been to prevent these cataclysmic fires.

As someone who spends a fair amount of time in National Forests (Mostly dispersed camping in Colorado and camping/canoeing in Missouri) I think the national park system is incredibly well managed as is.

National Parks in the U.S. are a distinct thing from the National Forests. They are even organized under different federal departments (parks are part of the Department of the Interior, forests are under the Department of Agriculture).

To go on, they're a result of two competing philosophies regarding natural areas and conservation from the early 20th century. The two schools of thought were essentially embodied in John Muir[1] (National Parks) and Gifford Pinchot[2] (National Forest Service). It's a really interesting narrative if you're at all interested in these distinctions and protected areas in the United States. It's the sort of thing that can be traced all the way through to attitudes today, and provides a nice context for why these systems exist.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir#Activism_and_controve...

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gifford_Pinchot#Forestry_policy...

Thanks for the links! I wasn't aware of this philosophical difference, and found this a fascinating read. My knee-jerk reaction is to side with the preservationists of the National Parks Service.

One day I must visit the US and see some of those beautiful and wonderful parks they have :)

I am of the opinion that both are valuable. Preserve this plot of land, responsibly manage & cultivate for exploitation that plot of land... until we no longer need natural resources, the USFS has its place.

Of course, I spend most of my time in the Parks and Wilderness areas.

There are some fantastic Parks here.



Sounds like what you want is designated wilderness areas?

They mention them in the article, but not everyone is familiar with them. Wilderness areas are not the same as national parks, though a national park may have wilderness area.

People are generally allowed to hike or ski, but you need a permit to camp and sometimes even a permit just to be there.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Wilderness_Preservatio...

The problem lots of people have with wilderness areas is that one isn't allowed to just drive right in. Of course, if one could, they wouldn't be very wilderness-y. b^)

Plus excessive hunting in some areas (where wildlife is unable to regain the numbers lost).

Illegal hunting is also an issue too but that won is harder to handle than legal hunting where too many permits are granted (and granted for too small of an area, wiping out a population in that area).

Over-hunting is also a massive problem for fishing (both inland and open water), we're wiping out whole species of fish.

US National Forests also include 400+ out of the 700+ designated wilderness areas in the US. These areas have no ranchers or loggers or miners, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._Wilderness_Areas.

We should consider a single plastic toy, bought from Amazon, used for a few months and thrown away: The material and minerals are taken from the ground, factories to produce it, ship to the harbour, overseas, to stores, to the consumer, and then - disposal? For what? Animals are living creatures, that inspired (and still inspire - so many movies, stories, sport teams, logos, metaphors) humanity for ages. Many, many daily things we can really live without. Think shoedazzle. Do we really need new shoes monthly, or "get obsessed"[1] about shoes? Can we at least buy something with better quality that lasts for years? This shopping and comforts have a cruel irreversible price tag on animals and wildlife. Add to this wars and conflicts all around the world, and the results are devastating.

[1] Home page of http://www.shoedazzle.com/

>For what?


I think that you just described the tragedy of the commons.[1] Individuals acting in their own self-interest contrary to everyone's long-term best interests by depleting common resources.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

Higher taxes on the wealthy will reduce wasteful spending.

I'd argue it isn't the wealthy buying disposable goods. They have the money to buy the good stuff. If any demographic is buying more often than the other, it's actually the poor, who don't have the money to spend $1,000 for a blender that may last.

Right or move to a sales tax that discourages consumption. Instead of an income tax that discourages working.

Isn't consumption what drives the huge American economy? I'm not an economist, but it seems like implementing a bigger sales tax would reduce consumption, which would reduce profits, which would results in less jobs and smaller salaries. So in effect you would be reducing take home pay and increasing the price of goods. Is my logic here incorrect?

Taxes on income don't reduce working any more than the price of insulin affects how much a diabetic needs.

If your taxes go up 5% tomorrow, would you work 5% less?

This is just false.

Even Slate, which is hardly a right-wing bastion, concedes that there is an effect (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/20...)

If we subjected you to a 99% tax rate tomorrow, would you work less than before? A yes answer is all that is needed to concede the point theoretically. Then, we're just arguing about magnitude. And I just don't believe you if you answer no: Who is going to work a full-time $50,000 a year job when they're only taking home $500/year?

For further reading, Paul Graham has argued that redistribution through higher tax rates leas to less entrepreneurship (http://www.paulgraham.com/inequality.html)

This argument assumes that there is a monotonic effect of taxes on my desire to work. I'd argue that if taxes were raised a little, I would work a little more. I think therefore that it is more reasonable to assume that the taxes->work hour function is concave.

I'm willing to concede that the effect is uncertain at low and middle incomes, but I think it has been shown quite convincingly that when tax rates go up the rich work less.

If you suddenly went from a 30% to 40% tax rate, couldn't you imagine working more to make up the difference? There is a lot of social pressure to maintain lifestyle. American wages have stagnated since the 70s and people are working longer hours than ever.

To answer your question honestly, it's going to depend on how much disposable income I have.

If I'm making enough to pay for all of my needs and wants after the rate goes up, then I'll probably work less... Because what's the point?

If the difference is whether I can pay rent or not, then I'll probably work more.

Reported income is not comparable to effort or economic activity.

The Slate article states that when income tax rate increases, the rich report less income, by fudging their taxes. It says nothing about rich people expending less effort.

You should read paragraph number 5 again. It concedes that at least 25% of the reduction in reported income is due to working less.

Yup. One of the options for a middle class couple is the non breader winner of a middle class couples could decide to work less.

I reread your comments (upthread). I imagined you were trotting out the "discouraged rich people" trope. My apologies.

Well, to be fair to you, I was trotting out the discouraged rich people trope.

It's rich people who have the most elastic working hours and income.

I think over the long term it would affect my decision, yes.

Please explain this reasoning? Do you have any direct evidence this would be the case, in a general sense and not just personally? Income taxes in the US were the highest they've ever been in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and those were some of the most productive decades in this country's history.

The need for more pervades everyone, it is not a matter of "I have spare cash, lets spend it!", our society revolves around the accumulation of crap. It is a broad cultural change that is needed, not a tax code tweak.

Humans only live on a small fraction of the planet even when you limit the area to dry land.


But it's not just those areas that are impacted by human activity. You also have to include fields that produce grows on, grazing grounds etc.

A lot of that land happens to coincide with the areas most hospitable for other mammals though. It's not like you can ask all the deer and bison to go live peacefully in the mountains.

It is strange that modern agriculture employs crop rotation in order to increase yields but we do not do the same thing for harvesting food from the ocean. CBC's The Nature of Things recently had a series about the state of the oceans. During one of the episodes they showed the success of marine reserves in New Zealand. I am having trouble finding a good link but the turn around was amazing.

Currently less than 1% of the ocean is protected. Greenpeace has been campaigning to set aside a large amount of the ocean as a "marine reserve." http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/...

It is strange that modern agriculture employs crop rotation in order to increase yields but we do not do the same thing for harvesting food from the ocean.

Crops are grown on private property and the ocean is a shared resource. See tragedy of the commons[1].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

There are two problems with your response. The first is that not all of the ocean is a shared resource. Within national boundaries the ocean is anything but a shared resource. See Fisheries Management[1] and for a specific example see Stellwagons Bank[2].

The other problem is that just because something is a shared resource does not mean that it is automatically a lost cause. See tragedy of the commons[3]:

   Elinor Ostrom found  the tragedy of the commons  not as prevalent
   or  as  difficult  to  solve. She and  her  coworkers  looked  at
   how  real-world communities  manage communal  resources, such  as
   fisheries ... and  they identified a number  of factors conducive
   to successful resource management.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fisheries_management

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stellwagen_Bank_National_Marin...

[3]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

There is one problem with your response ("The first is that not all of the ocean is a shared resource.), 99% of the ocean is a share resource and there are no fences between the shared and unshared portions, so fish and other wild life can cross the boundary (during migrations, etc).

If the shared portion of the ocean were to be destroyed (over-fished or polluted) then I dare say that the unshared portion would be, too.

You can dare to say whatever you like. The problem is that the experimental results dare to tell another story:

   Studies have  consistently shown that organisms  within marine
   reserves tend to grow larger  and live longer than individuals
   in  adjacent  unprotected  areas. Monitoring results  from  89
   no-take marine reserves  around the world have  shown that, on
   average,  fish  density,  biomass,  size,  and  diversity  all
   increased  within marine  reserves  (Halpern  2003, Lester  et
   al. 2009). This is very important because fish that are larger
   and older tend  to produce significantly more  eggs and larvae
   than smaller fish. Also, larvae  produced from older fish tend
   to have a higher survival rate (Francis et al. 2007) [^1]
The behavior of the commercial fisherman near the MPAs in New Zealand is extremely apropos:

   For  reasons  not  fully  understood, when  areas  are  closed
   to  fishing,  snapper  aggregate within  them,  forming  large
   resident  populations. Spiny rock  lobsters  (crayfish to  New
   Zealanders) do  the same. Their density inside  the reserve is
   about 15  times higher than  outside. Commercial crayfishermen
   have cashed  in on  the reserves  success because  the outward
   migration  of   crayfish—a  process  marine   biologists  call
   spillover—brings the crustaceans  to their pots, strategically
   placed just  outside the  boundary. These former  skeptics are
   now some  of the reserves staunchest  defenders. They refer to
   it  as our  reserve  and act  as  marine minutemen,  reporting
   poachers  and  boundary  cheats. ...  Reserves  where  fishing
   is  banned are  now  seen  as potential  stud  farms and  fish
   hatcheries, replenishing the surrounding seas. [^2]

[^1]: http://marineprotectedareas.noaa.gov/pdf/helpful-resources/d...

[^2]: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/04/new-zealand-coast/...

If only the oceans were privatized, then Greanpeace could buy up as big of a chunk as they could afford.

And even if they didn't want to own it, they could pay the owner to not overfish. A good example of that is the work of Hank Fischer and the Defenders of Wildlife, who on seeing ranchers endanger the wolves population (since they'd eat the livestock), raised money to pay the ranchers for the losses, on the condition they wouldn't kill the wolves.


In the future, yes I believe so.

Today I believe there is no way.

The world approaches population stabilization. Japan 's population is going to go down. So is China, Germany, Spain...

As we reduce illness in Africa and increase automation people need less children.

Population will get a peak and then not grow anymore.

If we solve fusion energy we will be able to plant vegetables or plankton underground, in floors, in a much more efficient way, as we will be able to have a stable temperature all day long, with pests controlled without using chemical products, just controlling physically the access, and very near the places they are consumed.

The effect is not only population, but resources dilution. The same population can consume different amounts of forests, nature areas, or elephants for their ivory [1]

[1] http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2014/09/15/opinion-c...

I think the only ultimately sustainable solution is not to "set aside" any percentage of the planet for wildlife, but to develop ways of living that are not based on a differentiation between spaces of civilization and spaces of wilderness. Our species is naturally a node in a complex set of ecological systems, and instead of trying to detach ourselves from that system we should find a way to achieve our goals while living within it.

I think developing a grid system where there can only be so much average population density in a given area would be the best way to handle it.

Setting aside half our land is kind of absurd in that it's inevitably going to be undesirable land - look at Canada. The population clings to the boarder, so we preserve the boreal forest, but not the more southern parts.

If we create a grid pattern we either end up with a low general density where wildlife is free to move though our popylation or we end up with isolated areas of ultra high density (eliminating the urban sprawl) surrounded by nature allowing wildlife to freely move around our population.

My example is here in southern Ontario we generally don't see things like bears or wolves. However we can go south into the states to find them or north.

Southern Ontario homes 95% of Ontario's population and 35% of Canada's. Being from England where overpopulation wiped out many of the native species, being in southern Ontario feels the same. We're one of the least populated countries on the planet, but the Greater Toronto Area has an extremely high population density for how large of an area it covers. There literally is no room for anything bigger than a raccoon.

If we started developing rapid transit systems it would reduce the impact of confining urbanization.

Our society is very irresponsible. Every holiday is a nightmare for the planet. The tons of junk, wrapping, and throwaway stuff we consume will be ridiculed from future generations. Not to mention the time and energy (literary, too) wasted for shopping. I stopped buying birthday decorations and try to educate my kids to stop having these merchant-inspired "festivities". All junk from Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the endless kids' birthdays piles up to a ton per year. Be responsible as we're leaving a huge liability to the future generations and our children and grandchildren, which we care the most about! I'm really disappointed at the Waste Management Recycling Centers who refuse to take anything, but CRV just recently. I invest time and pile up tons of non-CRV recyclables and they do not take it anymore.

There are fundamental cultural issues that will need to be addressed for civilization to reach sustainable, large populations. Yet, even if we do undergo a mass extinction, it may be slow enough that we can actively intervene in the ecology to prevent the collapse of civilization. With the rise of synthetic biology, advanced genetic engineering, realistic ecological simulations, and perhaps AI-engineered organisms, it may be exiting. We could be on the cusp of an unprecedented explosion in new genes, phenotypes, biochemistry, and general biodiversity.

"Without any human intervention, here is a forest with tall, straight trees that are rather widely spaced, plenty of sunlight and lots of open, grassy meadows. Longleaf branches out only after it’s high overhead, where glistening needles up to two-and-a-half-feet long are arrayed in pompon­like sprays. Below the branches is empty space a hawk can glide through."

Sounds beautiful!

He needs to talk with the Florida DOT about building wildlife bridges so the animals can safely cross roads and rail lines.

See also: http://www.americanprairie.org/ -- an effort to link public and private lands to create a 3 million acre preserve of the Great Plains ecosystem. That's pretty big, but not even close to the scale this article considers.

We could set aside 90%, if we turned agriculture over to nuclear powered subterranean farms.

It isn't so much what can we do, as what can groups of people be bothered to do collectively and whether anyone else is going to complain.

A good starting point would be scrapping agricultural subsidies. Since South Africa scrapped it, a lot of farm land was turned into wildlife farms.

according to NOAA http://www.noaa.gov/ocean.html 71% of the earth is Ocean leaving only 29% land. So the goal is for 14.5% of the earth to be set aside for Wildlife? That is a terrible title for an article. 14.5% != 50%

I guess it depends upon how many humans one must move or exterminate.

...which then becomes, "oh, I didn't mean these particular humans, try those over there".

At some point, the NIMBY mindset comes into play.

just nuke some land, worked great for wildlife in Cernobyl

>Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?


Majority of the planet is ocean, so maybe they could.

Not sure why I bother trying to talk to you people anymore, but I will go ahead and throw out an idea that I assume you will simply reject because it goes against your belief system.

We should not worship nature to such a high degree. Yes, we should try to conserve wild areas as a buffer against mistakes and for basic enjoyment. And we are not doing a good enough job of that.

But the assumption is that basically the wild areas have some sacred process or system going on that we cannot possibly ever aspire to understanding or surpassing.

First of all, there is absolutely no separation between the "wild" world and the "human" world. The idea of a natural world that is separate from a human world is an oversimplification that has become misleading.

Everything in the world, including people and the things that we make, from human feces, to plastic trash bags to rocket ships and computers, is the result of the same natural physical laws and processes involved in the universe.

The planet sees itself with billions of eyes. The planet thinks with billions of tiny minds.

The cities, roadways, and agricultural fields that cover increasingly large areas of earth are part of the natural evolution of the planet.

Its hard to really convey especially since we are so far down the line of nature worship, but part of what I am trying to get across is that humans have already surpassed nature in some ways, and if we haven't already done so then we can create environments that do.

I think it will be easier to appreciate this type of thing once we become a multi-planet species. Or at least get a colony on the moon or something.

Because part of the nature worship is the reality that we only have one biosphere to support us. We need to fix that.

But another thing -- this does tie into Malthusian population control, eugenics, classism, etc. There is an inherent disgust for the dirty masses that is hidden behind the earth worship. We have to remember the value of human life.

First you say that humans and artificial human works are products and part of Nature. Then you say that humans have surpassed Nature and can create environments outside of Nature, which is what you just spent the first half of your post arguing is impossible.

I think you need to figure out what you're trying to say.

Don't think I said that environments would be outside of nature. That's not what I meant.

I wouldn't capitalize "nature". We are part of it, we can consciously direct its evolution if we do it in a sophisticated enough way.

We are not separate from nature and we are not inferior to nature.

My point is that instead of sort of shutting down and reverting to feudalism in the face of environmental challenges, we can continue to create a more sophisticated technological system that integrates information about the biosphere and continues to evolve it in new ways. My point is that humanity should not worship untamed wilderness. Rather, we should continue to respect the fragility and complexity of the biosphere, but still recognize our own abilities and shape the universe.

Rather humans can extend Nature to places where it could not be before. Think greenhouses today, domes tomorrow.

Well two things: we need some of the things in our environment that we also destroy. We need to global temperature to stay below certain levels, but I fucking love flying to nice vacation destinations. My personal interests are in conflict with what is good for humanity.

Also: we need to respect other forms of life. Just like I can't kill someone from another family, even if we are unrelated, it is immoral to kill or damage the environment of another species. I can't kill a human from another family, or other country, without being an asshole. That extends not only to other humans, but also to other forms of life.

Please read again what I wrote carefully.

Almost everything that you said, to a certain degree, is understood as a starting point.

The place where I differ is I believe that now that everyone understands those things that you say, we can use our science and technology to overcome some limitations.

Think about what nuclear power means, especially fusion.

It is possible.

One of the discussions that spurred here in my cubicle was: How? How can we set aside half of the planet for anything other than ourselves? It's impossible! With almost every nation, state or person out there worrying about their piece of land it surely must be impossible.

But not quite.

Use Nuclear Leakage & Irradiation. Like the one that led to the Red Forest in Chernobyl [1].

'Radiological Reserves' are probably the only way to set aside a large area for animals/plants with a guarantee that humans will not come by. Not in the next 10,000 years!

Eat that! :)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Forest

I'd recommend this book by the way: 'Time to Eat the Dog?: The Real guide to Sustainable Living' by Thames & Hudson - search it up if you want a read.

We essentially need to return to a lifestyle that is described by the 'Lark Rise to Candleford' Trilogy, with comparatively recent local communities in 'developed' countries growing their own food, helping each other, making their own entertainment, travelling little, and generally living within the resources of their immediate environment. Such a way of life could be said to reduce our land needs and potentially allow us to set aside half the planet.

Whilst the solution is arguably obvious, with the advocation of mass-consumerism and with many people having a vested interest in the continuous extraction of fossil fuels - that change will always be thwarted.

One way or the other, the solution goes through nuclear energy :)

It actually does tie up all the parameters together: Evolution, Creation, Destruction, Energy, Disorderliness etc. etc. :)


This will only become possible when a couple for important milestones are reached --and they a biggies. First we have to get rid of a lot of the roads. And that can't happen until personal flight becomes common place. Second human population has to stop growing, in fact it needs to shrink even now. We are already reaching upper limits on agricultural and water availability. Unfortunately, while the former is difficult enough, the later is near impossible due to the dominance of infantile religions.

"We are already reaching upper limits on agricultural and water availability. "

Water availability is a big one although hopefully we can at least handle some of that with clean energy an desal. The economics don't work yet, but water scarcity seems like something that will not stop for economics.

Agriculture scarcity - HAH. The only reason we have scarcity is because we consume too much meat, especially in the developed world. If we ate less meat, our spaces dedicated to farm land would feed at least an order of magnitude more people per square meter and would use less water in the process.

What does religion have to do with it? It's just evolution, isn't it? If you choose not to reproduce, your less conscientious neighbors who choose to have 7 kids will simply replace you. We are all descendants of a long line of individuals that reproduced successfully.

Human population growth tapers off, even decreases, when a sufficiently advanced level of technology & luxury is reached.

We are hardly "reaching upper limits on agricultural and water availability". The problem with food is distribution, not production. Water is an issue, but desalination is very possible once the demand reaches sufficient levels.

And your "infantile religion" snipe is a non-sequitur.

The two most widely practiced religions in the world, Catholicism and Islam (~3 billion people) are both opposed to birth control. In most nations these institutions hold sway. So it is not a "swipe" nor a "non-sequitur".

> human population has to stop growing

Nearly all first world nations have a birth rate insufficient to sustain their populations. It seems that a few generations after people are wealthy enough to ensure their children's survival, they stop having more than 1 or 2 kids.

Unfortunately that's not exactly true. Even at a measly 1% (about the U.S. rate). It only takes 72 years to double a population. But the bigger problem is 2nd and 3rd world nations. The planet cannot support their reaching the economic levels of 1st world nations in order to achieve this natural population leveling.

You are correct to point out that the U.S. population is still growing, but you are incorrect to assume that the birth rate is responsible for the increase. The current U.S. birth rate is 1.88 children per woman, bellow replacement levels. Europe is the same, birth rate insufficient to sustain their population.

Many first world nation still have growing populations which is due to 2 causes:

1) Immigration which, because we are talking about global population levels, is another way of saying that developing and third world countries have high birth rates.

2) People are living longer, which unless we solve mortality, is only a temporary factor.

So yes, poor areas have high birth rates. Perhaps those areas will stay poor or keep their high birth rates after becoming wealthy; those are valid points to make, but I think that as those area become less poor their birthrates will drop and thus global population will stabilize.

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