Pop X

Bookmark and Share
Please share Pop X with your friends.

Dr. Jeffrey K. McKee

Donate today to support the Center's population work

No. 33, July 26, 2013

Interview Issue 1

Welcome to the first edition of the Pop X Interview Series, in which we'll publish Q&As with people whose work intersects with our mission to spread the word about the nexus between human population growth and biodiversity extinction.

For the first issue I spoke with Dr. Jeffrey K. McKee, a physical anthropologist who has published groundbreaking papers on human evolution, paleoecology and contemporary ecology -- one of which was featured in Pop X last month -- as well as the 2005 book Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth's Biodiversity (Rutgers University Press).

JK: How did you become focused on human population growth and its connection to wildlife declines?

JM: It started with my work in paleoanthropology, and in particular the evolution of our human ancestors along with other mammals in South Africa. There I led excavations at two fossil sites, and saw our ancestors as just one piece of a larger puzzle. I gathered data from all of the South African (and then East African) sites on origins and extinctions of large mammals, and found that about 1.8 million years ago, as our ancestors' populations grew, the rate of extinction rose among other mammals. That accelerated in the past 10,000 years. The logical extension was to look into what is happening now, and the correlation between human population density and threats to species of mammals and birds became abundantly clear. We are in the biggest mass extinction since the one 65 million years ago, which wiped out most of the dinosaurs.

JK: Your report bolstered the case for human population growth driving the extinction crisis. How was your research conducted?

JM: The correlation between human population density and extinction threats to other species had been found by a number of scientists. Our research a decade ago was the first to quantify it on a global scale into a simple mathematical formula and make predictions. The recent report tested those predictions after a decade of human population growth and was found to be remarkably accurate in predicting the consequent increase in the number threatened species. Interestingly, in a number of countries where the human population declined in numbers, so did the number of threatened species. Our model does not take into account the effects of conspicuous consumption, global warming, or other factors that would exacerbate and accelerate our human effect on other species.

JK: What are we getting wrong when we try to spread the word about extinction as it relates to human population?

JM: Too little, too late. When in the last three or four cycles of presidential elections did you hear one single word about human overpopulation or threats to biodiversity? Other than a skirmish on immigration, probably not once. When we speak up, we allow ourselves to be labeled "environmentalist extremists" or, worse yet, "Chicken Little alarmists." We've got to get the science out to the people in a way they can understand and digest rationally.

JK: What would you say to environmental groups focused on wildlife -- but not currently engaged on population -- to persuade them to get involved?

JM: This has been my biggest challenge because, of all issues concerning ecologists, environmentalists and conservationists, human population issues are the most difficult to deal with. Addressing population growth involves some very personal decisions and many culturally held beliefs. It is easier to stick to traditional conservation techniques. But ultimately the human population issue holds the trump card. I tried to articulate that in Sparing Nature. But it takes more than a book or an article -- it takes persistence and circumspection. It takes a willingness to open a discussion that most people don't want to have and keep it going.

Hasta la victoria,

Jerry Karnas

Jerry Karnas
Population Campaign Director

Center for Biological Diversity | P.O. Box 710, Tucson, AZ 85702-0710

This is an unmonitored email address; please do not reply. To sign up for Endangered Species Condoms, click here. If you'd like more information on the Center's human population campaign, visit our website. To make a donation, click here. Specific population-related questions can be directed to population@biologicaldiversity.org. Please allow a few days for a response. To stop receiving Pop X, click here.

This message was sent to .