Category Archives: Extinction

Opinions about extinctions

The Most Dangerous Man in America


The clarion call of the new right-wing was all about liberty and freedom. This was, according to Justin Ling, in his podcast aptly called The Flame Throwers, “the language of revolution.”  1998 was time for a New Tea Party. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich saw themselves as right-wing revolutionaries. In fact Gingrich invited Limbaugh to come to Washington to fire up the new troops that had been elected. This was going to be the politics of extremism with no holds barred.

Limbaugh advised the newly elected Congressmen in 1998. “This is not the time to be moderate, this is not the time to be liked, this is no time to seek to gain the approval of the people you have just defeated.” American politics had entered the age of extremism where there was no room any more for moderation, reasonableness, or humility.

The incoming class of Republican Congressmen and women presented Limbaugh with a plaque that said, “Rush was right.”  They also assured him that there was not a single Feminazi in the bunch.  The right in America was nothing if it was not hyper- masculine. Only wimps would give in to feminists. Women were one of Limbaugh’s most consistent targets of verbal abuse.

At the time Limbaugh’s radio shows were shown on more 600 stations in the USA. He had a television show on another 225 stations. As Ling said, “Tens of millions of Americans were hanging on his every utterance. He now basically runs the Republican Party.”  This was a role later taken over by Donald Trump. As much as he loved being adored by the Republican party, there was one endorsement that he treasured above all others—he got a personal letter from Saint Ronald Reagan himself. He was in heaven. Not only that it was the best heaven of all—Republican heaven.

This is what that blessed epistle from the Saint of the Right said:

“Thanks Rush for all that you are doing for promoting Republican and conservative principles. Now that I have retired from active politics, I don’t mind that you have become the number one voice for conservatism in our country. I know the liberals call you the most dangerous man in America, but don’t worry about it. They  used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear the way things otta be.

Sincerely, Ron”

In many ways, Rush Limbaugh was in fact the most dangerous man in America. He was ready to blow it up—in the world of ideas of course. Though it would have ramifications beyond that.


From Wonderland to Wasteland


Some ecosystems, like the Amazon rainforest, or the North American prairies, have been assaulted by humans. As a result, vast tracts of each have been destroyed in favor of human designed systems.  For example, rainforests contain more than half of all terrestrial species and those forests depend on diversity. Yet, in places like Borneo, and others, humans have devastated the rainforest ecosystem by turning it into mono-cultures of oil palms. We did the same with prairies of course. Humans have been doing this over and over again.  In a single small parcel of tropical rainforest there could be as many as 700 species of trees. That is as much diversity of trees as all of North America put together.  David Attenborough said that the mono-culture of what was once a tropical rainforest is dead in comparison to the diversity of a rainforest.


We could say the same about the farmers’ field in comparison to the ecosystem of North American tall grass prairie. One is dead. Humans benefit two times when the cut down a forest. First, they can use the timber. Secondly, they can use the bare land that is left for agricultural crops.  As Attenborough said, “That is why we have cut down 3 trillion trees across the world. Half of the world’s rainforests have already been cleared.It is a gross understatement to say that we are a rapacious species. Similarly, we have cut down 70% of the North American prairies and ploughed 98 to 99% of its tall grass prairie.


During Attenborough’s lifetime and mine, we have reduced the population of orangutans by 2/3rds. As Attenborough said, “We can’t cut down the rainforest forever, and what we can’t do forever is by definition unsustainable.”

I would say the same thing about the prairies and tall grass prairies of North America. Also unsustainable. The same goes for the ocean.

By 1997 the word population had risen to 5.9 billion, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had risen to 360 ppm while the remaining wilderness was reduced by 46%.  By now we can all see the pattern is clear.

The ocean of course was the world’s first ecosystem. That is where scientists believe life on the planet began. Most of the ocean is barren of life, but there are hot spots where there occurs an explosion of life. Colourful and beautiful life. Huge shoals of fish gather in such spots. But humans have learned how to find these hotspots too. And they have come equipped with the best of modern equipment.

Humans have been harvesting these hotspots on an industrial scale. Industrial style fishing really started in the 1950s and, as Attenborough said, “yet we’ve removed 90% of the large fish in the sea.” Bizarrely, governments around the world started to subsidize these industrial fleets in order to maintain them while they refrained from maintaining marine life on the planet. We allowed it to be ravished. We have also relentlessly attacked other marine species. Our species is by far the worst serial predators on the planet because we kill  species with astonishing mechanical tools. That is one of the reasons that those who believe humans might be headed to extinction along with their rapacious society sometimes cheer for the other side.

David Attenborough pointed out that “without large fish and other marine predators the oceanic nutrient cycle stutters.” The predators help the oceans to recycle marine life. Without them the hotspots diminish and the oceans start to die.

But, as Attenborough said, “ocean life was also unravelling in the shallows.”  The film crews he was working with stumbled across an event that was poorly understood at the time. “Coral reefs were turning white.” This was frightening because coral reefs contain about 25% of all the creatures of the sea even though they covered a small percentage of the planet. This was a serious challenge. The white colours are caused by the fact that the coral expel symbiotic algae that lived inside their bodies. Attenborough described this process as “turning from wonderland to wasteland.

That is what our current attitude to nature is leading us to. A wasteland.


Champions for the Earth


By 1978, when I had recently begun a legal career the population of the world was numbered at 4.3 billion, the carbon in the atmosphere was 335 ppm and the remaining wilderness of the world had been reduced to 55%.

David Attenborough travelled around the world that year to create a portrait of life on the planet.  He said he already noticed that some wildlife was getting noticeably harder to find.  I was not that smart yet at that time. Not that I am much smarter now.

I remember going on some fly-in fishing trips with friends in Northern Manitoba at about that time. We thought fish were endless. Of course, that was not true.  We thought birds were everywhere. They weren’t. I took as many photographs as I could when I was not fishing. Soon photographing and exploring nature would overwhelm my interest in fishing. My attitudes to nature were changing, but they had not changed enough.

I remember being disgusted at one member of our group on one of those trips tossing a beer bottle into the water from his fishing boat. I knew this was abhorrent, but I said nothing. I did not want to rock the boat. He was a client of ours and I did not want to insult him. I am not proud of the cowardice I showed that day. It’s like keeping quite when you hear someone utter a racial slur. The planet needs better champions than that. It needs even better ones today!

David Attenborough was lucky enough to see Mountain gorillas in the wild. But there were very few left.   But even those numbers needed to have a 24 hour human guard to protect them from human poachers. There were only about 300 left on a remote mountain reserve.  Baby gorillas were treasured. Poachers might kill 10 or more adults to get at one young gorilla. Sometimes people are scum. The scum of the earth.

Some think that people have outlived their usefulness on the planet. They want humans to be the next extinct species. That is pretty drastic. But who deserves it more than us?


Disappearing Lions


This was the only Lion we saw in Africa

I have never seen wildlife as I did on our trip to Africa in 2013. It was spectacular.  But the fact is, numbers were already in serious decline when we were there. While others have been more lucky, we saw only one lion in the wild when we visited and that was in Kruger National Park in South Africa. That of course, is not important, but there are some important issues about lions and other African Wildlife.

Already in 2013, when we were in Africa, the problem with lions was severe. Between 1974 and 2013 when we were in Africa, it had lost 80-90% of its lions! And their number were continuing to decline.

One report published at the end of 2012 estimated that the number of lions in Africa was as low as 32,000. Another estimated the number at 15,000! That was profoundly disturbing since 40 years before that there were an estimated 200,000 lions in Africa.

The UK-based conservation  group LionAid said as few as 645 lions remained in the wild in western and central Africa  It said lions were extinct in 25 African nations and virtually extinct in 10, and it estimated that 15,000 wild lions remained on the continent as a whole, compared with about 200,000 30 years before.

No matter whose figures you believe the numbers are amazingly bad! According to Afua Hirsch writing in The Guardian in 2013,

“The report comes after a series of studies have raised concern about the fate of the African lion. Researchers at Duke University in the US used satellite imagery to conclude that about three-quarters of Africa’s wide open savannah had  disappeared over the last half century , and extrapolated lion populations on to data about their available habitats to estimate that 32,000 lions remained.”

This was one of the fastest declines of mammals in history.  Although their situation was not as dire as that of the tiger, it was clearly headed in the same direction and at breakneck speed.

The overall picture is clear—lions were disappearing fast. Many believed that at current rates unless something was done seriously and fast, the lions would  disappear from the wild in 40 years! As David Lamb pointed out in his book The Africans, in 1982,  “lions are so few in number that most Africans have never seen one.”

One of the problems was that the Chinese were paying big sums for lion bones. It was and is part of their superstitious beliefs that animal parts can give them health benefits.

That of course drives up the price of lions. Then when lions are scarce, the price is driven up so poaching continues with even greater vigor. It is vicious circle, just as it is for rhinos.  Added to that, as tiger bones become nearly impossible to obtain, partly because the Asians have driven them to extinction with their superstitious beliefs, they are now helping drive lions to extinction as well.  The problem is compounded, as it is for rhinos, by the fact that as lion numbers decline sharply, the price rises proportionately just as sharply, thus increasing the profits from poaching.

As a result of these declining numbers serious efforts must be made to protect lions, for the benefit of the tourism industry, but even more importantly so save the lions.

Can we considered ourselves to be civilized if we allow lions to be exterminated? Can we deny that a civilization that acquiesces in such destruction is in sersou decline?


Africa a place of unbounding Abundance: Elephants


David Attenborough made his first trip to Africa in 1960.  Back then it really did seem inconceivable that a single species could threaten life on the planet. We were ignorant. There was such a species—Homo sapiens.

We went to Chobe National Park in Botswana where there are more elephants than anywhere else in the world. You have to work hard not to see any.


53 years later, when I went to Africa in 2013, I was blown away by the astonishing amount of wildlife. It seemed like every few minutes in our safari vehicles we would see an amazing array of wildlife. And compared to wildlife back home it was amazing. But compared to what it had been when Attenborough had gone 53 years earlier it was already cheap beer.

As far as wildlife is concerned, my experience in Africa was unparalleled. I had never seen animals in such abundance anywhere else in the world. It was not even close. All kinds of animals. But today I want to concentrate on one of them—elephants.

Yet we learned there that elephants were facing tough times—they were under siege. A survey in 1979 estimated that there were about 1.3 million elephants left in the wild. It is thought that in 2013 when we were there some 34 years later those numbers had been reduced to about 500,000. Less than half were left!

The worst part of it is that elephants were facing increasing challenges to their existence. Things were not getting better in many places, they were getting worse. Even though Chobe National Park was one of the few places where elephants were thriving this is what Damian Carrington of The Guardian said about them and their prospects:



The forest elephants of Africa have lost almost two-thirds of their number in the past decade due to poaching for ivory…There are about 100,000 forest elephants remaining in the forests of central Africa, compared with 400,00 of the slightly larger savannah elephants. The total population was over 1 million 30 years ago, but has been devastated by poaching driven by the rising demand for ivory ornaments in Asia.   

What has made things worse for elephants is that they range over central Africa and that region had suffered greatly on account of wars and competition. Poachers in such regions had easy access to weapons, and enforcement officers that were distracted by wars raging around them. Loss of habitat was not the primary problem as it was for many other species that were endangered. Many of the forests were already empty of elephants. That demonstrated that was a poaching problem not a habitat degradation issue.

China in particular was a large part of the problem. Their craving for elephant tusks had driven the price up to more than $1,000 per kg. Just 3 years before I was in Africa, the price was $150 per kg. 90% of Kenyan ivory ended up in China. As Africans told the Chinese, ‘China does not need ivory, but Africa needs elephants.’

The poachers were usually part of criminal gangs. They can be violent and ruthless. The guards on whom the elephants depended for their survival were often harassed and feared for their lives.  One guard said that he had become part of the national psychosis.

What was really weird then was that elephants by then depended on their mortal enemy for their survival.  That was us by the way. We were their enemy.  We had driven them to the brink of extinction by our wanton, foolish desires, and yet without us they would likely not survive because some of our species were working hard to save them.  The world is not just crazy. It is much more whacky than that. It is weirder than we could conceive it to be.

These two were from Kruger National Park in South Africa.



This group of elephants were actually part of a much  larger group. They actually surrounded our safari vehicle. It was a bit disconcerting to be surrounded by such large animals.  It was an experience I will never forget.  the elephants were actually difficult to photograph because they were too close!

I don’t know about you, but I think a world without elephants would be a paltry thing. Yes we need a new attitude to elephants. We also need a new attitude to nature.

Mass Extinction Events

Cactus on front lawn in San Tan Valley near where we lived this year

Though there have been awesome changes in the Grand Canyon, they pale in comparison to what happened around the world.

As if these changes in the Grand Canyon  were not enough, 5 times in the past, nearly all of life was destroyed. These are called the 5 mass extinction events. The last mass extinction event occurred about 65 million years ago.

This was much earlier than the carving of the Grand Canyon. In that event the dinosaurs who had been ruling the earth met their match and became extinct.  Although there is more than one theory that has been advanced to explain this event, the one most widely accepted by scientists, is the one where it is believed after an asteroid hit the surface of the earth, exploding on impact, creating at first sudden radical changes on our planet, and raising ash and dust that blackened the sky, causing massive loss of lives.  75% of all species living on the earth vanished as a result of this mass extinction, but it was not the most destructive.  That event brought an end to the dominance of the planet by dinosaurs.

Some earlier mass extinction events resulted in an even greater loss of life. One wiped out about 95% of all species on earth. But each time life rebuilt itself as a result of evolution. That is what life does. During those 65 million years some astonishing forms of life were created such as orchids and cactuses.

Orchids (a clump of yellow lady’s-slippers. Manitoba’s most common orchid

Nature always bats last. Thank goodness for evolution.


A David Attenborough Witness statement


David Attenborough prepared a documentary film which I watched with great interest on PBS while I was in Arizona this year, that he called, A Life on this Planet. In that film he departed from his usual approach of demonstrating wonderful aspects of diverse life on our planet without editorial comments. This time he explored some of the same issues I had been exploring recently as part of what he called a witness statement—a personal statement about some of the issues that had been concerning him for quite some time and what he has learned over 93 years of an extraordinary life on this planet.  I wondered how his philosophy would diverge from mine.

The film started off showing a scene of him walking through a large abandoned building. I recognized it immediately. It was the town near the Russian nuclear facility at Chernobyl. The town was called Pripyat and it is now located in Ukraine.  This town was once a modern city of 50,000 people that was filled with all the modern conveniences when on April 26, 1986 the city was evacuated in 48 hours after a accident occurred at the nuclear facility that exploded nearby rendering the city of Pripyat a radioactive wasteland. According to Attenborough, the accident “happened as a result of bad planning and human error.”

No humans have lived there since that day now nearly 40 years ago, though animals never left or returned. Some called the accident the most expensive catastrophe in human history. But that is not true. As Attenborough said,

“Chernobyl was a single event, and the true catastrophe of our time was the global event barely noticeable from day to day and is still unfolding. I am talking about the loss of our biodiversity, the loss of wild life and wild places.”

David Attenborough knew as perhaps few on our planet knew, that the diversity of life on our planet is truly, magnificently, diverse. First, look at the life on the planet in numbers. There are billions of creatures and millions of planet species on our planet providing spectacular diversity, abundance, and variety of life on it. Then, according to Attenborough, we came to realize how those creatures “interlock.” I prefer the word “interconnect.” They work with each other to maintain great ecosystems. Sometimes organisms and creatures in those ecosystems compete, even to the death, with each other. But at other times, as we have now learned, thanks in part to a Canadian scientist and former forestry officer in British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, that contrary to Darwin’s theory of evolution, those creatures and organisms also cooperate with one another, even at times across species lines. This is a remarkable discovery that many are just beginning to understand how significant it is. I will comment on her discoveries in coming days.

As Attenborough said, this system of life on our planet provides a “finely tuned life support machine” for the creatures, organisms, and systems on it. That system of life in turn “relies on its biodiversity.” It relies on nature filled with biodiversity. We rely entirely on that support. Without it we cannot survive on this planet no matter how clever our technology is. It all depends on the support of nature and its vast diverse life. But unfortunately, humans who dominate the planet do not really appreciate this dependency. If they did, they would act differently than they do. As Attenborough said,

“Yet the way our humans live now, we are sending its biodiversity into decline. This too is happening as a result of bad planning and human error and it too will lead to what we see here.”

The film showed images of the abandoned city of Pripyat. No people are left living there now or even within a radius of 30 km. Older structures are decaying or falling into ruin. The structures are falling apart and the town has been largely abandoned.  Although Chernobyl is primarily a ghost town today, a small number of people still live there, in houses marked with signs that read, “Owner of this house lives here”, and a small number of animals live there as well. Animals have been returning. They do not understand the risks, but nature is coming back. Nature always come back, but it comes back different after catastrophes, particularly a catastrophe as drastic as this one. The town is overgrown with trees. Some apartments now have trees growing out of them. I saw a number of photographs taken by a Winnipeg photographer and fine arts professor from the site and they are amazing to behold.

One cannot help but wonder when looking at the images of the city whether or not this is in our future. After all, the doomsday clock has recently been moved to less than 2 minutes before midnight. Clearly, none of us want to live there. There is still too much radioactivity. Is this what the future holds for us—i.e. a world without humans? Now I recognize that some people would cheer this one, but they are still in the minority. Most of us do not want to get rid of humans just yet. But perhaps we are wrong.

Dying Planet Report


The London Zoological Society produced a sensational report called the Living Planet Report. As one pundit said, “It really should have been called the Dying Planet Report.” It’s claims are actually a bit tricky, but anyway you look at it, deeply disturbing.


Ed Yong of The Atlantic clarified the findings of this new Living Planet Report that have been widely mischaracterized but they are still very important and unsettling and grim. Yong put it this way: “they found that from 1970 to 2014, the size of vertebrate populations has declined by 60 percent on average. That is absolutely not the same as saying that humans have culled 60 percent of animals” as some commentators have alleged. The word populations here really means “pockets of individuals from a given species that live in distinct geographical areas.”  I won’t go into the distinction further but suffice it to say humans have caused a lot of death. It would be kind to call it death on a massive scale. To call us “the aids virus of the earth” as Professor John Moriarty did is not really an exaggeration.

Professor Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany put it this way:

“We are rapidly running out of time… Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth.”


Damian Carrington of The Guardian reported as follows:



Many scientists believe the world has begun a sixth mass extinction, the first to be caused by a species – Homo sapiens. Other recent analyses have revealed that humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals and half of plants since the dawn of civilisation and that, even if the destruction were to end now, it would take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover.

 I believe he should have said “populations” which is not as drastic, but it is certainly drastic.

The Living Planet Report  produced by the London Zoological Society  for the World Wildlife Fund using data from 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians and found that

“Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, said Barrett [of the WWF] is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.”


In other words, previous reports of huge deaths has not turned around human attitudes to nature enough to have a profound effect for the better. The deaths are “continuing unabated.”

Professor Bob Watson one of the world’s most respected environmental scientists and at the time the chair of an intergovernmental panel on biodiversity  said this, “Wildlife and the ecosystems are vital to human life …the destruction of nature is as dangerous as climate change.”

We all know that nature contributes to human well being, physically, culturally, and spiritually. The food it contributes to us and facilitates  as well as the clean water, fertile soil, and energy it provides is of vital significance to everyone on the planet. As Watson said, “The Living Planet report clearly demonstrates that human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations.”

Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF said this as a result of the continued assault on life on the planet by humans:

“We need a new global deal for nature and people and we have this narrow window of less than two years to get it…This really is the last chance. We have to get it right this time.”

Tanya Steele, the CEO of the WWF summed it up very well: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.

It is abundantly clear: We need a new attitude to nature. No tricky statistics alter that.

Rushing Toward Mass Extinction


Scientists currently recognize that our planet has experienced 5 mass extinctions over its approximate 3.7-billion-year history.


Some people think extinction is a not a big deal. After all, 99% of all beings that have ever existed have gone extinct. We will like go extinct too. So what?

Well, what are mass extinction events? As the National Geographic has reported,

“More than 99 percent of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. As new species evolve to fit ever changing ecological niches, older species fade away. But the rate of extinction is far from constant. At least a handful of times in the last 500 million years, 75 to more than 90 percent of all species on Earth have disappeared in a geological blink of an eye in catastrophes we call mass extinctions.”


Mass extinctions are events where from 75 to 95% of species on the planet have died. In those nearly 4 billion years of its history that has “only” happened 5 times. So far.  Many scientists believe that we are moving towards a 6th mass extinction.

The big difference of course is that the current possible extinction event has been caused by one species—Us—Homo sapiens. To think that we are perhaps causing so much loss of life is stunning. It should stop us dead in our tracks!  But it isn’t. We are stopping the species dead in their tracks.

The reason it is not happening is that our attitude to nature is one of not caring. We just don’t care. We think we have the right to do whatever we want on this planet because no one can stop us. We can do with it as we please.

And that is the problem! Worldwide 60% of vertebrate species have been wiped out since 1970! That does not mean 60% of animals but populations. Nonetheless, that is still carnage on a hellish scale. It is a sure sign of the decline of western civilization, since all of civilization depends directly on nature.

And our species is largely responsible for it. Professor Moriarty was right. Humans are like a virus on the earth.


Humans are Sleep walking towards the edge of a cliff


It doesn’t take much thought to realize that nature is the basis of all life on the planet. And everything we have constructed is built out of the building blocks of nature. Without nature we are done.

Yet there is little evidence that we understand that. Our actions indicate that we do not understand this simple fact or we just don’t care. Either way it is clear that we are dismally ignorant.

Our current attitude to nature stinks. That’s why we urgently need a new one.

In recent years the World Wildlife Fund (‘WWF’) has reported on the astonishing effect that our species has had on all other species. As reported by Damian Harrington of The Guardian, recent study by the WWF reached this uncomfortable conclusion:

“Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.”

Let that statement sink in please. In other words, since Chris and I met in 1970 humanity has wiped out more than half of all mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles.[1] That conclusion was reached in a major report produced by the WWF and 59 scientists from around the world. They also say the cause is the enormous and growing massacre of wildlife as a result of humans expanding consumption of food and resources that is destroying the web of life that nature took millions of years to produce. We are destroying “the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else. We are destroying what we most need!  As Mike Barrett the executive Director of science and conservation at WWF said,

We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff. If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done. This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is he said…This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”

It is astonishing that we are  doing this. But we are.  We could do something about this, but we have chosen to ignore it. This reminds me of the people at Easter Island that kept cutting the trees on their island which they desperately needed for their survival until the trees were all gone. They actually did that. Is that what we are doing on a planetary scale? It sure looks like it. How can we deny that our society is declining? Is it surprising that I call my current tour “the Grand Finale Tour”?

 To say that we need a new attitude to nature seems hopelessly understated.

[1] I should mention that the numbers are little more subtle and not quite as grim than this suggests as Ed Yong demonstrated in a fascinating article for The Atlantic in Oct. 31, 2018