Sunday, January 22, 2017

Which species are we sure we can survive without?

As a new administration takes over in Washington, both houses of Congress and the presidency will be in the hands of one party. As it turns out, that party, the Republicans, want to curtail the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Many Republicans complain that the act hinders ranching, logging, oil and gas exploration and water projects.

The key question they are not asking is this: Which species are we sure we can survive without? More on that later.

The act has in practice been used "for control of the land," says one congressman, and not for the rehabilitation of species. His statement stems from a misunderstanding about what it takes to revive an endangered species, namely habitat. That means the land, air, water and other species (plant and/or animal) which any particular species depends on in order to survive.

First, it's important to understand how humans and, in fact, all organisms obtain the resources they need. There are basically two strategies, takeover and drawdown. Takeover simply refers to taking over the habitat of other species to extract resources.

Humans routinely take over land with diverse plant and animal species and use it to grow crops of our choosing, tearing out trees and boulders and turning over the soil to kill the remaining plant life. We keep away nutrient-leeching weeds by pulling them out, plowing them under or killing them with chemicals. We also kill and repel insects that can eat part of what we grow.

Drawdown refers to the drawdown of finite resources such as fossil fuels, metal ores and other mineral deposits such as phosphates for fertilizer. Usable deposits of these are not regenerated by the Earth on any timescale that matters to humans.

Ranchers who take over rangeland for grazing livestock don't like it when wolves protected by the ESA decide to assert their desire to "take over" livestock and eat them. Ranchers are in peril if they try to kill protected wolves even to defend their investment. The conflict isn't over whether the livestock will die. It's about who gets to kill and eat the livestock and when.

We humans, it turns out, are in competition with other predators for food. What the opponents of the ESA are complaining about is that we are fighting these competing predators with both arms tied behind our backs. Why be concerned about what other competing species need? The priority should be what we humans need, right?

Now we arrive at the crux of the matter. Are we humans merely in a war of all against all in the biosphere? Don't all species compete with one another for advantage in the struggle for survival?

The answer to this question is yes and no. Species both compete and cooperate to survive. Dogs have evolved to cooperate with humans. Cooperation has been kind to the household dog population which now numbers close to 78 million in the United States alone.

Compare the ancient relative of the dog, the wolf. As a competitor, the wolf is definitely losing the competition with dogs (and humans). Only about 5,600 remain in the lower 48 states. A far less developed Alaska may have up to 11,000 wolves. But both numbers are minuscule compared to dog populations. Seeking to outcompete other species isn't always the most successful survival strategy (though I wouldn't count the adaptive strategies of dogs and wolves as consciously chosen.)

We have another very recent example of a species the population of which dropped precipitously as a result of unintended consequences of human action. The widespread adoption of the herbicide glyphosate is thought to be responsible for wiping out much of the milkweed in North America, the only plant that monarch butterfly larvae feed on. East of the Rocky Mountains, monarch populations have declined up to 90 percent. We humans didn't know that this would be one of the results of the widespread use of glyphosate. We found out the hard way.

Which brings us to the question of which species we are sure we can survive without. The answer so far is the ones that have already gone extinct while we humans have been around on the planet. We are now in what many scientists consider the Sixth Great Extinction. The main culprit is human activity and our sheer numbers.

As we are learning each day more and more, human survival relies on complex interdependencies with other microorganisms in our own bodies. We are also dependent on the microbiota of the soil that impart the fertility necessary to grow crops. In both areas we are learning just how much we do NOT know about these microorganisms and their interactions with us and with the soil.

If you consider that the broader world with which we interact has millions of species of which we are not aware, it becomes apparent that the Sixth Great Extinction is a rather clumsy and thoughtless way to play Russian roulette with human existence. We could easily cause an organism essential to our survival to go extinct without even realizing it.

The surprising decline of phytoplankton in the oceans comes to mind. The cause is likely rising ocean temperatures due to climate change. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that form the base of the ocean food chain and produce two-thirds of the world's oxygen. Recent research suggests a rise of 6 degrees C in ocean temperatures "could stop oxygen production by phytoplankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis." How many other species might pose this kind of outsized danger to our existence if they were to decline, disappear or cease to function in a normal way?

You will now have an answer when a congressman, businessperson or fellow citizen asks, "Why be concerned about what other competing species need? The priority should be what we humans need, right?" Perhaps. But if one of those needs is to prevent our own extinction by keeping other organisms alive, then we'll have to define "need" differently than we do now.

I am under no illusion that the ESA in its current form is somehow the critical firewall to forestalling rapid biodiversity loss. There are too many human activities outside U.S. control and outside the jurisdiction of the act inside the United States that are responsible for the vast biodiversity loss we are experiencing. As a result I have what I believe is a not unreasonable fear that our experiment in species management called the Sixth Great Extinction could lead to the extinction of the one species we think we are saving by killing off so many others.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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