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roundtable:a modern mass extinction Watch Show 3:
"Extinction!" on PBS
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First, a general question. Are we now in a mass extinction, and if so, why does it matter?
Some Web visitors wrote to say they have heard it said, especially of tropical and marine organisms, that we are losing species before we even know of them. And the question is, if we haven't discovered a species yet, how do we know that we've lost it?
Would Darwin support the Federal Endangered Species Act? Millions of dollars are spent by corporations and government for habitat conservation plans, recovery plans, etc., for species that seem doomed for extinction. Is this a wise use of money? Why or why not?
If extinction and mass extinctions are a natural part of Earth's history, should we really be concerned about our effects on endangered species? Are we trying to fight something that's inevitable anyway and that is much larger than us, as a single species ourselves?
I'm concerned with the loss of genetic diversity because it affects food supply, drug discoveries, and the stability of ecosystems on which we depend. And yet, I'm very skeptical of the theory of evolution as it now stands. How does the theory of evolution -- or we could also say that as evolutionary thought -- explain and predict what's going on with the current cycle of extinction, better than if we had to just rely on what we can observe? In other words, what context and what value does evolutionary thought provide to this discussion that we're having?
Several other questions relate to this: Loss of biodiversity, water and air pollution, and the greenhouse effect are all impacting the biosphere, and if these are indeed combining to produce a mass extinction, do you think our species will survive it? Peter's already said that he thinks yes. How about some other perspectives?
Let's move onto some more specific questions. Why do bigger species go extinct faster than smaller ones?
Do you feel that extinctions of large Ice Age mammals had any human causes?
Another Web user wrote: I know there is a gene databank under construction right now. Could this be used as a modern Noah's Ark for the future?
We'll wrap up with a different kind of question. There was one that came from a younger visitor to the Web site who asked, What can kids do to help save the rain forest and animals?


Q: We'll wrap up with a different kind of question. There was one that came from a younger visitor to the Web site who asked, What can kids do to help save the rain forest and animals?
Panelist Responses: < back to introduction page
Ariel Lugo
And I answer that by saying they should learn about them as much as possible, and then help educate other people, including public officials and politicians.
Tundi Agardi
It's a great question. It's great that kids have access to information and that they have school curricula, not just in this country but in other countries, which encourage them to ask the tough questions and to think about their role in the world, and not to be afraid to take on responsibilities for the future.

So I have a big dose of optimism that comes from the youth of today, and if it weren't for them I'm sure that I would be very pessimistic. In terms of concrete things, obviously researching the topics that interest children and young adults, and trying to get as much information as possible, and making informed citizens out of the youth, I think is the first step. And for those youngsters that are really interested in environmental issues, I think environmental professions are bona fide good careers that people are going to be finding more and more role for in the future. So I think that the environmental movement is going to expand, and I think it's going to increase in its rigor and its scientific approach to problems. And I would encourage any child or any young adult who's interested in questions of extinction or environmental protection or species loss or any of these things, to think about a career in environment. And if they choose not to have a career in environment, then to think about just being responsible citizens and supporting both academia and environmental groups that are tackling these hard questions.
Ariel Lugo
I would also add that rain forests are a small fraction of tropical forests; that in fact most of the tropical forests, about half of them, are dry forests. So I would like to put a plug also for becoming aware of the importance of dry forests, because most people actually live in dry forest areas. Dry forests don't get the attention that they deserve, relative to the impacts that humans are having on them.
Tundi Agardi
OK, Ariel, if you put in the plug for dry forests, I'll put in a plug for marine [ecosystems], because the oceans are highly under-represented, I think, in people's concerns. And we need a lot more scientific understanding of oceans, as a first step, and we also need to generate a broader awareness about all the different kinds of habitats -- marine, terrestrial, freshwater -- that are threatened, and all the species that are in those habitats that are threatened.
Daniel Simberloff
This is a really good question. What can kids do? You know, the problem isn't fundamentally a scientific problem. We know enough about what's happening, and we know enough, as scientists, about why it's happening. And we even know enough about how to deal with it as scientists. Of course, we can learn more in all of these areas, but the outlines of the problems, the reason and the solution, are quite clear, and yet things appear to be getting worse and worse. We add more species than we subtract, for example, to the endangered species list.

The problem is fundamentally political. It's that people have to view this as a serious priority and care about it, and those people can be kids. And in fact, in some ways, kids are among the most persuasive advocates of anything they advocate, because they have tremendous enthusiasm, they are the future, and people care a lot about kids. So I guess I would answer this question of what to do [by saying this]: What to do would be to convince your parents and your classmates that this is a really important issue, and that we have to pay attention to environmental matters and conservation matters as much as any others when we think about how we're going to run our lives.
I think that's a very good way to end. Thank you very much, everyone.
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