The New Conservation?

In a recent book “Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene” edited by Mihael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (Breakthrough Institute, 2011) Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michel Le Marvier present a vision for conservation in a paper: “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond solitude and fragility” that bears some analysis. It is available on the Breakthrough Institute website. It is a rather misleading vision, like many visions, partly correct, partly wildly inaccurate, and partly tilting at dragons that do not exist.

In general any subject that ranges out from science into policy starts to walk on thin ice when opinions masquerade as scientific information. A few quotes can give you the flavor of this article. “By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline”. A strong statement but how has anyone decided that conservation is failing? If the evidence is that biodiversity in some groups and some places is being lost, then any ecologist can agree. If conservation is failing, then we might expect some guidance of how to prevent this failure.

The next quote grabs the issue directly: “Conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so.” I know quite a few conservation biologists and I can not think of one who would disagree with this statement. There could be some who are promising a return to pristine landscapes, but they must be rare, as are those that still think the earth is flat. So here is Straw Man # 1. (This is not sexist by the way, no female conservation biologist would make such a silly Straw Person.) So let us proceed by agreeing that we cannot go back to pristine nature, and humans are indeed having a large effect on the Earth.

Now we are getting into the center of the proposal with this quote: “But conservation will be controversial as long as it remains so narrowly focused on the creation of parks and protected areas, and insists, often unfairly, that local people cannot be trusted to care for their land.” Alas this is hardly what most conservation biology focuses on. So we might call this Straw Man # 2. The goal of most conservation is to protect biodiversity in all its forms, in parks, in nature reserves, in agricultural fields, in forest woodlots, and in cities. I cannot comment on situations in which local people are adversely affected by conservation activities. In the few cases I know the local people are happy to cooperate in conservation programs, but I can imagine there are conflicts I am not acquainted with. So can we agree that conservation is NOT narrowly focused on parks? Parks and reserves are part of the conservation picture but far from all of it.

The reason conservation biologists have adopted this narrow agenda is captured in the next quotation: “But ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature, frequently arguing that once an ecosystem is altered, it is gone forever. Some ecologists suggest that if a single species is lost, a whole ecosystem will be in danger of collapse, and that if too much biodiversity is lost, spaceship Earth will start to come apart.” Now I have to start looking under the carpet to find such an ecologist. Really this is quite silly, and an insult to current ecological knowledge. As a reductio ad absurdum this is a prize quotation and we can call it Straw Man # 3. I have no doubt that we could find someone on earth who would say this, but that is hardly evidence that ecologists agree on such nonsense. That it is nonsense of course is no argument that one can keep removing species from ecosystems with no consequences whatsoever.

We now come back to a more modest quote: “The trouble for conservation is that the data simply do not support the idea of a fragile nature at risk of collapse. Ecologists now know that the disappearance of one species does not necessarily lead to the extinction of any others, much less all others in the same ecosystem. In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function.” Since no ecologist supports the thesis of the previous paragraph, we can certainly agree with this quotation, so perhaps we are back on track.

The next quote however puts us back into the perceived picture: “Nature is so resilient that it can recover rapidly from even the most powerful human disturbances…. Even that classic symbol of fragility — the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block — may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals.” Alas we are back to serious nonsense again. The literature on restoration ecology is one long litany of rejections of the idea of resilient recovery from human disturbance. It simply does not occur except perhaps on a time scale that is geological. And polar bear biologists do not think they will go extinct at least in the next 100 years that we can project. So here is STRAW MAN # 4 (or perhaps straw bear?).

We are now led to the final conclusion: “If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conservation? Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers… Conservation is slowly turning toward these directions but far too slowly and with insufficient commitment to make them the conservation work of the 21st century. The problem lies in our reluctance, and the reluctance of many of conservation’s wealthy supporters, to shed the old paradigms.”

If the first two premises in this last quotation are highly questionable, and the third is and has been agreed by all conservation biologists for many years, how do we get to the conclusions given the questionable premises? While it sounds exciting to shed the old paradigms, we have to be careful rather to take the valid points from all our approaches, and try to correct the failings of conservation science. As in much of ecological science, the truism that “the devil is in the details” applies with much force to conservation issues, and there is no one path to glory.

 

 

 

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