budgarigars on a branch

When setting a target is worse than missing it

Is zero extinction a realistic target? Not if you know anything about evolution or why people set targets in the first place.

Each new year, many of us set a resolution for the future. We put ourselves in the frame to lose weight, get fitter, read more books, save money…  It is often a long list of self-help aspirations. 

But the descriptors—lose, get, more, save—are all relative. They can only apply in context as does any numerical measure of aspiration or goal.

If I resolve to get to 81kg body weight on the bathroom scales when I get up in the morning, there is no information on the likelihood of achieving such a target in the next 12 months.

If I am a 6ft 6 professional basketballer or a 5ft 10 clinically obese fifty-year-old with a heart condition, then 81kg is impossible or a stretch target at best.

Luckily I am reasonably healthy for my age and currently tip the scales at 85kg, so there is a realistic chance that I could shed 4 kg in a year.

persons feet on the bathroom scales
Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash

In the United States, 36% of adults are obese, and another 33% are overweight.

A realistic target

Recently the NSW government set a target of zero extinction of native wildlife in the state’s national parks estate, the first time an Australian government has set the goal.

This declaration made many conservationists happy; one of the few times a zero target can win politicians’ votes.

The problem is the context.

The NSW national park estate (it is called a national park even though these areas are gazetted and administered by the state, not the federal government) includes 880 parks and reserves, covering over 7 million hectares of land, roughly 9% of the land area in NSW. 

The good news for a tight extinction target is another 80 million ha, where wildlife species can hang out and repopulate the parks.

Only zero extinction is impossible. 

At no point in the 3.8 billion years of simple cells (prokaryotes), 3 billion years of photosynthesis, 2 billion years of complex cells (eukaryotes) or 1 billion years of multicellular life has there been a time with zero extinctions. It has never happened before because nature accepts losses as part of the process that allows gain — it is how evolution works, extinction is inevitable.

Isolating parcels of land selected randomly from a much larger contiguous area and deciding that no extinction will happen in these parcels is bizarre. 

A zero extinction target is meaningless

We can say zero extinction is pointless from the logic of evolutionary theory before we get to the practical matters. How, for instance, will anyone decide if one of the hundred or so vertebrate animals we might have some data on or the thousands of invertebrate, plant and microbial species that we know very little about, have become extinct or are indeed still present.

None of the 880 parks and reserves has comprehensive biodiversity inventories, let alone monitoring programs, even for the at-risk icon species.

If we don’t know what species are present in the parks, how can we say if any are extinct or not?

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Science cannot tell you how many species are in this habitat because no species inventories are complete

Targets are set anyway

As each new year ticks by, we reflect and set more resolutions.

No matter whether they are relative or need a solid context or are abandoned within a few weeks. It is the process of reflection that helps.

This is the only saving grace of most conservation targets. They allow some reflection on the problem of how to feed and house everyone without wrecking nature. 

But we should not take the target itself too seriously. The real work is in figuring out how to proceed towards it.

Zero extinction sounds bold. It reeks of command and control over nature. Don’t worry, the politicians say, our policy can beat back a billion years of evolutionary history because we are strong and all-powerful.

Delusion of dominion is the worst bullshit. But presumably, it works; otherwise, why do it?

Next time you hear such nonsense, ask the politician how the species that he will single-handedly save from extinction got into the national park in the first place.

Hint. It replaced another one.

Hero image modified from photo by David Clode on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed