If people look hard enough for signs of the apocalypse, they’re sure to find them. Donald Trump as President of the United States, if not a herald of the end of the world, certainly doesn’t bode well for its future—just ask the powers-that-be behind the Doomsday Clock. Other aspects of life today, while perhaps not damning in them of themselves, in sum total may likewise well presage our civilization’s decline. Selfies. All-you-can-eat buffets. The phenomenon that is “Cash Me Outside” Girl. The Human Centipede movies. Sandwiches and other meals in which fried chicken is the bread. OK, maybe these are just things for which I personally have low regard, but I have my reasons. (Especially for The Human Centipede movies.) In fact, the breakdown of society is a popular trope across entertainment media. A show about the zombie apocalypse is not only one of the biggest shows on television these days—it has a spin-off that is essentially just the same show in a different location! In short, imagery of global destruction is all around us, such that it’s hard not to adopt feelings of doom and gloom surrounding the current state of affairs, at least now and again. Sometimes, all we can do is to latch onto something which grounds us in the here and now and brings us some measure of comfort.
It is within this context that I invoke a recently-published study conducted by a group of scientists regarding fairly recent trends in animal populations from which they’ve concluded Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction. The study cites significant declines in numbers of close to 9,000 vertebrate species just since 1900, including the outright extinction of almost 200 species, and does not mince words, depicting the situation as a global “biological annihilation.” Furthermore, these scientists caution that the window for effective action is a small one. Like, a mere 20 or 30 years. With Pres. Trump set to run the country—if you can call what he’s doing “running” the country—for the next three-and-a-half years, if not more, this puts us behind the proverbial 8-ball. While one might be careful not to overstate the damage Trump can do with so much momentum already behind efforts to create sustainable operations in both the public and private sectors, his ability to stunt this growth by halting regulations is nonetheless worrisome given the narrow time frame for intervention on the Earth’s behalf.
As reports on this study such as this one from Kristine Phillips of the Washington Post indicate, there is far from a consensus on the point of where are we on the timetable of mass extinctions or if we are in the midst of one at all. The researchers use data to back up their assertions, finding about a third of their sample of 27,600 vertebrate species have seen significant declines in population and habitat size over the course of study. More specifically, more than 40% of mammals (that’s us) in the sample, of which 177 species were scrutinized for the sake of this study, saw their numbers plummet. For the sake of an example, African lions have declined in number by more than 40% in just the last 20 years.
These findings seem stark and substantial, but not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. One expert in the field cited in Phillips’ report says that a mass extinction may well be underway, but it is only just beginning, and regardless, “telling people that we’re all doomed and going to die isn’t terribly helpful.” Well, no, but let’s also not undersell the whole mass extinction angle because it might frighten some people or bum them out, OK, guy? Another critical expert quoted within believes comparing prevailing trends in animal populations to the previous five established extinction-level events amounts to little more than “junk science,” as this is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Or, perhaps to be more animal-centered, a baboon-to-porpoise comparison?
Regardless of whether or not animal population declines mediated by disappearing habitats qualifies as a distinct era of extinction, however, what these scientists can all seem to agree on is that humans have played a role in a number of these species extinctions, and that more are likely to come. Besides, there are those cohorts within the scientific community who believe such direct language on the need for conservation is not only advisable, but necessary. Sound the alarm bells! We’re going downhill—fast! As Kristine Phillips also notes, this is not the first time the idea has been advanced that we are in the midst of a mass extinction; some of the same researchers behind the current study raised concerns along these lines with a study only two years ago. In addition—and for those of us who might be standing on a ledge about now—there may be hope for all of us animals yet. Efforts to conserve endangered species and their habitats can and do work, and moreover, with regard to imperiled species numbers, safeguarding these populations can allow them to rebound like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. (Note: O’Neal may or may not have been as prolific a rebounder as I remember him. The majority of my familiarity with basketball from that era is limited to playing NBA Jam.) Right down to planting native plants in one’s yard, we, as concerned citizens, can help.
Now that you’re clambering down from the ledge and heading back through the skyscraper window, let’s bring in the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress. Wait—don’t turn around and head back for that ledge! With respect to paths to action as outlined by Phillips and the scientists she cites, the caveat in recommending readers contact their elected representatives is that any number of them currently occupying seats don’t feel quite the same zeal for looking after the Earth and the fauna inhabiting it, particularly when espousing conservative or otherwise industry-centered views. As Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, sets forth, the current Congress is the “most anti-endangered species in history,” and his organization has identified 34 different active pieces of legislation which would weaken protections for the most vulnerable species.
And don’t even get me started about Donald Trump and his flunkies. Talk about setting a tone at the top—Trump not only once infamously espoused the belief that climate change was a myth created by the Chinese, but as President, he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a non-binding international commitment to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Non-binding. With no penalties. You get it—why doesn’t he? His selections for prominent positions in his Cabinet likewise fail to inspire on an ecological front, and for that matter, appear designed as deliberate attempts to undermine the departments to which the confirmed candidates have been assigned. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, is a former CEO of ExxonMobil. Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, marked his confirmation by approving a measure that would roll back restrictions on the use of lead ammunition for hunters on federal lands. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, sued the EPA umpteen times as Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, would’ve advocated for the dissolution of this department when campaigning for President—but he was too blockheaded to recall its name during the debate when asked.
These are the jokers who have aided and abetted Trump in his crusade to undo every meaningful environmental regulation from Barack Obama’s tenure, and so many of these reversals of policy are evidently unnecessary. We need more lead ammunition so—what, exactly? More birds of prey can get sick and die from lead poisoning from feeding on animals shot with it? It was so vital to repeal the Clean Water Rule because—oil/gas and fertilizer/pesticide companies were so inconvenienced by having to not dump shit in our streams and other waterways? Trump and Co. are very clearly putting profits over people and animals here, and in doing so, are ascribing to the belief that conservationism is bad for our bottom line. This, however, like so many of this administration’s ideas, is dead wrong.
Like so much of President Trump’s agenda, the shift toward an even more lax regard for the natural environment seems predicated on a short-term reward—and not one that the country as a whole will reap. Oh, sure, the part of the constituency for whom this plays may be thrilled at the vague idea we as a nation will start to do more for Joe the Miner than we did under Barack Obama or would have done under Hillary Clinton. From the outside looking in, though, we know better than to think Donald Trump is playing fast and loose with the fate of the planet primarily for their benefit. Instead, it’s on behalf of other rich assholes like himself, especially leaders of industry, and of course, himself, in terms of their vote come 2020. What facilitates this tacit agreement between the governor and the governed—or at least the portion of the governed that comprises his would-be supporters—is a larger shift away from confidence in science and the scientific community that supplies all the inconvenient facts climate change deniers and their ilk don’t like so much. In recent years, we’ve seen a sea change in the public’s credence of scientific principles and verifiable evidence.
As this intersects with politics, Newt Gingrich somewhat unwittingly invoked the seemingly growing divide between facts—those tidbits which are verifiably true or are generally accepted to be true based on a broad scientific consensus—and feelings—those assumptions which are based on assumptions and prejudices which may be true, but are not supported by evidence and are thus prone to error. In an interview with Gingrich on CNN during the Republican National Convention, the at-one-time-vice-presidential-nominee to Trump was pressed on the matter of whether or not violent crime had gone down over the years. Trump’s tone in his keynote speech was one of dystopian hyperbole, fire, and brimstone, in which he depicted the United States of America as a few murders short of a scene out of the Purge movies. The facts, unsurprisingly, don’t support Donald Trump’s claims; all one needs to do is access recent publicly-available data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, read about the trends, and see the line graphs going down. Easy-peasy.
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, argued that these verifiable facts and figures were of less importance because Americans don’t feel them to be true. That is, John and Jane Public, good friends of Joe the Miner, don’t feel we are any safer of late. The implications of this line of thinking are all-too-frighteningly clear. By prioritizing feelings over facts, we are encouraging the cherry-picking of data to be used in analysis that only serves the purpose of the persons skewing this information to promote their desired narrative. Furthermore, by sanctioning the use of data in this way, we are implicitly approving the creation of policy and voting in accordance with the figures extracted using faulty science. Essentially, Gingrich is arguing it’s OK to mislead an American electorate which already tends to fall prey to trusting what their gut tells them as opposed to what their mind, aided by provable data, does. In other words, it’s not politicians’ fault that the rank-and-file among us can be guided like sheep into an enclosure. To a certain extent, he’s not wrong that we bear some culpability, but the ends certainly do not justify the means.
Ethan Siegel, astrophysicist, author, and primary writer on the science site Starts with a Bang!, wrote a post in response to Newt Gingrich’s arguments regarding the merits of feelings over facts shortly after the actual event occurred. Surely, as a member of the scientific community and an expert in his field, Siegel is not neutral on this subject, nor should we expect him to be. Still, as someone who, like so many of us, is concerned about the future of our country and of our world, his perspective on how we see expertise and its bearing on our relationship with factual information is potentially quite valuable, and certainly not one to be automatically dismissed. Siegel offers these thoughts on humans’ tendency to cherry-pick data and otherwise resist disconfirming evidence:
Most of us are uncomfortable with relying on others — even experts — even when we ourselves don’t have expert knowledge, expert training or the expertise of the full suite of all relevant facts. Particle physicist Brian Cox recently discussed this, saying: “It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”
The facts do not change because of how we interpret (or misinterpret) them. Homeopathy is scientifically, robustly 100% ineffective against cancer. Fluoridated water results in a blanket 40% reduction in cavities, on average, on top of any other dental health programs in children. Violent crime has continued to decrease in America, continuing a trend that has persisted for more than 20 years. […] And human-caused changes to the environment are causing the Earth to warm, a long-term trend that is visible in the global temperature records for many decades now.
Both Ethan Siegel and Brian Cox (the man he quotes) come from a similar place when it comes to recognition of experts. This is to say that even they recognize experts aren’t always right about what they study—I’m sure some of you are recalling past errant weather forecasts made by meteorologists and nodding your heads in agreement—but they nonetheless understand that expertise is our best path toward some kind of truth. As Siegel tries repeatedly to reinforce, facts don’t become any more or less true depending on our personal beliefs. It is incumbent upon us as end users of documented scientific information to sift through the findings and draw our own conclusions, as it is with politics.
Coming back to the notion that started this whole meditation on the nature of scientific inquiry, you may choose to believe or disbelieve the idea that a sixth mass extinction is underway. Whatever you decide, though, the science on climate change is substantially less arguable, and at any rate, the value placed on factual information must be held sacrosanct. Whether it’s a literal cave in which one would isolate himself or herself from the outside world, or a figurative bubble into which to recede and ignore the inconvenient truths which cause us discomfort, becoming too entrenched has its certain perils.