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From the Editor


Peter D. Ward is one of maybe a dozen leading scholars of the Permian extinction. Despite being an able popularizer, always anathema to scientists who cannot write, he is a sober-sided and careful researcher, not to mention a meticulous theorist. His colleague Luann Becker hit the papers lately with claims that an asteroid collision was responsible for the Permian extinction, and Ward methodically pointed out the pesky evidence contrary to her impact hypothesis.

And so it hit rather hard when I read an essay in which Ward suggests that the wave of extinctions currently in progress may be the worst one the world has ever known, if you count the number of species being eradicated.

Worse than the one that killed the dinosaurs and the ammonites, worse than the Ordovician, Triassic, and Devonian extinctions, worse than the Permian, in which life was almost eradicated from the planet. Worse, perhaps, than all of them put together: Ward conjectures that “the absolute number of species that have already gone extinct... may be more than the total of the other mass extinctions combined.”

He said “species that have already gone extinct.” Just the ones we've already done in, more species wiped out than in all other mass extinctions in the history of the earth combined. That’s the kind of hyperbole you couldn't pay most environmentalists to utter, but Ward says it unabashedly:

Two points are indisputable: the number of species has increased through time, and there are more species per family now than at any previous time. But most people attempting to grapple with the problem of current and impending extinctions have missed these two salient points. All too often they argue that the current extinction is far less calamitous than either the end-Paleozoic or end-Mesozoic events (and thus not worth getting too upset about) because lower percentages of families and genera are now going extinct than in the past... What these scientists overlook, however, is the fact that the absolute – not relative – number of species (or other categories) that have already gone extinct in the last million years may be more than the total of the other mass extinctions combined.

Ward continues: “Even if Homo sapiens survives several million more years, it is unlikely that any of our species will see biodiversity recover from today’s extinctions.”

What do we do with a piece of news like this? It’s depressing and demoralizing, to be sure. But whether Ward is correct or not, the extinction isn’t finished yet. There are still species, whether critically endangered or merely beginning that long slide, that need our help – as do the habitats they rely on.

People in the United States will be making an important choice in the voting booth soon after this issue of Earth Island Journal hits the newsstands. And the election is but one choice among thousands each of us makes day to day. Each and every one of us has our work cut out for us. If there ever was a time when any of us could afford to sit on our hands, that time is long past. Vote your conscience, but don’t let that be the only way you act your conscience. It’s time we each started living our lives as one big vote: a vote for biodiversity, a vote for clean air and water, a vote for the Earth.


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