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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Environment

Aired January 2, 2000 - 11:23 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Scientists say there has been five mass extinctions in history, they contend we're on the verge of another one, and humankind is mostly to blame.

As our millennium 2000 coverage continues, we look at the problems facing the environment.

JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: Experts say the threat to plant and animal species threatens our own survival, since man and nature are dependent on each other. And the key to saving endangered species is saving the world's forests.

Well, falling trees were a familiar sight throughout the last millennium, as the population expanded, the forests retreated.

We learn more from CNN's Natalie Pawelski.


NATALIE PAWELSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Forests are about more than trees. Forests are believed to be home to about half of Earth's species. And even for those of us who don't live there, they help clean air and water, conserve and enrich soil, and regulate the planet's climate. And for a lot of people, forests are a place to play, to get away from civilization.

But civilization needs trees for lumber, pulp and fuel. Global consumption of wood and paper continues to rise.

TOM GARDNER-OUTLAW, POPULATION ACTION INTERNATIONAL: The problem is, as the forest area begins to decrease and reach critically low- levels, environmental processes begin to collapse, soil erosion begins to increase, the amount of species that inhabit the forest begin to disappear, the productivity of land begins to decrease.

PAWELSKI: Of Earth's original forest cover, almost half is gone, chopped down to provide fuel, shelter and farmland for a growing human population.

Some forests have grown back. For example, in the Northeastern United States, woods once cleared for farm fields are once again standing tall, since American agriculture has long since moved west. And in many countries, trees are planted, and cut, on giant plantations. But of all the vast forests that originally covered much of the Earth, only about 1/5 is still intact in large tracts of never-logged forests, the kind of diverse, vibrant habitat environmentalists prize.

If logging continues at the rate it's going, researchers say, almost all of those big mint-condition forests could disappear within the next 50 to 60 years.

Perhaps the most famous ancient forest, the Amazon rain forest, is also one of the most endangered.

NIGEL SIZER, WORLD RESOURCES INSITUTE: It's far and away the largest stretch of tropical forest anywhere in the world, and it is also disappearing at an alarming rate.

PAWELSKI: Satellite images show logging roads cutting up the rain forests, opening up what was once inaccessible land.

GARDNER-OUTLAW: They then clear the remaining land of trees by burning them, and they begin to plant crops. The problem, of course, with that is, once that land is settled as cropland, it rarely, if ever, returns to its former glory as a forest.

PAWELSKI: The same pattern repeats around the world, as two football fields worth of tropical rainforests disappear every second.

SIZER: It costs money to protect an area of forest, and if you also have people who are desperate for education, and desperate for health-care, it's very difficult for a government like that to allocate cash to also conserve those resources.

PAWELSKI: In rich countries, too, the value of trees often outweighs the value of forests. Take Canada, home to about one-fourth of the world's untouched forests for now.

SIZER: It's the largest logging industry in the world, the government subsidizes that industry to the tune of several billion dollars a year, and it's probably one of the sites where there is the most conflict between environmental groups and the industry anywhere in the world at the moment.

PAWELSKI: It's a different story for Earth's single largest stretch of undisturbed forest in Russia's northern reaches.

SIZER: Much of it is, at the moment, completely inaccessible, and therefore likely to be there for a long, long time.

PAWELSKI (on camera): In more accessible forests, conservation efforts are cropping up around the globe. Some examples, six nations in Central America are working together to preserve a broad swathe of virgin forest, that runs the length of the region. China, after suffering devastating floods, blamed in part on deforestation, has replanted an area the size of Costa Rica.

(voice-over): And in the United States, the world's biggest single seller of lumber, Home Depot, says it will rid its shelves of products made with wood from endangered forests.

SUZANNE APPLE, HOME DEPOT: If we want to be in business in 20 years with aisles full of lumber, then we need to make sure that we're all being responsible in how we grow and harvest trees.

PAWELSKI: Making sure there's enough would cut to serve a growing number of people, and enough wood left standing to serve an increasingly pressured planet, that will be a challenge for the next millennium, taking care of the forests and the trees.

Natalie Pawelski, CNN.


KAGAN: Just about the trees, ahead on our millennium coverage, some of the species that may go down with the trees.


ANNOUNCER: The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are about 1000 giant pandas left in the wild.

KAGAN: When we hear about extinction, many of us think of the dinosaurs, but the truth is that many species existed in the year 1000, no longer live in the year 2000.

And CNN's Gary Strieker warns us that in the new millennium, the list of extinct species could grow at an alarming rate.


GARY STRIEKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The tiger, the rhinoceros, the blue whale and the giant panda, familiar endangered species, their numbers now so small they seem destined for extinction and could soon vanish from the Earth.

While losing these unique creatures would be a tragedy, scientists tell us it is nothing compared with the mounting crisis of extinction threatening all life on our planet.

STUART PIMM, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Nothing humanity has ever done has been as dramatic as this. If this rate of extinction continues, we will lose perhaps 40 percent, 50 percent of all life on Earth.

STRIEKER: It might sound in incredible, but as many as half of all plant and animal species face extinction in the next 50 to 100 years. And this is no wild theory, there is no disagreement among experts.

THOMAS LOVEJOY, THE WORLD BANK: There is unanimity in the community of biological scientists that this is happening. There really is no biologist who disagrees with this imminent crisis, there just isn't one.

STRIEKER: Extinction is said to be necessary in the process of evolution, old species vanish, new ones take their place. During hundreds of millions of years, scientists say, mass extinctions have periodically wiped out most forms of life. The causes are unknown, possibly huge volcanic eruptions, or climate change.

Sixty-five million years ago, a collision with an asteroid is believed to have caused a global die-off that included all dinosaurs. Scientists recognize five such mass extinctions in history, and they say we are now at the onset of the sixth.

ANDREW KNOLL, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: These are rates of extinction that can only really be compared with these brief moments in the past when biological diversity has come crashing down.

STRIEKER: Biological diversity is the web of life on the planet. The total variety of plant and animal species, all living things. And like the others, this sixth mass extinction is a biological diversity crash.

EDWARD O. WILSON, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Not just big animals, but little animals, down to insects and plants too are disappearing. And we're in the middle of a species extinction crisis that is unique, for the last few tens of millions of years.

STRIEKER: But there is a big difference between this mass extinction, and those in the past.

PIMM: In the past, the causes of extinction were unavoidable, perhaps a collision with an asteroid, or a massive volcanic eruption. This sixth extinction has only one cause, and it's us.

STRIEKER: A mass extinction caused by an expanding population of humans, industry and agriculture consuming natural habitats, contamination poisoning the food chain.

KATHARINE FULLER, WORLD WILDLIFE FUND: It's happening everywhere. It's happening in our own backyards, and it's happening in the most far-flung corners of the planet, from Antarctica to the depths of the seas, from the tropical rainforests of Brazil to the deserts in Chihuahua.

LOVEJOY: The loss of biological diversity is essentially the bottom line of what we're doing to the planet. You can fix physical problems like pollution, but you can never replace massive number of species lost to extinction.

STRIEKER: Most extinctions are now concentrated in a few critical areas around the world. Scientists call them "hot spots."

WILSON: And a hot spot is a place where there are large numbers of animal and plants species that are found nowhere else, and where that entire area of natural environment is itself endangered so that when that environment is destroyed, a lot of species go extinct, there's a mass extinction.

STRIEKER: A new study has investigated hot spots like the forests in Indonesia and Madagascar. The study shows 25 major hot spots covering less than two percent of the Earth's land area, shelter nearly two-thirds of all plant and animal species.

KNOLL: Mother nature has put her eggs in a very few baskets.

STRIEKER: And most of those baskets are hot spots of tropical forests, where vast areas are chopped down or burned every year.

KNOLL: The rate at which we're destroying rainforests worldwide is such that almost all of the rainforests will be gone within 50 years or so. And it's that, more than any other factor, that leads us to believe that we can lose so much of biological diversity.

STRIEKER: Mass extinction in habitats as rich as these sweeps away not only more familiar species like the Orang Utan in Southeast Asia and many endangered birds in Hawaii, but also hundreds of thousands of others, many still undiscovered.

KENTON MILLER, WORLD RESOURCES INSTITUTE: It's subtle, we can't put the dead bodies of species extinction on the table and look at them, because most things don't even have names yet. But we know it's happening. And we can see the forest being reduced.

JANET ABRAMOVITZ, WORLDWATCH INSTITUTE: We are losing, in essence, pages and volumes from nature's library, before we've even had chance to know the titles of these books, much less to know their content, and their importance.

WILSON: As unglamorous as these creatures, these weeds and creepy-crawlies may seem at first glance, in the aggregate, they are what sustain us, they really make up the bulk of the biosphere that our very lives depend upon.

MILLER: That's what we depend upon as people, for a life support system. That's what puts food on the table, water in the tap, and lets us breathe. This is a massive industry of many component parts, all doing different things to make life possible on this planet, those are the things that keep the planet alive and humming.

STRIEKER: And that is the real threat from the sixth extinction. We rely on all other species around us for food, for medicines, for clean air and water. How would our future be affected by such a massive loss of life on Earth?

FULLER: We face a planet that is despoiled and impoverished. We face a threat to all life on Earth, including our own, if we continue to destroy species at the rate that has been occurring. This is an interrelated, intricately woven web of life, and at some point, when you pull out one too many threads, the whole fabric disintegrates.

STRIEKER: But before that happens, say the experts, there is still a chance to stop mass extinction.

PETER SELIGMAN, CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL: There's a period today that perhaps -- there's a window today perhaps of 50 years in which we are going to have to be wise enough and smart enough to protect these hot spots, these places where life is concentrated. PIMM: It requires us to double, merely double, the amount of land that we have in protected areas. If we do that, we can prevent the sixth extinction from taking place.

STRIEKER (on camera): But that kind of urgent action requires cooperation, at local, national, and international levels, and that can only happen if there's widespread recognition that something critical is at stake, not just a few unique endangered species.

(voice-over): Some believe there's a powerful moral argument that could bring all nations together in this crisis.

WILSON: There's just something, I think everybody has a gut feeling about, that it's wrong to carelessly wipe out a large part of the remainder of life on Earth.

STRIEKER: It could be the biggest challenge of the next millennium, reversing the course of the sixth extinction, a catastrophe that could eventually make even the human species extinct.

Gary Strieker, CNN.


CLANCY: Well, there, a stunning visual survey of the problem, but coming up, perhaps the most important question: Are there any possible solutions? Thomas Lovejoy of the Smithsonian will join us to take a closer look at what can be done before it's too late.


CLANCY: We've been talking about the growing threat to the planet from none other than mankind itself, and the challenge in this new millennium to try to save vital plant and animal species.

Well, joining us now from Washington is Thomas Lovejoy, you saw him in Gary Strieker's report, he is counselor to the secretary for biodiversity and environmental affairs at the Smithsonian Institution.

Thank you so much for joining us on this...

LOVEJOY: Good morning.

CLANCY: And happy new year to you.

LOVEJOY: Same to you.

CLANCY: Well, as we look and survey the problem, you've made a forceful case that some of these extinctions are absolutely unavoidable, is it time for nations, collectively, to consider the prospect of a "new age Noah's Ark" to try to save some of these species of plants and animals?

LOVEJOY: There's no question about it, I mean, it's just got to move up national and international agendas. We have, you know, agreements like the biodiversity convention, let's put some teeth and action and money into them.

CLANCY: Is it possible to save these things in an environment -- a laboratory environment? You have made a case that what has to really be preserved is the environment in the wild, in the rainforest.

LOVEJOY: I mean you can -- you can preserve a tiny, tiny fraction in a laboratory kind of environment, but we also need biological diversity out there in the landscape, interacting, performing functions like providing clean water to New York City.

KAGAN: How much would it help, Mr. Lovejoy, to kind of put the fear of what it means to these people to themselves, in other words, how far down the line can these extinctions go before we're talking about the potential extinction of humankind?

LOVEJOY: Well, I don't think we're ever going to get to the point of extinction of humankind, but it can be -- end up being a pretty miserable life. We just need to think about these things differently, I mean, think about how biological diversity in forested slopes protected some parts of Venezuela during these recent severe storms.

KAGAN: When you say a miserable life, explain the ramifications to somebody like me who lives in a big city in the U.S.

LOVEJOY: Well, everything you actually depend on biologically, even though you live in a big city, comes from somewhere else in the world, whether it's food or medicine, or the fiber your clothes are made of, let alone the sort of regulation of climate.

CLANCY: Developing countries, doctor, look at all of this and say: Fine, you've cut down your forests, you've achieved economic growth, when it comes our turn, you tell us environmentally it's not advisable. Is there a suitable answer for that? Are we working on it?

LOVEJOY: Well, I mean, to start with, they have a point, there's no question about it. But there's also no point in making the same mistake twice in history. And I think by being more creative about our approaches to development, integrating environment into how we think about development, and with the developed countries actually helping financially, we could make a big difference.

CLANCY: Is population growth the single biggest threat?

LOVEJOY: Probably the two biggest threats are population growth, but also, just, you know, consumption patterns, as exemplified by people and countries like the United States, but also by the elites in a lot of the developing nations.

KAGAN: We saw in Gary Strieker's piece that things like this have happened before, was it four or five times before in the path of the world, so how much of this is supposed to happen anyway, and how much -- as we are trying to prevent the extinction of species are we getting in the way of what Mother Nature intends to happen? LOVEJOY: Well, first of all, I think nobody would like to be living through one of those major extinctions in the past, it's a very chaotic time, a lot of stability sort of goes out the window, it's not an attractive thing to think about. And in this case, it's not like there's a big meteor coming from outer space to set it all off, we are doing it to ourselves.

CLANCY: Why is everyone so convinced that this must happen within the next 50 years, now you have worked in Brazil, as I understand it, for at least 35 years looking at the rainforest there. Perhaps the best way to describe that is your experience.

LOVEJOY: Well, and it's really just sort of looking at the rates of change. You know, when I first went to the Amazon in 1965, there were literally two million people in the entire Brazilian Amazon, that's sort of two-thirds of the 48 states, and there was one road in the entire Amazon. Today there are 20 million people in the Brazilian Amazon, there are countless roads, railroads, gas pipelines, and two years ago, the fires were so bad, that they created a smoke cloud as big as all of Brazil.

CLANCY: We've seen repeats of that, of course, in Southeast Asia, with similar kinds of fires clearing the land. How do you wake people up all across the world to saving not only the cute mammals or marsupials, but also the rather ugly insects that still make up a major part of the biosphere?

LOVEJOY: Well I think when you really begin to explain to people what insects do in terms of pollination, or microbes do in terms of generating soil fertility, they can begin to see how it relates to their day-to-day quality of life. And one of the interesting things is there has been a major effort in Brazil to improve the way farmers use fire to clear in the Amazon, and it had a real impact, positive impact.

KAGAN: When you see that, and you look at the big picture looking ahead, are you hopeful, or are you scared?

LOVEJOY: Well, actually, I'm both, I mean, I see a whole series of hopeful signs, and I see human creativity engaged and addressing the challenge. But then I see the overall trends and the overall forces being much larger, so we just have to keep ratcheting it up the agenda.

CLANCY: As you look at ratcheting up the agenda, it has to really come from the grassroots level, doesn't it? You can't depend on governments, you can't depend on anything but educated people to solve this crisis.

LOVEJOY: Well, I think it actually has to come at all levels, because I don't think there's a lot of time to wait for a huge groundswell to finally force a few national leaders to do what needs to be done. So if you can play with enlightened leadership at the top and growing concern amongst the people, you can do something a lot sooner. KAGAN: When we look at places like the rain forest, and places in South America and developing nations, how do countries like the United States and other industrialized countries make the case to developing nations that really, it's in their interests, and in the interests of the world to play along and help save these species and things like the rainforest?

LOVEJOY: Well, I think, you know, unfortunately the decline of international aid by all the industrialized nations is sending sort of a negative signal, at the same time we're making these common sense arguments about what needs to be done. And while USAID and the World Bank, and others increasingly include environment in their portfolio, it's still not enough.

CLANCY: What is the best-case scenario? The place, perhaps, to look to to see things being reversed in our environment, protection being given to this biosphere?

LOVEJOY: Well, I think one of the better places to look at, and there is no place that's perfect, is Costa Rica and Central America, where, essentially, 25 percent of that country is now set aside in national parks, where there were only two or three national parks 20 years ago. And where environment is such a part of the agenda that there was recently a book about Coast Rica called "The Green Republic."

CLANCY: All right, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, a tropical biologist and consultant to the Smithsonian, our thanks to you for being with us here as we look at the millennium that lies ahead.

LOVEJOY: Well, thanks for looking at the issue.

KAGAN: Well, that look and our conversation and the incredible pictures will continue. A closer look at the future of the Earth's oceans. We'll explore the threats to the world last uncharted wilderness.


KAGAN: Our concern about the environment grows as we learn more about the condition that our planet is in. The next frontier is the vast uncharted realm beneath the sea.


BOB BALLARD, UNDERWATER EXPLORER: We have explored very little of our planet, most of our planet is unexplored, particularly the Southern Hemisphere, where most of the world's oceans are situated. We haven't even done the Lewis and Clark expeditions in the deep sea that we did on land in the 1800s. In fact, the next generation of ocean explorers of the next millennium will explore more of Earth than all previous generations combined.

SYLVIA EARLE, EXPLORER IN RESIDENCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY: We've learned more about the ocean in the last half century than during all preceding history, and yet, during the same period of time, more change has been brought about in the ocean, and change not really for the good, because of what we've been putting in, and what we've been taking out. There's real cause to hope, but only if we take action right now.

The biggest problem comes from the commercial-scale taking of large factory ships that altogether take hundreds of millions of tons of wildlife from the sea over the past several decades. Actually, the total catch for a single year, presently, is nearly a hundred million tons. How this affects us ultimately, of course, is an open question. But one thing is for sure, to the extent that we influence and alter the nature of the ocean, we're monkeying around with our life support system.

It's not just water, although water is critical to life, it's the single non-negotiable thing that life requires, and most of it, on this water-blessed planet is in the sea, but we have changed the chemistry of the oceans through what we have allowed to flow into the sea. You know, we treat the ocean as the ultimate sewer. We think, if we don't want it on the land, then, let's put it in the ocean. And the illusion has been, the feeling has been, that the sea is so vast, so resilient, that there isn't much we can do to harm it, we're learning otherwise right now, and that represents a turning point.

We're beginning to see it as astronauts have seen the Earth, as one small, mostly blue planet, and that the connectedness, the way that we all are tied together, and that we are tied to nature, and that nature has its roots in the ocean.

If we destroy or undermine the health of the environment, and that means the ocean environment, most fundamentally, is where most of the environment on Earth is after all, then we are undermining our own future, and we are beginning to understand the relevance of the ocean to our everyday lives, and what we do to the ocean, we do to ourselves.


CLANCY: A fantastic undersea look. Well, that's our millennium coverage up to the moment. I'm Jim Clancy.

KAGAN: And I'm Daryn Kagan.


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