SENSibility 3: Time for an Extinction Clock?

Earlier this month the World Conservation Union identified more than 16,000 species threatened with extinction. Prospects for survival improved for exactly one species on the planet (note to us: it was not humanity). One in three amphibians, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, and 70 percent of plants are believed to be at risk of extinction. Species now at risk include the lowland gorilla, the Sumatran orangutan, and the Yangtze river dolphin. The number of Banggai cardinalfish in the wild has fallen by 90 percent in one decade, the result of hunting for the aquarium market. This grim situation is based on an assessment of 41,415 species in the Union’s report.

Which got me thinking. Why are aren’t we in the report?

Climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and hunting are all contributing to the fantastic rate of biodiversity loss on this planet. Are we immune? I think not. Maybe it is time humanity was included in the Union’s assessment. For the record, the Union ranks extinction threats on its “red list” on the following scale:

Extinct: last known individual has died

Critically Endangered: extreme high risk of extinction

Endangered: species at very high risk of extinction

Vulnerable: species at high risk of extinction

Near Threatened: may soon move into the above categories

Least Concern: species is widespread and abundant

So my assessment is that humanity should be included in the Union’s report and categorized as a species of Least Concern. We are widespread and abundant, after all. However, including humanity on the “red list” would serve an important function. It would remind us that we too are part of the biodiversity of this planet. And it would provide the authors of the report with an important instrument of warning. Imagine the publicity if humanity was listed as Near Threatened.

During the Cold War a magazine called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists printed a “Doomsday Clock” on its front cover. Periodically, the magazine warned that the clock had hit “three minutes to midnight” or “two minutes to midnight” and such changes in the clock were usually noted in the mainstream press. The setting of the clock was based on how close the world was to nuclear war. Today, the clock is set at five minutes to midnight. In addition to the prospect of nuclear war, climate change and other environmental factors are now factored in to the positioning of the clock’s hands. This is a bit awkward, because now the clock tries to capture two possible extinction avenues at the same time: environmental degradation and nuclear war. Essentially, the clock is saying that we might become extinct, but then again we might kill ourselves first.

I think we need a warning mechanism like the Doomsday Clock that evaluates only the environmental threats to humanity’s survival. Placing us as an assessed species on the World Conservation Union’s Red List would be a good start.

Related Topics