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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Extinction and the NFL
distributed 5/10/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

You've probably seen the news reports. On Monday, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services (IPBES) released a summary of the forthcoming "global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services."

The front page headline in the Denver Post warned, "Grave Impacts." The article tells of 1 million plant and animal species that are on the verge of extinction. This rate of decline is "unparalleled," with devastating implications for human survival.

The IPBES summary is 39 pages long, and it is tough reading. It is tough because it is dense, technical writing, compressing complex ideas into short statements. It is tough reading because the implications are emotionally and spiritually difficult.

I haven't finished reading the summary. I've read enough to know that this report deserves careful examination. I expect to be doing at least two Notes in coming weeks to dig into (a) the causes and implications of widespread extinction, and (b) the sorts of things that can and must be done to lessen this catastrophe.

Today, I need to lay some groundwork for those detailed discussions. I'm becoming aware that we don't have good models, images or language to comprehend the character of widespread extinction (or a decline in biodiversity). If we don't have a handle on that general idea, we'll completely misunderstand the danger and urgency of this crisis.

Today, I'll take a quick look at two metaphors for large-scale extinction that seem inadequate, and then try to develop a new and more complex image (using US-style football) for what is happening with Earth's loss of biodiversity.

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There's a short and compelling image about why biodiversity loss is an extreme danger. Population biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote:

The ecosystem is like an airplane in which we are passengers. We can go on removing the rivets that hold the plane's wings up, one by one, for quite a while. While no single rivet may determine when we will crash, ultimately one particular rivet surely will. Each species that becomes extinct is like one more rivet pulled out from the plane.

The great insight of Ehrlich's image is that a series of events, each of which seems small and insignificant, can lead to a dramatic cumulative effect. The problem with the image is that it suggests that everything can appear to be functioning OK, and then the entire global ecological system will collapse very suddenly. I don't think it is that simple and clear-cut.

Another emotionally compelling image was passed along to me this week, from a 1996 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition. (I haven't been able to find the old report on line.) This one used a musical experience of a symphony orchestra playing an arrangement of "Tis a Gift to be Simple." It starts off as a rich and harmonious performance, but then groups of instruments drop out -- clarinets, drums, horns. Within a few moments, all that is left is a stark melody line. The composition without a diversity of musical instruments is profoundly depleted. It is easy to catch the idea that a world with reduced biological diversity would also be simplified to the point of being stark and barren.

As I wrote back to the friend who sent me the saved sound clip, though, the musical comparison "doesn't really communicate the great danger that we're facing. The melodies of the natural world are not just overlaid, but they are intertwined and interactive. In the music, if one instrument goes silent, there's a hole in our perception and an aesthetic loss. When species -- or worse yet, classes of species -- go extinct, that stresses and transforms countless others."

I've been trying to come up with an image that conveys the way the extinction of some species changes how ecological systems work, and which suggests that the biosphere can edge toward collapse. The next section is a suggestion -- let me know if it works for you.

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The huge global biosphere is too big and too complex for most of us to grasp, so we need to have a simplified image. Let's imagine that all life on Earth is represented by the National Football League. (There are people who see the NFL as the whole universe each fall, so this isn't too big a stretch!)

The NFL has 32 teams. Again, I'll simplify -- let's count 25 players for each team. There are 11 offensive positions, 11 defensive positions, and a few specialized ones like a place kicker. 32 teams with 25 players gives us a "universe" of 800 positions, which in this metaphor represent 800 kinds of species.

For "kinds of species," think of categories like song birds, waterfowl, birds of prey, bats, fresh water fish, ocean fish, sharks, crabs, "reef-building corals," rodents, deer and elk, bears, butterflies, mosquitos, bees, frogs, lizards, worms, grasses, deciduous trees, conifers, ferns, wildflowers, and so on. Put the whole diversity of life into 800 categories.

Picture the NFL with 800 players. At the start, each team has all positions covered, but there's no second string, and no other pool of players to recruit. This is all we've got, and most of those players aren't doing well.

The player we'll call "bees" has an important job on one of the teams -- he's the star pass receiver. But he's weakened, and he can't run all the way down the field. That changes the way his whole team can compete, and limits their strategies for which plays to call. Half of the pages in their playbook aren't reliable anymore. (Much has been written about the decline of bees and colony collapse disorder, and the far-reaching effects of that loss.)

On another team, "salmon" is dangerously stressed. Let's think of salmon as a defensive end (whose job is to job "is to shed the blocks of the offensive linemen and tackle ball carriers"). If "salmon" isn't strong and thriving, the ability of the team to challenge the offense is diminished. The linebacker will have to work harder, but certainly can't make up the difference.

And let's put "reef-building corals" in the position of quarterback for the #1 team in the league. (Climate change with 1.5 degrees of warming will put 90% of those corals at risk.) The QB is forgetting which plays to call, not seeing what the other team is doing, and flubbing passes. With the quarterback now incompetent, the team really has no offense. This formerly unbeatable team is unable to score a single point.

In this image, almost every position on every team is weakened or compromised in some way, although a few are thriving. In any one game, both teams have lower capacity, limited options, and no reserves. The game can be played, but you wouldn't recognize the strategy, and some of the pairings of teams will look like they belong on a high school field, not on Monday night prime-time.

Take it ahead a few years. The IPBES report talks about 1 million species going extinct in the foreseeable future. That's about 1/8 of all species on the planet.

In our NFL universe, near-term extinction completely takes out 100 of our 800 positions. The average team loses about three players, but some are down six, and a few only are missing one. How do you play football when there's nobody in essential positions?

The full season will be played -- because we're not really talking about football. Life on the planet has to go on, but with 1/8 of the ecological positions empty, and many others weakened and confused, the way life plays out won't look anything like what we've ever experienced.

I don't want to watch football in the extinction league of the NFL, and I don't want to see Earth with that kind of devastation and diminishment.

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In coming weeks, I'll write more about the details of the IPBES report. For now, I invite you to ponder -- in general terms, and with emotional depth -- the possibility of losing 1/8 of Earth's species. Think of rivets pulled from a plane in flight, or a symphony reduced to the melody line, or the NFL with missing and weakened players, or some other image that helps you comprehend such dramatic loss in the richness of life on Earth.

Ponder the big idea of mass extinction, when "the world is inherently relational." Once that has soaked into our hearts, minds and souls, we'll come back to the details.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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