Top Biologist: Half of All Species May Be Gone By 2100

Mitch Tobin
Arizona Daily Star, Tucson
August 9, 2002

The world faces a "bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption" that could drive half of Earth's species to extinction in this century, eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson told more than 2,000 ecologists meeting in Tucson this week.

"We're in the end game all around the world," said the Pulitzer-Prize winning scientist from Harvard University. "The greatest challenge, I believe, is to raise the quality of life of people everywhere while also pulling through the rest of life with us before we come out the other end."

Wilson, considered one of the world's most influential and eloquent thinkers on endangered species issues, said "hot spots" for biological diversity tend to be in the same parts of the developing world where poverty has created "oppressed, land-hungry people with no other place to go."

He estimated that a one-time payment of $28 billion could protect the 25 most biologically rich areas in the world, along with the cores of tropical jungles in the Amazon, Congo, and New Guinea. The amount is one-tenth of one percent of the world's economic output in a single year, he pointed out.

Wilson, delivering his remarks during the joint annual meetings of the Ecological Society of America and the Society for Ecological Restoration, said the roughly 1.6 million species cataloged by scientists so far represents just a fraction of the total number of species on the planet.

He said estimates of the total number of species range from an "improbably low" 5 million to as many as 100 million. Most of the unknown species are insects and microbes, said Wilson, a noted authority on ants. Some critics have derided the warnings about biodiversity loss by Wilson and environmentalists as doomsday scenarios that have been exaggerated to further a political agenda.

In The Skeptical Environmentalist, statistician Bjorn Lomborg has disputed Wilson's claim that 27,000 to 100,000 species are becoming extinct every year.

Lomborg argues that in the next half century, the world might lose only about 0.7 percent of its species. He also takes issue with one of Wilson's most influential theories: the relationship between the size of habitat and the number of species present.

In the 1960s, Wilson argued that on islands, a 90 percent reduction in habitat causes the number of species present to decline by half. Since then, the rule has been widely applied to non-island ecosystems and used to argue that island-like patches such as U.S. national parks are too small to support broad biological diversity.

But Lomborg says that in numerous cases, such as Brazil's Atlantic rain forest, habitat has been drastically reduced in size while few, if any, species extinctions have occurred. In a response last year to Lomborg's book, Wilson and other scientists said the chapter on biodiversity "is so seriously and systemically flawed that we cannot consider it to be scientifically credible."

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