Memorial Day Week: AEA365 on Remembering and Foreshadowing Extinctions by Michael Quinn Patton

I’m Michael Quinn Patton, founder and director of Utilization-Focused Evaluation. This is my fourth year curating AEA365 in conjunction with the Memorial Day holiday in the USA. 2016 featured a series remembering the contributions of distinguished evaluators no longer with us. 2017 memorialized obsolete and problematic evaluation terminology. 2018 commemorated pioneering and landmark evaluation publications. This week draws our attention to the impermanence of life by focusing on extinctions — those long past, recent, imminent, and foreshadowed.  Extinctions are the ultimate evaluation story. Something wasn’t there, came into existence, flourished, declined, and disappeared. We ask why? How? With what significance? We extract lessons.

Programs, policies, organizations, and even countries manifest the extinction cycle as do evaluation units, models, and studies. Extinctions remind us of the temporal nature of all evaluation. So on the occasion of this Memorial Day season, let us reflect on time, temporality, and beginnings and endings through the lens of extinctions.

Sample of Past Extinctions 

  • American chestnut trees dominated the Eastern US landscape prior to the 20th century, those forests gone, 4 billion trees lost in early 1900’s.
  • Passenger pigeons, once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 to 5 billion, decimated to extinction by hunting in the 19th
  • American bison, 60 million strong in the late 18th century, once dominated the Great Plains, the massive herds hunted to extinction including from US military strategy to annihilate the Plains Indians by destroying their food supply and way of life.

The Sixth Extinction

The geologic history of the Earth reveals five periods when much of life was extinguished, the most recent being the fifth extinction, 66 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs, likely due to an asteroid.

  • End-OrdovicianExtinction 450 million years ago, 86% of Earth’s species lost
  • Late Devonian, 375 million years ago, 75% species extinction.
  • End Permian, 251 million years ago, 96% extinction.
  • End Triassic, 200 million years ago, 80% extinction.
  • End Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, 76% of all species lost.

The Sixth Extinction describes the loss of species during the present epoch, mainly due to human activity, spanning numerous families of plants and animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and arthropods. Scientists estimate we’re losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normative background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day (Kolbert, 2014).

Trends to watch:  

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a socio-political movement which uses nonviolent resistance to protest against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: an environmental movement calling for abstaining from reproduction to cause the gradual voluntary extinction of humankind to prevent further planetary degradation.  (An interesting theory of change to evaluate!)

Lessons Learned:  The future of life on Earth is uncertain.

Hot Tip: Do your own research on extinctions, past, present, and foreshadowed, and consider their implications for evaluative thinking.

Sobering thought: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it,” Tanya Steele, Chief Executive of World Wildlife Fund. 

Lessons humans have learned from past extinctions: Quite possibly none. 

Rad Resources:

  • Jarvis, B. (2018, December 2). The insect apocalypse is here. New York Times Sunday Magazine, 38-45.
  • Kolbert, E. (2014). The sixth extinction. Macmillan.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Memorial Week in Evaluation. The contributions this week are about the concept of extinctions — those long past, recent, imminent, and foreshadowed. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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