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Returning Humans to the Center of the Cosmos

[1] “In 2001, IGBP and the other international global-change programmes held a major conference in Amsterdam. The conference produced the historic Amsterdam Declaration on Earth System Science.” See “2001 Amsterdam Declaration on Earth System Science,” International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (July 13, 2001).

[2] Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415, no. 23 (2002).

[3] “The human epoch,” editorial, Nature 473 (2011): 254.

[4] David Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[5] Erle Ellis, et al., “Involve Social Scientists in Defining the Anthropocene,” comment, Nature 540, no. 7632 (2016): 192.

[6] For discussion, see Bruno Latour, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (2014): 1–18.

[7] For commentary, see Gordon Y. Craig, “James Hutton’s Geological Vocabulary,” in Bernd Naumann, Frans Plank, and Gottfried Hofbauer, eds., Language and Earth: Elective Affinities between the Emerging Sciences of Linguistics and Geology, Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 66 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1992), 401.

[8] Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-twentieth Century Boundary Level Is Stratigraphically Optimal,” Quaternary International 383 (2015): 196–203.

[9] Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., “Scale and Diversity of the Physical Technosphere: A Geological Perspective,” The Anthropocene Review 4, no. 1 (2016): 9–22.

[10] Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., “The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of Evidence and Interim Recommendations,” Anthropocene 19 (2017): 55–60.

[11] Charles Darwin, “General Summary and Conclusion,” The Descent of Man (1871): ch. XXI.

[12] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, et al., “Accelerated Modern Human-induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Science Advances 1, no. 5 (2015): e1400253. An article published in Science magazine in 2016 affirmed that the dire predictions of the 1990s were correct, but that “there may be a long extinction lag time. The species-area curve is driven by equilibrium phenomena, and ecosystems may take a long time to equilibrate.” See Quentin Cronk, “Plant Extinctions Take Time,” Science 353, no. 6298 (2016): 446. Articles in the current literature find ways to reconcile the empirical evidence with the predictions of the 1990s. For an effort along these lines, see Benjamin Gilbert and Jonathan M. Levine, “Plant Invasions and Extinction Debts,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 5 (2013): 1744–1749.

[13] Norman Myers, The Sinking Ark: A New Look at the Problem of Disappearing Species (Pergamon Press, 1979). Myers said in 1997 that by 2007, “we may have lost 1 million of Earth’s putative 10 million species, counting all extinctions since the start of the biotic crisis a half-century ago.” See Norman Myers, “The Meaning of Biodiversity Loss,” in Peter H. Raven and Tania Williams, eds., Nature and Human Society: The Quest for a Sustainable World, Proceedings of the 1997 Forum on Biodiversity (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000), 63.

[14] Colin Norman, “The Threat to One Million Species,” Science 214, no. 4525 (1981): 1105–1107.

[15] Niles Eldredge, “The Sixth Extinction,” ActionBioscience, June 2001. Wilson estimated in 1988 that extinctions exceeded 17,500 per year. See Edward O. Wilson, “The Current State of Biodiversity,” in E. O. Wilson and Frances M. Peter, eds., Biodiversity (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1988), 3–18. That would be more than a half million by now.

[16] Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind (Doubleday, 1995). See also Daan P. van Uhm, “The Sixth Mass Extinction,” The Illegal Wildlife Trade: Inside the World of Poachers, Smugglers and Traders (Springer, 2016), 17–32.

[17] Peter H. Raven, “The Politics of Preserving Biodiversity,” BioScience 40, no. 10 (1990): 769–774.

[18] Anthony D. Barnosky, et al., “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?” Nature 471 (2011): 51–57. Google Scholar as of June 15, 2018, lists 1,830 citations. See also Ann Gibbons, “Are We in the Middle of a Sixth Mass Extinction?” Science, March 2, 2011.

[19] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo, “Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 30 (2017): E6089–E6096.

[20] According to ecologist Nigel Stork, “If some of these higher estimates were true, then we should have already witnessed the extinction of up to 50 percent of all species on Earth in the last 30 years.” See “Re-assessing Current Extinction Rates,” Biodiversity and Conservation 19, no. 2 (2010): 357–371. Many influential biologists suggested an extinction rate of 5 percent to 30 percent of all species on Earth per decade. Stork cites several examples, e.g., Tom Lovejoy, who wrote in 1980, “An estimate prepared for the Global 2000 Study suggests that between half a million and 2 million species — 15 to 20 percent of all species on earth — could be extinguished by 2000, mainly because of loss of wild habitat but also in part because of pollution.” See T. E. Lovejoy, “A Projection of Species Extinctions,” in Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), The Global 2000 Report to the President (Washington, DC, 1980). Stork provides a table of similarly authoritative scientific predictions and projections that would require, if true, that a mass extinction have occurred by now.

[21] In the 1990s, predictions of mass extinction accompanied neo-Malthusian predictions, going back to the 1960s and 1970s, which foresaw imminent resource depletion especially of petroleum, the inability of the world to feed its growing population, and global collapse because of the increasing size of the “human footprint,” which had even by then vastly exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. In spite of growing world prosperity, many scientists stand by and even double down on these predictions, arguing that the collapse, which is inevitable, will only be more terrible when it comes. See, for example, A. Y. Hoekstra and T. O. Wiedmann, “Humanity’s Unsustainable Environmental Footprint,” Science 344, no. 6188 (2014): 1114–1117. See also Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280, no. 1754 (2013). For discussion, see Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, et al., “Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade?” BioScience 60, no. 8 (2010): 576–589. For a more general analysis, see Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

[22] “Four insect groups (butterflies, tiger beetles, dragonflies, damselflies) have been of special interest to amateur and professional entomologists. Each group is well known, it has a worldwide distribution and its species extinction during the past 500 years is documented. Among these four groups, 25,260 species have been evaluated, and only three were found to have become extinct.” See John C. Briggs, “Emergence of a Sixth Mass Extinction?” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 122, no. 2 (2017): 243–248. See also J. C. Briggs, “Global Biodiversity Loss: Exaggerated versus Realistic Estimates,” Environmental Skeptics and Critics 5, no. 2 (2016): 20–27.

[23] According to Gonzalez et al., “Since 1600, an estimated 906 known species have gone extinct globally. While this represents a small fraction of the world’s eight or more million species of eukaryotes, the rate of extinction (>900 species in ca. 400 years) is 100–1,000 times the historical rate in the fossil record.” See Andrew Gonzalez, et al., “Estimating Local Biodiversity Change: A Critique of Papers Claiming No Net Loss of Local Diversity,” Ecology 97, no. 8 (2016): 1949. It is not clear what sample size these authors have in mind, but the “small fraction” to which they apparently refer — 906 species from 8 million species over 400 years — amounts to a loss of about 2 species per 8 million each year or one-quarter of one species per million species per year. This fraction is so small that it is negligible and of no concern no matter how many times greater than “background” or “normal” extinction rates it may be. Of course, the 906 extinctions have to be understood in terms of some sample size, probably not 8 million, but it is not obvious what it is.

[24] Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier, “Uncomfortable Questions and Inconvenient Data in Conservation Science,” in Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Brian Silliman, eds., Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma (Oxford University Press, 2017), 4. See also Keith Kloor, “The Science Police,” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 4 (2017).

[25] Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson, The Theory of Island Biogeography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967).

[26] “Exotic plant addition to islands is highly nonrandom, with an almost perfect 1 to 1 match between the number of naturalized and native plant species on oceanic islands.” See Dov F. Sax and Steven D. Gaines, “Species Invasions and Extinction: The Future of Native Biodiversity on Islands,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, supplement 1 (2008): 11490–11497. For a more recent review, see Mark Vellend, et al., “Plant Biodiversity Change across Scales during the Anthropocene,” Annual Review of Plant Biology 68 (2017): 563–586. “Nonnative species introductions have greatly increased plant species richness in many regions of the world at the same time that they have led to the creation of new hybrid polyploid species by bringing previously isolated congeners into close contact” (563).

[27] As philosopher of science Andrew Inkpen has explained, MacArthur and Wilson “reasoned that since rates of immigration depend on distance from the mainland (i.e., an increase in distance ‘lowers’ the immigration curve), and since rates of extinction depend on the size of an island (i.e., an increase in size ‘lowers’ the extinction curve),” the species richness of an island will reach an equilibrium where these curves intersect, i.e., at a number of species that reflects both the size of an island and its distance from the mainland. See S. A. Inkpen, “Like Hercules and the Hydra: Trade-offs and Strategies in Ecological Model-Building and Experimental Design,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 57 (2016): 34–43.

[28] Luke J. Harmon and Susan Harrison, “Species Diversity Is Dynamic and Unbounded at Local and Continental Scales,” The American Naturalist 185, no. 5 (2015): 584–593. See also Thomas J. Stohlgren, et al., “The Rich Get Richer: Patterns of Plant Invasions in the United States,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1, no. 1(2003): 11–14. For a recent discussion, see Rubén G. Mateo, et al., “Biodiversity Models: What If Unsaturation Is the Rule?” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 32, no. 8 (2017): 556–566.

[29] Fangliang He and Stephen P. Hubbell, “Species–area Relationships Always Overestimate Extinction Rates from Habitat Loss,” Nature 473, no. 7347 (2011): 368. A vast literature defends the view that a mass extinction is underway on the basis of the species–area relationship and the theory of island biogeography. To “save the phenomena” for the theory, ecologists invoke concepts of “extinction debt” and of “trajectories toward extinction.” In a comment in Ecology, three ecologists wrote that the species–area relationship is used to predict, first, the “number of species that are endemic to the habitat at risk based on its area. Second, these endemic species are assumed to become extinct should this habitat be lost.” The habitat of a species is considered “lost” when it changes as a result of human activity, as, for example, because of human-assisted colonization by nonnative species. Whether or not extinctions are observed is irrelevant because the theory predicts their disappearance. The path to extinction is “deterministic” because the more that human beings alter the natural environment, the more species must go extinct. It is only a matter of time. See J. B. Axelsen, et al., “Species–area Relationships Always Overestimate Extinction Rates from Habitat Loss: Comment,” Ecology 94, no. 3 (2013): 761–763. See also John M. Halley, et al., “Extinction Debt and the Species–area Relationship: A Neutral Perspective,” Global Ecology and Biogeography 23, no. 1 (2013): 113–123.

[30] Ruth Graham, “How Many Animals Are Really Going Extinct?” Boston Globe, October 5, 2014. According to the Globe, “Hubbell, who was surprised by the vehement reactions to his paper, said that some conservationists have effectively told him, ‘Damn the data, we have an agenda.’” 

[31] Quentin Cronk, “Plant Extinctions Take Time,” Science 353, no. 6298 (2016): 446–447. Cronk defends the 1990s predictions of mass extinction, treating them as necessarily true, and suggests ways to reconcile them with the phenomena. 

[32] In a letter published recently in Science, Gerardo Ceballos and Paul Ehrlich have observed that “the rate of species extinction is now as much as 100 times that of the ‘normal rate’ throughout geological time.” See Ceballos and Ehrlich, “The Misunderstood Sixth Mass Extinction,” Science 360, no. 6393 (2018): 1080–1081. According to Mark Vellend and co-authors, “Roughly 350,000 plant species on earth have been named, representing an estimated 80–90% of the global total.” These authors studied estimates of the “background” or “normal” extinction rate for plants between mass extinctions. They found that “the central tendencies of background plant extinction rates fall mostly in the range 0.05–0.15 species per million species per year.” Vellend, “Plant Biodiversity Change across Scales during the Anthropocene,” 563-586. Even if current extinction rates are two orders of magnitude greater than “background” rates, as Ceballos and Ehrlich suggest, they may still appear negligible in relation to the numbers needed for a mass extinction.

[33] Michael L. Rosenzweig, “The Four Questions: What Does the Introduction of Exotic Species Do to Diversity?” Evolutionary Ecology Research 3 (2001): 365. Ecologists have argued that as species arrive in new places, they may evolve into new species, thus adding to biodiversity globally. The rate of speciation — and whether it exceeds the rate of extinction — is debated. See, for example, Chris D. Thomas, “Rapid Acceleration of Plant Speciation during the Anthropocene,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 30, no. 8 (2015): 448–455. See also J. W. Bull and M. Maron, “How Humans Drive Speciation as well as Extinction,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283, no. 1833 (2016).      

[34] C. D. Preston, D. A. Pearman, and T. D. Dines, eds., New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora (Oxford University Press, 2002). Ten years later, a study supported by the Ministry of the Environment (DEFRA) in the UK registered 1,377 nonnative plants that were naturalized on the British Isles; the increase is likely due to new introductions. See Helen E. Roy, et al., “Non-native Species in Great Britain: Establishment, Detection and Reporting to Inform Effective Decision making,” Report to DEFRA (NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, 2012).

[35] Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007). This may be slightly misleading because between 1840 and 1990 two plant species endemic to Great Britain did go extinct. See P. A. Stroh, et al., A Vascular Plant Red List for England (Bristol, UK: Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, 2014), 31.

[36] Chris D. Thomas, “The Anthropocene Speciation Hypothesis Remains Valid: Reply to Hulme et al.,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 30, no. 11 (2015): 636–638.

[37] Dov F. Sax, et al., “Species Invasions Exceed Extinctions on Islands Worldwide: A Comparative Study of Plants and Birds,” The American Naturalist 160, no. 6 (2002): 766–783. See also James H. Brown and D. F. Sax, “An Essay on Some Topics Concerning Invasive Species,” Austral Ecology 29, no. 5(2004): 530–536; and D. F. Sax, et al., “Ecological and Evolutionary Insights from Species Invasions,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22, no. 9 (2007): 465–471.

[38] Mark van Kleunen, et al., “Global Exchange and Accumulation of Non-native Plants,” Nature 525, no. 7567 (2015): 100.

[39]  Powell et al. have written, “plant invaders rarely cause regional extirpations or global extinctions, causing some to suggest that invasive species’ influence on native biodiversity may not be so dire.” See K. I. Powell, et al., “A Synthesis of Plant Invasion Effects on Biodiversity across Spatial Scales,” American Journal of Botany 98, no. 3 (2011): 539–548. Stohlgren and Rejmánek have pointed out “the absence of empirical evidence of continuing plant invasions causing extinctions.” See T. J. Stohlgren and Marcel Rejmánek, “No Universal Scale-dependent Impacts of Invasive Species on Native Plant Species Richness,” Biology Letters 10, no. 1 (2014). Downey and Richardson have written, “Although there are no documented examples of either ‘in the wild’ … or global extinctions … of native plants that are attributable solely to plant invasions, there is evidence that native plants have crossed or breached other thresholds along the extinction trajectory due to the impacts associated with plant invasions.” See Paul O. Downey and David M. Richardson, “Alien Plant Invasions and Native Plant Extinctions: A Six-threshold Framework,” AoB PLANTS 8, no. 1 (2016).

[40] Andrew C. Revkin, “Another Round: Conservation on a Human-shaped Planet,” New York Times Blog, April 11, 2012.

[41] Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, “‘Earth System’ Analysis and the Second Copernican Revolution,” Nature 402, no. 6761 (1999).

[42] Mark Vellend, The Theory of Ecological Communities, (Princeton University Press, 2016).

[43] Clive Hamilton, “Getting the Anthropocene So Wrong,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 2 (2015): 102–107.

[44] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed., (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 292.

[45] Herman E. Daly, “Allocation, Distribution, and Scale: Towards an Economics that is Efficient, Just, and Sustainable,” Ecological Economics 6, no. 3 (1992): 185–193.

[46] For discussion, see Thomas Robertson, The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (Rutgers University Press, 2012). 

[47] Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (John Wiley & Sons, 2017), 144.

[48] Ibid, 134.

[49] Will Steffen, et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369, no. 1938 (2011): 842–867.

[50] For a recent collection of papers that argue that the discourse of collapse is essential to ecological and environmental science, see Alison E. Vogelaar, Brack W. Hale, and Alexandra Peat, eds., The Discourses of Environmental Collapse: Imagining the End (Routledge Studies in Environmental Communication and Media, 2018). The editors of this volume in their introduction (p. 4) observe that however thoroughly science has adopted the discourse of collapse, its arguments and evidence have not produced political results. “And yet the very fact that this evidence continues to reproduce without provoking sufficient change at the appropriate levels suggests that we may require alternative approaches, which may even entail moving beyond ‘collapse’ as a singular, overarching event and narrative.”