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Sixth Sense
Niles Eldredge, paleontological curator at the American Museum of Natural History, discusses the future of biodiversity on our warming planet.

It’s been a decade since Dr. Niles Eldredge, paleontological curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, wrote Life in the Balance: Humanity and the Biodiversity Crisis. In it, he explores the interrelationships of species within an ecosystem, discusses the five historical mass extinctions, and catalogues animal extinctions since the year 1600. Eldredge cautions that human activity is catalyzing a sixth mass extinction and that we urgently need a greater emphasis on sustainability. Recently, he reflected on those assertions for Audubon.

Audubon: In the 10 years since that book came out, how many more species have gone extinct?
Eldredge: It’s very hard to do a precise headcount. Lots of species that are disappearing are very narrowly distributed, like insects in the Amazon, and have not yet been found or described. In the book I said that 27,000 species a year go extinct, based on the destruction of the rainforest and the characteristic density of species in them. I see no reason to back off from that.

Q: What’s different since you wrote the book?
A: Most alarming is the accelerating climate change, which affects all ecosystems. We just lost a piece of the Ross Ice Shelf that’s about the size of Rhode Island. The Arctic and Antarctic are turning out to be far more fragile and going a lot faster than we thought.

Q: How does climate change affect efforts to protect biodiversity?
A: Global warming is making it much more difficult to use conservation measures. Even when you can set aside vast tracts of land and water and corridors for conservation, the habitats represented there are changing rapidly because the climate is changing. So it’s a real Catch-22.

Q: Historically, where are we in terms of the sixth mass extinction?
A: I think we’re in it. It began when human beings started acting like an invasive species and drove a lot of the large mammals extinct as we spread across Europe, North America, and South America. With modernization and agriculture growing in Africa, there’s a collision course between humans and the larger mammals, like elephants. Now that we’ve basically planted our flag all over the globe, our population is simply skyrocketing. That puts pressure on all the ecosystems; that’s phase two of the sixth extinction.

Q: Can we survive?
A: It’s going to be very difficult to drive human beings—ourselves—extinct, but the issue becomes quality of life. By degrading the ecosystems and polluting the planet, there are all sorts of perils for the quality of human existence.

Q: Is there hope?
A: There is always hope, I think, particularly if our next administration can find ways to reduce our carbon footprint in a much more aggressive and cooperative manner with other nations. Rather than increase spending on pure science, we should be looking at pragmatic environmental solutions. I’m also encouraged because a lot of nations view wildlife and natural ecosystem areas as being a plus for them.

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