The Current

How nature fights back against extinction: Inheritors of the Earth author

Ecologist and author Chris D. Thomas argues many plant and animal species are thriving and adapting to human-created change.
In his book, Inheritors of the Earth, ecologist Chris D. Thomas says conservation efforts are not always rational. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

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As humans, our ecological footprint is vast — irreversibly wiping out entire species of plants and animal.

Sounds hopeless but renowned ecologist and environmentalist​ Chris D. Thomas doesn't see it that way. He argues that many species are taking advantage of opportunities created by humans, even thriving as they adapt to new environmental realities and fight back against extinction.

Life on Earth is a pretty resilient thing.- Chris D. Thomas

Why is he so optimistic? He argues the Earth has more species in it than ever before.

"If we just count up the number of species in every country — nearly all of them — it's actually going up, not down," Thomas tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

That's not to say species aren't going extinct — "some species won't make it."

"I'm not in any way denying that there's an environmental crisis going on. Lots of species are going extinct," Thomas explains, but he says many are adapting and surviving.

Most ecologists and conservationists effectively treat humanity, and the impacts of humans, as a sort of black box outside nature.- Chris D. Thomas

When it comes to habitat destruction, Thomas says this can be viewed as a created space for something new to evolve, a different way of existence.

"Life on Earth is a pretty resilient thing .... a lot of new species move into those new environments you have created," the author of Inheritors of the Earth says.

Thomas believes it's important to recognize the role humanity plays in the natural evolution of the world, "to see humans as part of the system."

"Most ecologists and conservationists effectively treat humanity, and the impacts of humans, as a sort of black box outside nature, but that black box of humanity is generating unpleasant things that nature then suffers from," Thomas says.

"In fact humans are an evolved species, and therefore indirectly, all of the things that we have done to the rest of nature is an indirect consequence of evolution, of us. Therefore, when the world changes biologically because we are around, this can be seen as part of the natural process of the Earth."

We should see these gains for what they are — genuine positive biological stories.- Chris D. Thomas

Conservationists who criticize Thomas' ideas on invasive species have called his approach "science denialism."  

But he argues it's necessary to change the perspective on invasive species to be able to see the positive from this change and adaptation to our environment.

"There's a great deal of loss, I'm not belittling that at all. And I think it's really important that we try and reduce to an absolute minimum the rate at which species are dying out," Thomas tells Tremonti.

"But what I'm identifying is that there's almost an equivalent amount of gain, and that we should see these gains for what they are — genuine positive biological stories — rather than trying to knock all of these newcomers down as though they're somehow irritants that we would prefer didn't exist."

This segment is part of our season-long series Adaptation looking at the surprising, innovative, and sometimes ill-advised ways we accommodate a rapidly shifting world. 

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.

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