One would have to be on another planet not to have heard of the current COP 15 meeting in Montreal, the Convention on Biological Diversity. Negotiators have recently finalised an agreement on what the signatory nations will do in the next 5 years or so. I do not wish to challenge the view that these large meetings achieve much discussion and suggestions for action on conservation of biodiversity. I do wish to address, from a scientific viewpoint, issues around the “loss of biodiversity” and in particular some of the claims that are being made about this problem.
The first elephant in the room which must not be ignored is human population growth. At a best guess there are perhaps three times as many people now on earth as the earth can support. So the background for all biodiversity action is human population size and the accompanying resource demands. Too few wish to discuss this elephant.
The second elephant is the vagueness of the concept of biodiversity. If we take its simple meaning to be ‘all life on Earth’, we must face the fact that we are not even close to having a complete catalogue of life on earth. To be sure we know most of the species of birds and mammals, a lot of the fish and the reptiles, so we have made a start. But look at the insects and you will find guesses of several million species that are undescribed. And we have hardly begun to look at the bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
The consequence of this is loose speech. When we say we wish to ‘protect biodiversity’ what exactly do we wish to protect? Only the birds but not all of them, only the ones we like? Or only the large mammals like the polar bears, the African lion, and the panda? Typically, conservation of biodiversity focuses on one charismatic species and hopes for spill over to others, applying the well-known principles of population ecology to the immediate threat. But ecologists talk about ecological communities and ecosystems, so this raises another issue of how to define these entities and how protecting biodiversity can be applied to them.
Now the third elephant comes into play, climate change. To appreciate this, we need to talk to paleoecologists. If you were fortunate to live in central Alaska or the Yukon 30,000 years ago and you formed a society for the conservation of biodiversity, you would face a vegetation community that was destined to disappear or change dramatically, not to mention species like the mammoths and saber-toothed tigers that no longer exist but we love to see in museums. So there is a time scale as well as a spatial scale to biodiversity that is easily forgotten. Small national parks and reserves may not be a solution to the issue.
So whither biodiversity science? If we are serious about biodiversity change, we must lay out more specific questions as a start. Exactly what species are we measuring and for how long and with what precision? We need to concentrate on areas that are protected from human exploitation, one of the main reasons for biodiversity losses, the loss of habitat due to agriculture, mining, forestry, human housing, roads, invasive pests, the list goes on. We need groups of ecologists to concentrate on the key areas we define, on the key threats affecting each area, how we might mitigate these effects, and once these questions are decided we need to direct funding to these groups. Biodiversity funding is all over the map and often wasted on trivial problems. Biodiversity issues are at their core problems in community and ecosystem ecology, and yet we typically treat them as single species problems. We need to study communities and ecosystems. To say that we as ecologists do not know how to study community and ecosystem ecology would be a start. Studying one fish species extensively will not protect the community and ecosystem it requires for survival. If you need a concrete example, consider Pacific salmon on the west coast of North America and the ecosystems they inhabit. This is not a single species problem. In some river systems stocks are doing well, while in other rivers salmon are disappearing. Why? If we know that at least part of the answer to this question lies in ecosystem management and yet no action is undertaken, is this because it costs too much or what? Why can we spend a billion dollars going to the moon and not spend this money on serious ecological problems subject to biodiversity increases or declines? Perhaps part of the problem is that to get to the moon we do not give money to 10 different agencies that do not talk or coordinate with one another. Part of the answer is that governments do not see biodiversity loss or gain as an important problem, and it is easier to talk vaguely about it and do little in the hope that Nature will rectify the problems.
So, we continue in the Era of Biodiversity without knowing what this means and too often without having any plan to see if biodiversity is increasing or declining in any particular habitat or region, and then devising a plan to ameliorate the situation as required. This is not a 5 year or a 10-year plan, so it requires a long-term commitment of public support, scientific expertise, and government agencies to address. For the moment we get an A+ grade for talking and an F- grade for action.
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