Conservation Biology at a Crossroads

By Keith Kloor | January 6, 2015 7:51 am

In a brilliant essay (PDF), the American geographer D. W. Meinig writes: “Any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads.”

Meinig’s piece is in a classic 1979 book of essays called, “The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes.” This collection features scholars whose work touches on the human/environment relationship. The academic field is known as Human Geography.

When I write about ecological matters, I have to understand the science of ecology. But the people who advance ecology (and ecological issues) have a worldview, a philosophy that informs how they think about nature. It is in this context that science and culture are commingled.

In recent years, I have watched a contentious debate unfold between highly respected, influential ecologists. These individuals represent two camps with very different ideas about how to safeguard ecosystems and biodiversity. It’s a story I have tried to capture in the current (Winter) Issues in Science and Technology. You can read it here. It discusses the roots of conservation, the rise of biodiversity as a core concern of ecology, and the recent fractious divide in Conservation Biology.  I have much more to say about the story, but I’m going to hold off until tomorrow. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in reading about the battle over the future of conservation, check out my piece and let me know what you think.

Additional reading:

Myth-busting scientist pushes greens past reliance on ‘horror stories,’ by Paul Voosen, Greenwire (2012).

Is Conservation extinct, by Hillary Rosner, Ensia (2013).

Finding Common Ground in Biological Conservation: Beyond the Anthropocentric vs. Biocentric Controversy, by Alejandro Flores and Tim W. Clark,  Bulletin Series, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (2001).

Emma Marris: In defense of Everglades Pythons, by Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth (2012).

How to annoy E.O. Wilson, by Michelle Nijhuis, The Last Word on Nothing (2012).

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  • Tom Scharf

    Excellent article.

    I can remember when the very last tribes were discovered in Africa and the Amazon that had never encountered western civilization (or civilization in general). They wear t-shirts now. For those who consider humanity a virus on the planet’s ecosystem, there are few signs this virus has slowed down its spread, and the continued loss of ecosystems to human habitats is all but guaranteed.

    New large scale non-human habitat sanctuaries is likely a lost cause unless population control is actually accomplished. It is the inevitability of demand on resources with increasing population that is the long term threat. If you are an ardent ecologist and are not advocating for population control in a serious way, I suggest you have a lot of very frustrating years ahead of you with a few battles won but the war being lost.

    The discussion on confirmation bias in environmental articles is spot on and I think most(?) of the public views ecology as almost a religious sect today. Environmentalist = Activist. Good intentions but with sanctimony that is off putting. I don’t trust anyone who chained themselves to a tree to tell me how well the snowy owl population is getting along. Unfair to the good guys out there.

    Biodiversity and sustainability are intuitively good concepts, what is needed is an unbiased way to balance these against legitimate human needs, without the “cause”, “ethics”, or “morals”. Religion free science. The war you speak of in this article is worth waging.

    • Reginald8Cooper

      The discussion on confirmation bias in environmental articles is spot on and I think most(?) of the public views ecology as almost a religious sect today. Environmentalist = Activist.

      Except that this view of environmentalists is exactly the one promoted by the business/rightwing press, because they FEEL that environmental activists are going to interfere with their natural right to exploit various resources. The sad fact is that much of society is completely ignorant of the environmental or ecosystem value being lost.

      I’m an environmental scientist, not an activist (at least I haven’t chained myself to anything yet). Biodiversity and sustainability are not just intuitively good concepts, they are actual, measurable sets of ideas about how to balance human needs against the demands of industrial growth.

      • JH

        You must know that society also benefits from resource exploitation. That’s why we not only allow but encourage it. We use the profit motive to drive the exploitation of public resources for the public benefit.
        Biodiversity is measurable in theory but I really doubt it’s measurable in practice (can you really catalogue the number and kind of all the insects in the Chicago Urban area?). But supposing you could measure biodiversity, the fact that it’s measurable doesn’t say anything about whether or not, or what value of it is, beneficial, nor does it say whom or what is benefited by a particular value of biodiversity. One value might (or might not) be beneficial to humans, another value beneficial to coyotes, another value beneficial to earthworms…

        • Reginald8Cooper

          Yes, people catalogue the kinds and estimate numbers for all kinds of animals and plants in a region. Also soils, microorganisms, weather, moisture, pollutants and other things depending on what questions are being asked. How else could you understand the flows of energy and materials in an ecosystem? How else could you responsibly answer questions about what values are lost to development or its side-effects?

          You’re right that the question of values is difficult. That’s one reason why using dollar values and profits as the measure of every value is probably not justifiable, except for those for whom profit is the only motive.

          • JH

            I’m sure people are making an effort to catalogue species. I don’t object to the effort. I question whether the fact that a catalog has been made and model produced means that either really reflect the reality that they claim to reflect – much less reflect it to a level of precision that allows anyone to have rational expectations about how to manipulate it. This last part I doubt very much. In fact I know it’s not possible.

            Dollar values are arbitrary. Most products and services that are sold profitably are profitable because they provide a benefit that people want. You could just as well convert the cost and profit to hours worked, hours of work saved, or hours of enjoyment or comfort.

            That’s how you should think of your retirement account: hours you won’t have to work, rather than money that just appears out of some pension account. If you think of it that way perhaps you’ll come to a more realistic understanding of the role that dollars and corporations and markets play in our economy, rather than just implying “profits” are bad.

            From my point of view, the value question is settled: insofar as natural systems benefit humans, they should be preserved. Beyond that, I’m not particularly concerned.

          • Reginald8Cooper

            In fact I know it’s not possible.

            So you don’t believe in biology? You’re claiming that because you’re ignorant of what people study and the history of science, it either doesn’t exist or is worthless. Your value is decreasing, in my opinion.

  • Nom de Plume

    Interesting, and while I find myself in agreement with Dowie, none seems to address what I think is the main flaw in conservationism: the environment is naturally in constant flux. The wilderness Teddy Roosevelt saw is not the same wilderness beheld by the first humans to arrive in North America. Yes, humans altered the environment, but the environment would have changed had humans never arrived in the Americas.

    The big question to me is what is being conserved. If the environment we associated with wilderness was dominated by bluegrass, would we try to preserve this? And yet as we entered our interglacial period, land that was once covered in bluegrass is now forest, and in some cases gone, covered by rising seas.

    Is there a solution? I don’t know. But any idea of conservation that keeps wilderness exactly as we knew it at a particular age will find itself more and more in the role of gardener and zookeeper, and the wilderness more and more of an artifact and less any true representation of pristine nature.

  • Bill C

    Interesting article KK. I’ll be interested to hear more.
    To me the interest controversy fades somewhat when I consider that the study of ecological systems does not inherently require that they be given a certain value at all. Of course, no scientist probably wants to study something that has no value. But I think that conservation values and ecology have grown up together and it’s tough but necessary to untangle them and speak about what things are valued under what world view.
    I think it can’t just be a binary difference between humans as part of nature and humans separate from nature. For instance, if we talk about conserving individual species – what would Kareiva say? We can agree with Emma Maris that pythons are here to stay, at least as long as sea level rise permits the Everglades to exist, and are not worth the effort to wipe out; however, that rubric by itself doesn’t shed much light on how much energy we should expend to save, say, Florida Panthers.

  • JH

    Your Issues piece outlines the controversy nicely Keith.

    It’s funny too because, although I side with Kareiva, you can already see the groundwork for the eventual fall of Kareiva’s “creativity of nature” paradigm.

    Kareiva is right that nature is much more resilient than it’s credited for being. (Perhaps my 20 years of hikes on St Helens also influenced my views on this issue). But, while new species are evolving as we speak, it may be that Kareiva’s experience with rapidly reproducing insects is erroneously convincing him that nature instantly fills holes. The fossil record shows pretty clearly that this is not always so.

    And I think that’s where at least one rub lies in much of what is going on in activist ecology and activist environmentalism in general: they pay far more attention to their values and to micro-second-scale environmental changes than to the 4.5 billion years of ecologic and environmental history that have been fairly well studied by geologists over the centuries.

    • mem_somerville

      I was reading a piece the other day that talked about how humans are the only reason we still have testicle trees (I mean, avocados), reportedly. http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/05/avocado-guacamole/

      So sometimes the humans pay off by keeping stuff around that would have otherwise vanished by now.

      But I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea that we are just another layer in the rocks than a lot of people are. A briefly lucky layer.

      • JH

        I’m not sure why we need to be brief other than the likelihood that we’ll be moving along to other worlds in the evolutionary blink of an eye.

        I guess my point is that what happens in your and my lifetime – much less what happens in a decade or a year – is often comparable to the microsecond trading chart on the stock market. Sure – every move one way or the other could be the beginning of a day-long trend. But 99.99% of those moves will just be noise – without knowing what’s been going on for the last few hours or days, the microsecond movements are meaningless.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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