Nature and Extinction
Air Date: June 4, 2016
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Since its creation sixty years ago, this show has prized civility as its basic operating principle. If you think about the root of that word, its goal is the perpetuation of civilization, one President Kennedy articulated in 1963 that “We all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future, and we’re all mortal.” Our guest today extends that royal we to the kingdom of animals and plants. Author of The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals, Mexican conservationist Gerardo Ceballos joins me to discuss his landmark study of accelerated human-induced species loss. His stunning finding: we’re entering the sixth great extinction of humanity. Wow. A scholar at Stanford University and the University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology, Ceballos is credited with spearheading the first endangered species act of Mexico. “Humanity has unleashed a massive and escalating assault on all living things,” Ceballos writes, “potentially the worst ecological crisis since the asteroid hit that killed the dinosaurs.” Welcome, Gerardo.
CEBALLOS: Thank you very, very nice to be here.
HEFFNER: It’s a pleasure to have you here, especially because we recently had the President of your country, Ernesto Zedillo, on the show as well. Why are we oblivious to this gloom and doom scenario, or at least seemingly oblivious to it.
CEBALLOS:Well, it seem to me that, uh, humans, we are involved and understanding things that happening very immediately to ourselves, and the problem with the plants and animals that are becoming extinct is that many of them are living in remote areas, far away from our everyday, uh, living. So, that’s one of the problems. And there, there is another problem that I think is even more than that. There has been a lot of media, paid by big corporations and big, uh, interest groups, to deny the problem, and we, as scientists, have a really important responsibility. On the one hand, not to exaggerate what, uh, data is here. But other hand, to be extremely honest, to say what the data is telling us, and what it’s telling us right now is that we are really losing so many plants, so many animals, so fast that it is similar to the five previous extinctions on the, uh, history of life on Earth.
HEFFNER: Why don’t you contextualize that? You’re alluding to subtly, climate change as a threat that looms large here, but how do you contextualize the present problem?
CEBALLOS: Let’s, let’s, um, remember that life on Earth has been, for three, 3.5 billion years there has been life on Earth, and during that time, there have been five massive episodes of extinction. We scientists call mass extinction, there have been five that we know, and those five extinctions were, uh, were caused all by natural causes. For instance, a big, uh, meteorite, the changes in the gasses of the atmosphere, the changes in, the, uh, sea levels and so on, so these massive, important changes in nature has, uh, caused the extinctions of many plants and animals, and the second, uh, characteristics of those mass extinctions were relatively rapid in the ecological time, taking a few thousand of hundreds, even millions of years to happen, and finally, they impact many, many, uh, groups of animals and plants. In this particular case, we say that we’re entering the sixth extinction, because basically, this, uh, has the same characteristics. It’s affecting many plants, many animals, especially many animals. It’s happened really fast, and it’s caused, uh, in this particular by humans, by our activities, and main difference from the past extinction is that this is caused by humans, and that’s a bad news. That’s a bad news, but also this could be a good news, because if we are causing them, we also can stop and reverse the problem.
HEFFNER: You can take a proactive role.
CEBALLOS: It’s incredibly important that we understand that we can, uh, change this problem. Like in global warming, the, you know, there is like a two opposing views, like, uh, we 10,000 scientists saying, uh, 9,993 is saying that this is happening and this is caused by humans, and the rest saying is not caused by human. Let me tell you what is good news: if it is caused by humans, it means it can be solved, that we humans can do something to change it. We can understand what is, uh, uh, causing it, and then we can do then something to, uh, stop it. To change it, and this is exactly the same with the extinction of animals. We know what is causing it. We know what our activities are doing to them and therefore we know what can be some of the solutions, and the solutions are important to understand, because it’s a way we have to change our activities, and, uh, to save the species.
HEFFNER: We always want to discuss solutions here on The Open Mind. In fact, it’s really our imperative, because that’s driving the discourse towards positive outcomes. I do want to cite your, your study here. You say that your estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries. You write, “Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services is still possible,” as you just said.
HEFFNER: “Through intensified conservation efforts, but that window is rapidly closing.” So, the basic equation of humanity is, we breathe this air, thanks to the forest.
CEBALLOS: That’s exactly right. I mean, when we say… Scientists, we have coined this, uh, environmental services, and those services are all the benefits that we get from free, for the, uh, well function of the, uh, plants and animals, of the coexistence.
CEBALLOS: The combination of the gasses of the atmosphere, the quality and quantity of water, the fertilization of all the soils on Earth, all of these are consequences of the wild plants and animals, uh, how do they work. Every time we take an animal and a plant, every time one of these populations become extinct or a species become extinct, it’s like we are taking a, a break on this world and people say, well, if you take one break nothing really happens, and we expect that the world won’t collapse, but it start to work, work less, uh, properly, more, uh, noise, dust, whatever. So, we’re taking too many of those breaks from the world, and what is we’re saying here is there are so many that eventually, sooner, very soon, uh, we, we will take some of them and the whole thing will collapse.
In other words, what we’re saying there is that, our study what it shows that in the last 100 years, the species of vertebrates—mammals, birds, amphibian, and reptiles—that were lost because of human activities, have become extinct, uh, if you use the data that we know what happened in the last two million years and we call the background extinction with species that become extinct during normal times, those are species that were lost in 100 years who have taken between 1,000 to 10,000 years to be lost during normal times. That’s the, uh, how fast this is going, and these are animals that we know, uh, what is happening, because they are big animals. Uh, mammals, birds, very conspicuous, but we also we have now information that this is happening also to many of the smaller creatures on Earth, and many of the plants. So, basically, what we’re doing, we’re eroding the capabilities of life to provide the, uh, conditions for a life as a whole and for human life as in particular, and this is, uh, very important to emphasize that the conditions of life on Earth depends on all those plants and animals that we’re destroying, and that’s what is become like a really, really a no-brainer, a nonsense to do, you know?
HEFFNER: I think you point out, importantly, that we are, in effect, desensitized to the plight of animals. They are part of this great synergy of this universe. They exist because we exist. There is a co-existence, a co-habitation. Do you believe that that resonates? That people in this age of Google and instant gratification recognize that there is life beyond homo sapiens?
CEBALLOS: Well, you know, let me tell you that, that my experience has been in Mexico and elsewhere that people, usually will ignore the issues, but once we present information in a, in a accessible way, and we’re talking about politicians, the, uh, uh, the, uh, private, uh, industry, they are talking about, uh, uh, the peasants, we’re talking about schoolteachers and so on, well, my experience has been that they, most of them, I, I mean most, 99 percent of the people are really interested on these issues and are really concerned. Once they know they willing, uh, willing to act. I remember, many years ago, working in Mexico, uh, when we, uh, managed to get the first endangered species act. Uh, uh…
HEFFNER: You were pivotal in securing that.
CEBALLOS: And, and you know why? I was one day talking to the, a, a head of the, uh, wildlife department, she was a, a mathematician, and I was telling her how difficult it was not to have somebody to protect the endangered species in Mexico and why we were so behind the rest of the world, especially US with its Endangered Species Act here.
CEBALLOS: And I told her, it’s impossible to do something in Mexico with this poli… political situation, and, uh, she said, Gerardo, you’re wrong. Why? And I explain here what was important, and she spearheaded that, we gave them the data, we work with her, and six or eight months afterward, the President of Mexico was decreeing the Endangered Species Act of Mexico. Different to the one here, uh, you put one species at a time and you put, uh, to evaluate all of them. We put, from the beginning, 2,500 species who were in danger in Mexico at that time, and that has become one of the most important policy, uh, uh, uh laws that we have to protect the species and the environment, and it was because of that, because we, I talked to somebody that was sensitive enough and understood the weight of the problem. She has a very good contact with the president, go and talk to him, he understood, and then we have it. Something that was… I mean, incredibly important for the country. So, I think…
HEFFNER: …But there was a climate then that enabled reform. That might be a contrast to today’s politics, both in Mexico and in the United States. I, I can’t help but ask: Is that law still intact?
CEBALLOS: The law is, uh, still intact, and, uh, let me tell you…
HEFFNER: Because ours is not.
CEBALLOS: Exactly. No, no. In Mexico, it’s actually… We have, we’re, we’re improving it. This year, we are, uh, putting new, new, uh, uh, factors into law that will help us to enforce it even, uh, stronger. We’re basically…
HEFFNER: How so? What, what factors?
CEBALLOS: Well, basically, the law, it still lacks, uh, uh, somehow — that is like, like, uh, difference between what the law says and what are the penalties for people who break that law.
CEBALLOS: So, this year, we’re working with the senate in Mexico to make this very smooth. So, if you break the law, if you break the Endangered Species Act, the, uh, uh, penalties, both in jail, uh, both in money, will be very straightforward to follow. So, in other words, a judge, who is uh, uh, handling a problem of somebody, uh, trafficking, let’s say with jaguar bones or jaguar pelts in Mexico, will be very easy for him to, to know what to do and to put the proper penalties for that group or that person. This is one thing. The other thing that is, uh, right now, let me tell that in Mexico, Mexico has been one, I think the first developing country who has a, a pledge, voluntarily, to reduce most of its emissions to zero. I mean, to, to be balance up in the next, uh, uh, onto t… 2020. And finally, in the country, we have a committee forming this year, to create another eight million hectares of protected area. That is probably twenty-something million hectares, uh, acres, for protecting jaguars and the biodiversity associated to that. So, in Mexico, we have been able to, uh, avoid this polarization that is happening in this country, to try to see, okay, this is in the benefit for everybody to try to have better water, better quality of water, more grasslands, more forests. I mean, the only way to alleviate the big, big problem of drugs and the violence in Mexico, I think, will be creating jobs associated to, uh, conservation in rural areas of the country. If the government provide that, we will be able to start to, uh, reducing some of the big violent, uh, problems that are happening in the, in the, in the country, because of the lack of, of, of jobs, and these can be linked to the environment. So, in other words, there has been, um, I, I, I really have seen… The US used to be very important for Mexico, the country, to, as a, as, as a guide, as, as, as a leader on those issues, and unfortunately it has been, uh, broken. It’s no longer that case, but fortunately for Mexico, there are still, uh, many people who value this, uh, thinking, and especially what is valued in Mexico is that, uh, uh, we’re using the best scientific data to guide us on these issues. What I’m saying is, uh, the data and the scientific data, it’s what should be like the basic stepping stone to understand how to relate to this economical, the political, to the social issues, not the other way around.
HEFFNER: There is a, a consensus, and there is now a moral underpinning to the movement that you described. Before we touch on solutions—I know you wanna expound on that— it’s, it’s important to understand that it’s not… There’s not just an argument against the science. Once you concede that there is a universal scientific truth that we’ve established around this table, you ask yourself, well, let’s say it’s only true to half a degree.
HEFFNER: Then can’t we adapt?
CEBALLOS: We, basically, what we’re proposing, for instance, and, and the idea, uh, uh, of those, uh, papers and books that we’re publishing and all this, uh, uh, trying to modify the laws and to make them more, uh, uh, properly set for these times, are basically this is the adaptation that we have to do. The adaptation means that we have to understand that the weather is changing and if we, if we adapt, it means that we will have to have better laws or different laws, so how we, do we, uh, uh, populate areas that may become flooded because of, uh…
CEBALLOS: And in other words, the adaptation doesn’t mean inaction. The adaptation means to understand what are the threats, you know, the real threats, the most, uh, certain threats based on the, uh, uh, better data, and based on that to start to modify what we can do, so we can, uh, really try. We can try to, uh, uh survive in the next, uh, coming, uh, decades. What, uh, really worries me is not only, uh, my study, the studies on geomorphology, on climate, on, uh, um, geology, s… Everything shows that the window for opportunity is really, really small. Most of the people, most of the scientists who really are being very careful but are base these predictions on the best data available, most of them, most of us think that there is n… There is no more than two or three decades in order to avoid a big, big and massive collapse of civilization.
HEFFNER: So, what is a realistic path to modification of behavior?
CEBALLOS: I think what is happening, for instance, I’m, I’m, I’m incredibly, uh, happy to have seen, for instance, The Pope, Francis Pope, in the, uh, Laudato Si, to see talking about this problem. If you have seen the Laudato Si, it is an incredibly well-articulated documented saying…
HEFFNER: The Encyclical.
CEBALLOS: The Encyclical. Yes. Saying that, what are some of the problems? Global warming, the inequities and distribution wealth, and, uh, extinction of a species and so on. The second is, like, uh, uh, the Paris talks. For the first time since 1992, which was the first one, all the nations on Earth have agreed that the global warming, that those problems are real, are a threat, and they have to act. In the last few years, we have seen that President Obama and the Chinese, uh, uh, President and other important… like the U.N., important, important actors are really saying that this is a problem and we have to act. So, in other words, I think…
HEFFNER: …But let’s get down brass tacks here, in terms of specific behaviors, because you were saying to me off-camera that the motivation behind this idea, well, we can adapt no matter what the climate is, in part is a gesture of big commerce. We don’t want to worry about our, our bottom line, right now.
CEBALLOS: Yes. That’s right. This is caused because of the, uh, size of the human enterprise. We need to find out, we need to stop, to, to download this population growth, to need to, uh, start to use less, uh, uh fossil fuels and more, uh, green energies. I, I, I usually say this at different levels. At the household level, we as, uh, individuals, what we can do? Well, we can, uh, uh, use, uh, be more efficient in using, uh, the stuff like clothes and the food that we choose and so on. Our consumption patterns can really benefit. For instance, if you go to your wardrobe, we don’t need twenty, fifty, uh, trousers and, and, and pants and suits and, you know, we can, or, or, or shoes. We can be more careful on these kind of things. We can also be more careful of the q… Especially people, the affluent people like us …that we can have, uh, we can choose what to buy. For instance, not buying products from endangered species. We have to be incredibly careful not to buy any product that involve endangered species. We can be careful in not buying products if we use palm oil coming from plantations that are not sustainable and are destroying the last forests in Borneo, or Sumatra, or Indonesia. So, these kinds of things are incredibly important. First of all, to be aware of that. We need to find out, we need to understand that using, uh, uh, uh, cars and using… auto, We can reduce that. We can, for instance, go, commute to work and have four people or five people in the car instead of two. That’s very important. Uh, this is the, the, like everyday thing. The other actions that I think are, are, I call them the radical actions. Radical actions. We have to push a stronger… Our government to take, uh, stronger measures toward what really can change the whole scenario. In the case of China, for instance, China was the leading… is the leading country driving to extinction many of species, because of the huge appetite it has for products like ivory. Well, there was a Chinese woman going to Africa like two years ago, visit some of this area, obviously she’s very affluent, she’s very, have important position there, and, and, uh, she was horrified to see what China is doing, the traffick of, uh, ivory in China is doing to the, the, the elephants. The elephants, if we don’t do something, really, really fast, we may not have wild elephants in the year 2025. Just imagine.
HEFFNER: And tell us why that’s important beyond the fact that you, yourself, are an advocate of wildlife.
HEFFNER: Why, why is it important?
CEBALLOS: Uh, okay, well, you… Before, uh… So, so she went back to China and she start the campaign and now the government is imposing a ban on ivory. Well, let me tell you why it’s important, because what we have learned and this is what it… Uh, that many of these species, particularly, for instance, the elephants, the elephant are incredibly important to maintain the conditions of the savannah forests dynamics in Africa, but studies have shown, for instance, that when you lose the, the elephants, you know, you lose the elephants, then there is more growth of these plants, of the herbs and so on, there is an increased of rodents, and those rodents happen to be prone to several really nasty diseases that affect humans, so losing the elephant promotes the, uh, uh, hemorrhagic uh, diseases like, uh, similar to hantavirus or to Ebola in those areas, and, and…
HEFFNER: And we should take note of avian influence and when we think of the illnesses.
CEBALLOS: That, that’s exactly right. For instance, lyme disease in the US. In the US, all the big predators, uh, like, uh, all for the, the mountain lions were exterminated in the eastern US. Now, the populations of white deer went up to 50 million of white deer. The white deer and the, uh, are prone to these ticks who transmit lyme disease, and lyme disease is now a really, really serious, uh, uh, health problem in the US. So, this, all of this is linked. It’s really, the more we learn, the more we learn, the more we understand that losing one of these key components of… Is, uh, causing problems. The other thing I like to mention is, uh, uh, many of these… Like, like, like elephants or many other animals are essential. For instance, the pollinators are essential to maintain a, a, the foods that we get. Right now, there is a crisis of pollinators. We’re losing the bees. We’re losing the hummingbird. We’re losing the bats. If this continues, there could be, uh, huge shortages of food for humanity, related to bees. Just to give you an idea, in, in, in Costa Rica, there are places, there is a really nice, uh, study, where they have, uh, coffee plantations away from forests and coffee plantations very close to forests, natural forests. The ones who are close to natural forests have a p… Have a higher, uh, yield of thirty to forty percent higher than in the areas with no forest, because the pollinators, the bees from the forest come, pollinate the crops and… So, we are learning, we have all the science and technology to understand how can we do a much better job. The only thing we have to do is to understand that this is a problem and that the solutions require just changes in our attitudes. That’s all.
HEFFNER: When you… That’s all? Right? [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: When you, when you think of the idea of extinctions, to go back to the beginning prompt, right?
HEFFNER: Civilization. We want to be civil. Certainly for the sake of being civil, we care about our brothers and sisters, and we want to extend that to the kingdom of life beyond, that transcends humanity. So, you know, when you think of, when you think extinction, I, I wonder, in light of the five extinctions that we’ve experienced, and, and all of the phenomena that you’ve described today, what most resonates for you? This idea that if we don’t act, we could become extinct.
CEBALLOS: Well, there are…
HEFFNER: What, what in your gut, what, how do you respond to that…
CEBALLOS: Well, well
HEFFNER: Word. Extinction.
CEBALLOS: Yeah, there are a couple things. One is, let me tell you that, even in the worst of the scenarios, unless there is a nuclear war, or something else, life on Earth will continue. We’re just making like a big dent, fifty million year big dent, but life will continue. Here, the point is, will life, life continue with humans on Earth? So, this is critical. This is critical to under…
HEFFNER: And, and will it?
CEBALLOS: To understand. The…
HEFFNER: Do you think it will?
CEBALLOS: Well, I’m… I think we will. I think if we manage to, uh, uh, gain some time in the next three or four decades, we will then have enough changes, enough technology, enough understanding, so we will con… We will be able to continue this for the, the, the next, uh, centuries, but the, the, the coming two, three decades are the critical ones. I think that they’re the most important time for humanity since the world beginning. So, on the most personal… On the more personal thing…
CEBALLOS: Uh, uh, it really makes me incredibly sad to lose all the, I mean, the species like that, because, because, uh, uh, for three reasons: 1) it is, uh, there’s going to be no more companions in the universe. This is a very cold, uh, uh, empty, dark universe, and in this universe, our companions can be those plants and animals. Paradoxically…
CEBALLOS: Paradoxically, their survival depend on us, but our survival depend on their survival, and I read a book when I was eleven years old, it’s called The Scheme of Carlio [PH] and, and in that particular book, say something like that. It talks about those, called The Scheme of Carlio, during a, a, a flight from, uh, Patagonia, Argentina, to the Arctic, and it say that they fly, at the end it say something like, but, uh, uh, they fly alone. Lots of their, uh, vanishing species, they find this world.
HEFFNER: Gerardo, we have to remember, from where we originated, physically, literally, right?
CEBALLOS: Exactly. I mean, we’re, we’re part of nature. I mean, we live in cities. We live, most of us live in cities, but it doesn’t mean that we are not still part of nature.
HEFFNER: Thank you Gerardo Ceballos for joining me today on The Open Mind.
CEBALLOS: Thank you, thank you very much for this great opportunity.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.