Off the Face of the Earth

Defenders of Wildlife
Jun 5 · 5 min read

A few weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released the summary of their global assessment on the state of biodiversity. One of the most astounding and alarming findings of their report is that a million species are threatened by extinction because of human activity. One million species that could go the way of the passenger pigeon, the golden toad, and too many others that we can never see again.

Since the release of the report, we’ve talked about extinction on Endangered Species Day (May 17th) and the International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22nd). Today, June 5th, is World Environment Day — another day focused on the health of our planet. While the focus is on something a bit easier to relate to humans — air pollution — we can’t stop talking about what the extinction of 1 million species would do to our ecosystems.

One million sounds like a lot, but what exactly does it look like? I was an elementary school teacher before joining the Center for Conservation Innovation here at Defenders. I remember how my students struggled to understand values, especially as the orders of magnitude reached beyond thousands into millions.

Sometimes, reading something on paper simply isn’t enough to fully comprehend the scale and magnitude of a complex topic.

I remember being stunned to learn that some of my students thought we lived in the Earth. Not on the Earth. INSIDE of it. What else, they reasoned, would possibly keep us from tumbling off the face of the Earth and into space? They’d seen maps and globes, read about gravity and the layers of the Earth, and yet they had this massive misconception. Instead of just reading about the atmosphere, gravity, and the layers of the planet, I needed to engineer ways for us to demonstrate and interact with these abstract concepts. At times, this was as simple as having everyone jump as high as they could in our tiny classroom and discussing why — hard as we tried to jump higher — our feet kept landing back on the floor. When my students and I talked about the magnitude of water on the planet, I brought in 10 gallons of water, dividing them up to model how the 326 million trillion gallons of water are divided among fresh and salt water, solid, liquid and vapor, above ground and below. To learn about the unfathomable expanse of our solar system my class and I made a 1:10,000,000,000 scale model, marching ourselves around the school — down the hall to get to Mercury, up the stairs to Earth, and once…twice…17 times around the cafeteria to get to Pluto.

As I read the biodiversity report, I imagined how I would have conveyed the massive number of threatened species and the gravity of the findings to my students and others. As I developed some ideas, I thought I would share them because it’s a tough number for anyone to imagine.

So, how would I talk to them about 1,000,000 species threatened by extinction?

Below is the equivalent of a standard Microsoft Word document with wide margins, containing a page full of asterisks.


I’d tell my students to imagine that each of these little stars represents a species on Earth threatened by extinction. Together, we’d point at random asterisks and try to name imperiled species. The first asterisk would be a desert tortoise. Four rows down and 15 across would be a Florida panther. Twenty rows down and somewhere in the middle would be a manatee, the Indiana bat, polar bear, jaguar, otter, prairie dog… on and on until we’d exhausted our knowledge of threatened and endangered species.

Then, I’d scroll through 250 copies of this page to show them and explain:

This is what one million looks like. This is how many species — one million — are threatened by extinction.

This illustration would likely leave the students — and many of us — gob smacked. While they’re standing there, mouths agape, I would also point out that although the number is daunting, the scientists show that these losses are not inevitable. There is a path forward to avoiding extinction, it’s just a matter of making better decisions. With strong and successful laws like the Endangered Species Act, we can ensure we don’t have more passenger pigeons and other forgotten species. Instead we’d end up with more success stories such as those of the humpback whale, Hawaiian monk seal, and Santa Cruz Island fox — all organisms that our hard work kept from slipping off the face of the Earth.

Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.

Defenders of Wildlife

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Defenders works on the ground, in the courts and on Capitol Hill to protect and restore imperiled wildlife across North America.

Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.