American Museum of Natural History
Press Release
April 20, 1998



Crisis Poses Major Threat to Human Survival;
Public Unaware of Danger

April 20, 1998. The American Museum of Natural History announced today results of a nationwide survey titled Biodiversity in the Next Millennium, developed by the Museum in conjunction with Louis Harris and Associates, Inc. The survey reveals that seven out of ten biologists believe that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of living things, and that this loss of species will pose a major threat to human existence in the next century.

According to these scientists' estimates, this mass extinction is the fastest in Earth's 4.5-billion-year history. Unlike prior extinctions, this so-called "sixth extinction" is mainly the result of human activity and not natural phenomena.

Among the findings revealed by the survey, scientists identified the maintenance of biodiversity - the variety of plant and animal species and their habitats - as critical to human well-being; they rate biodiversity loss as a more serious environmental problem than the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, or pollution and contamination. The majority (70%) polled think that during the next thirty years as many as one-fifth of all species alive today will become extinct, and one third think that as many as half of all species on the Earth will die out in that time.

Museum President Ellen V. Futter stated, "This survey is a dramatic wake-up call to individuals, governments, and institutions that we are facing a truly formidable threat not only to the health of the planet but also to humanity's own well-being and survival - a threat that is virtually unrecognized by the public at large. When people think about extinction, they tend to think about dinosaurs - about times long past and species long gone. This poll makes clear that they should be thinking about the present and the future - about our children and our grandchildren. A massive educational effort is needed to alert the public to the biodiversity crisis and its implications, and to provide a clear idea of what individuals can do in their daily lives to meet this challenge. It is imperative that we act now to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and public understanding, not only to ensure our own existence, but from an inescapable moral responsibility to future generations and the planet itself."

Scientists surveyed in Biodiversity and the Next Millenium ranked the critical effects on humanity of this dramatic loss of species as:

Seriously impairing the ability of the environment to recover from natural and human-induced disasters.

Destroying the natural systems that purify the world's air and water.

Reducing the potential for the discovery of new medicines.

Increasing flooding, drought, and other environmental disasters.

Contributing substantially to the degradation of the world's economies, thereby weakening the social and political stability of nations across the globe.

Damaging agriculture, fisheries, and food production.

Decreasing the ability to control infectious diseases.

Further, the survey revealed that, in strong contrast to the fears expressed by scientists, the general public is relatively unaware of the loss of species and the threats that it poses. The public is less likely than scientists to understand that a mass extinction is now occurring, less likely to appreciate that the current loss of species is mainly due to human activity, less likely to identify loss of plant and animal species as one of the most important environmental and societal threats we face today, and less likely to recognize that the loss of biodiversity will pose a major threat to humanity in the next century. Reflective of this, the public is also much less likely than scientists to think that society should increase its efforts to prevent further loss of biodiversity: While three out of four scientists take this view, less than half of the public feels this need.

Notwithstanding the public's lack of recognition of the significance of biodiversity loss, scientists feel that it is critical to act now to stem the tide of extinction. While a large majority of scientific experts (89%) think that there are gaps in our current understanding of plant and animal species and their habitats, they feel strongly that we know enough already to justify a major international effort to prevent further loss.

Overwhelmingly, scientists think that the threat of the biodiversity crisis is underestimated by most segments of society: Ninety-five percent of scientific experts think the general public underestimates the threat; 87% think the government underestimates it; 80% think the media does; and 58% feel that educators do not accurately recognize it. While science teachers get the best rating in this regard, 90% of scientists think that students in American schools are not learning enough about biology and life sciences. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the results of which were announced in February, confirm this view. In this international study, the general science test scores of 12th-graders in the United States ranked close to last, trailing those of students from fifteen of the twenty-one countries surveyed.

The Biodiversity in the Next Millennium survey reveals that while science teachers have a much clearer sense of the dimensions and urgency of the biodiversity crisis than the general public, more than 50% of science teachers do not believe that we are in the midst of a mass extinction; and only 38% describe themselves as being very familiar with the concept of biodiversity. Science teachers also underestimate the threats the current mass extinction poses, rating loss of plant and animal species and their habitats as a less serious problem than pollution and contamination.

Both scientific experts and science teachers are willing to admit that they themselves are part of the communication problem: Seventy percent of scientists and two-thirds of science teachers say that they have not done an adequate job of disseminating information about the consequences of the biodiversity crisis.

Museum Provost of Science Michael J. Novacek commented, "I can think of no generation of scientists that has faced a greater challenge than we confront today, for no other generation has stood at the crossroads between the continued existence of the Earth's biological diversity and an irrevocable catastrophe to the biota. Our responsibility as researchers is nothing short of organizing a scientific initiative as complex and daunting as putting a human on the moon, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that life as we know it continues to exist."

Scientists identify both the growing size of human populations and the rate at which humans consume resources as the key causes of the crisis. Human population growth and human consumption of resources cause loss of biodiversity in a number of ways. While all of these are important, scientists rank them in the following order: habitat destruction and degradation; overexploitation of plant and animal species; introduction of non-native species into habitats; pollution and contamination, and global warming.

On May 30, 1998, as part of its own commitment to communicating information about this critical issue, the American Museum of Natural History opens a new permanent exhibition hall, the Hall of Biodiversity. The new hall showcases and dramatizes the wonder, beauty, and diversity of life, as well as the severe threats to the living world. Perhaps even more importantly, it also presents examples of solutions to the crisis and the steps necessary to mitigate destruction of diverse species and habitats.

The Biodiversity in the Next Millennium survey was administered to 400 experts in the biological sciences who are members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. The scientists surveyed included researchers in biochemistry, botany, conservation biology, entomology, genetics, marine biology, microbiology, molecular biology, neuroscience, physiology, and other fields. The interviews were conducted in January and February 1998. In addition, 100 middle- and high-school science teachers, drawn from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and 1,000 members of the general public were surveyed in the same period to gauge the difference in their views on biodiversity issues.

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For additional information, contact Department of Communications, 212-769-5762.

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