Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Planet's First-Ever Mass-Extinction Precipitated by Humans

Should we be alarmed at the current massive die-offs being noted in the animal and plant kingdoms? After all, new species arise and old species die off all the time. Its just nature taking its course, right? Not necessarily. What’s different about this die-off is that this is the only such event precipitated by a biotic agent: humans.

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9 Comments:

Blogger James Rothfeld said...

Wrong. One of the largest extinctions in the history of our earth was when oxygen from photosynthetic life forms began to reach levels that were toxic for anaerobic life forms. Granted, the victims were mostly bacteria and some other simple life forms, but - extinction is extinction.

So, humans are not the first biotic agent to lead to massive extinctions.

4/23/2009 01:43:00 AM  
Blogger TokyoTom said...

James, thanks for honoring me with a visit and comment.

Of course, I mainly blog at LVMI - http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/ - and I`m not really quite sure what I did that caused this post (which is the intro to a longer piece that I didn`t write) to go up, but in any case I appreciate the engagement.

You have a valid point about the great switch from anaerobic to aerobic life, which many people seem to forget about, but:

- obviously the main comparison is which other great extinction events (caused by meteors/ volcanic/ climate events) that affected complex vertebrate and other life, not archaea or bacteria;

- the event you speak of actually CONTRIBUTED to the development of more complex life;

- there is plenty of anaerobic life still around and being discovered (even in rocks miles down), and we really have very little idea as to whether the switch to aerobic life caused any kind of massive loss of anaerobic species; and

- what we are now doing to the oceans - via "dead zones" resulting from fertilizer run-off and further changes expected from warming and pH changes will result in areas not "dead", but occupied by less complex abearobic bacterial communities.

4/23/2009 03:20:00 AM  
Blogger James Rothfeld said...

Now you are weaseling out, Tom! You did not specify that you were only referring to complex vertebrae, but only seemed to talk about extinctions in general. I think this is arbitrary and obfuscates the point: the point is that extinctions are caused by all kinds of events, and at the time of the event, they are not horrible for most life forms (horrible being a function of going extinct).

The argument that the aerobic extinction contributed to more complex life forms does not really get us anywhere, since there is no reason to assume that higher life could not emerge out of anaerobic life. What can be said is that the aerobic extinction contribute to the emergence of complex aerobic life, but that's simply proving the assumption, or whatever logical fallacy we are dealing with here. The likely reason anaerobic life is rather simple these days is that it is forced to live in rather confined environs, including the gut of aerobic life.

The world's oceans seem to have passed through a number of anoxic events, and those life forms that made it through the malaise probably did quite nicely as competition was greatly reduced. I'm sure life as such will make it quite nicely through the next one as well. Whether we humans will make it through it remains to be seen, though I am actually quite optimistic (pessimistic??) that they will. In smaller numbers, but nonetheless.

I think it is too early to judge whether or not the current extinction will in fact be a disaster. I am in fact not even convinced we are really going through a particularly dramatic extinction - the claim about dozens or even hundreds of species going extinct is based on some pretty speculative reasoning.

As far as I know, there have only been about 300 or so documented extinctions in the last few centuries. I also don't think the the extinction of species limited to very small local habitats should really be counted: if the only place you can find a particular animal is a small island or a specific mountain, I suggest the species is done for no matter what.

I also don't think that anybody has yet established a relationship between species extinction and human survival (and don't start with the buffalos - the populations at First Contact were human artifacts).

But, back to the dead-zones in the oceans: I am amused that few ecologists have yet made the link between agricultural subsidies and fertilizer run-off. The link is so blatant and in your face, this oversight is almost telling.

In any case, I came by your blog because that's where clicking on your name at Crash Landing gets me.

Best,

JR

4/23/2009 06:32:00 AM  
Blogger TokyoTom said...

James, I was not weaselling out, but expanding on a point that you also acknowledged: "Granted, the victims were mostly bacteria and some other simple life forms."

The fact that remains that if there is a wave of extinctions underway as a result of the rise of opportunistic and technological man (with various man-related extinctions starting millenia ago), this is clearly different from prior catastrophic extinctions, which resulted from external physical impacts on the planet. That`s the comparison being made, and reference to the initial shift to oxic life forms is interesting, but irrelevant.

"there have only been about 300 or so documented extinctions in the last few centuries. "

This of course tells us little, since even now we have no comprehensive catalog of life.

"I also don't think the the extinction of species limited to very small local habitats should really be counted: if the only place you can find a particular animal is a small island or a specific mountain, I suggest the species is done for no matter what."

I fear you are right as to the "no matter what", but your conclusion that the extinction of localized species "shouldn`t count" is a value judgment. Good Austrians will recognize that others have equally valid preferences. Biologists and others familiar with the dimishing diversity of life express a deep sense of loss.

4/23/2009 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger James Rothfeld said...

Tom - I was just teasing about the weaseling in any case. What I am trying to get at is your last point: whether or not any of this is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder. Every activity has externalities - whether good or bad depends on the judgment of those affected, physically or otherwise, including emotionally.

So, yes, localized species extinction is certainly not good for the species affected or those who care about them. Maybe the world would be a better place with dodos and woolly mammoth in it, but maybe not. Who can tell?

I'm sure nomads think settled societies with their strict geographic borders stink, but farmers have little sympathy for dirty herders and their stomping herds.

Will the world be worse off if the only life forms to survive are those that serve human needs? Aesthetically, I would say no, but then again, those who will live in such a world will hardly miss what they have never known.

I don't lose sleep because there are no more Aurochs, even though I think they were really amazing animals. I also don't miss the dinosaurs, though other might differ.

In the end, it's all a question of preference - and who am I to say that my preferences are any more worthwhile than those of others.

Here’s another question I was wondering about, by the way, and it’s serious – if a change in technology would bring about economic ruin for a particular region and its population, simply because it would make their only product useless, would the inventor/users of this technology have to compensate the people who were damaged? Would the users of word processing software have to compensate print employees for lost jobs? Would users of the internet have to compensate newspaper workers for lost jobs? I’m not being funny, it’s an important question that is directly relevant for the question of property rights in the context of environmental change. I am sure you see the relevance. I have no real answer to this (except gut opinion). Any thoughts?

4/24/2009 05:48:00 AM  
Blogger TokyoTom said...

"Maybe the world would be a better place with dodos and woolly mammoth in it, but maybe not. Who can tell?"

I agree completely that this is a question of human judgment. However, we should acknowledge that we are bumping some species off the planet and squeezing others drastically (and many to a completely unknown degree).

"Will the world be worse off if the only life forms to survive are those that serve human needs?"

Are you confident that the species that don`t survive don`t serve human needs? Many we simply have no clue about, while others, such as whales, dodos, passenger pigeons, Steller sea cows and numerous crashed/crashing fisheries have been extinguished and are threatened not because of lack of utility, but simply because nobody owned them.

How much more shall we destroy, for want of investment in property rights/commons management?

" would say no, but then again, those who will live in such a world will hardly miss what they have never known."

Only partly true, as some of the world that we have been losing has been and will be documented.

"would the inventor/users of this technology have to compensate the people who were damaged?"

Not in a libertarian order. But I fail to see the relevance to "environmental" problems, either those that involve activities that damage the persons or property of others, or damage resources that are communally owned or are owned under regimes that fail to protect the resources. Care to clarify?

5/19/2009 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger James Rothfeld said...

My basic point is that every action has effects at least one person would perceive as injurious to their well-being, and would prefer that it rather not happen. If we were to refrain from all such actions, we would probably lose the freedom to act at all. Fundamentally, I want to argue that a 'negative externality' that cannot be dealt within a libertarian order has to be simply accepted as a given along the lines of 'shit happens'.
If we cannot find a non-libertarian solution to an environmental problem, than so be it. That's my only point. Nothing more, nothing less. Which is why I agree that in a libertarian order it's your tough luck that you lose your job because somebody else is smarter. It also means that if, for example, people using a specific aquifer cannot agree on a libertarian solution to its management simply have to suck it up. Or that if I live on a nice piece of land with a pretty view, and my neighbor erects an ugly building with garish design elements spoiling my aesthetic enjoyment, I'll have to suck it up - unless the two of us can agree on a solution.
I think some environmental problems have no libertarian solution. I don't know which they are, but maybe we simply have to accept that.
For example, there may be no libertarian solution to fighting asteroids about to hit our planet. Maybe we could collectively deal with it, but maybe not enough people can be bothered - or believe in it - and so the few who care simply have to deal with the fact that they will die, well-knowing that a solution was at hand.

To repeat the point: in my hierarchy of needs, freedom comes before security. If the price of freedom is to live in a world that will experience dramatic changes in climate, and if the only way to avoid is were to give up my personal freedom - then I'll accept the dramatic changes in climate.

That's my only point.

5/20/2009 09:55:00 AM  
Blogger TokyoTom said...

Thanks for the clarifications, James.

I`m not so far away from you, but come to different conclusions: where there are obvious commons problems, those who care about the problem should obviously work to resolve them.

This includes libertarians who are personally most interested in individual freedom, freedom that is imperilled by the state-heavy "solutions" that often underlie the problem (to the benefit of entrenched insiders) in the first place.

Far from leaving the field of battle to others, libertarian ought to be proactively trying to mediate, lest what they value most highly be trampled.

5/20/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger James Rothfeld said...

Seems we ran out of disagreements :)

5/20/2009 09:47:00 PM  

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