Conservation quotes: Attenborough to Irwin

6 08 2010

© smh.com.au

Over the years I’ve collected various conservation biology-related quotes that have caught my attention, for whatever reason. I thought that it would make an interesting blog post (although I agree that quotes are a very weak form of wit). Regardless of their import, I hope you enjoy them and perhaps at least find them interesting, if not wise.

It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars.

David Attenborough, BBC Interview

It’s a moral question about whether we have the right to exterminate species.

David Attenborough, BBC Interview

The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there’s a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants.

David Attenborough, BBC Interview

The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

The more you know about a species, the more you understand about how better to help protect them.

Alan Clark

As we race toward the future, we must never forget the fundamental reality of our situation: we are flying blind.

Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski & John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future

Just imagine the banner headlines if a marine biologist were to discover a species of dolphin that wove large, intricately meshed fishing nets, twenty dolphin-lengths in diameter! Yet we take a spider web for granted, as a nuisance in the house rather than as one of the wonders of the world. And think of the furore if Jane Goodall returned from Gombe stream with photographs of wild chimpanzees building their own houses, well roofed and insulated, of painstakingly selected stones neatly bonded and mortared! Yet caddis larvae, who do precisely that, command only passing interest.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Living wild species are like a library of books still unread. Our heedless destruction of them is akin to burning the library without ever having read its books.

John Dingell, Balancing on the Brink of Extinction: The Endangered Species Act and Lessons for the Future

What is a fish without a river? What is a bird without a tree to nest in? What is an Endangered Species Act without any enforcement mechanism to ensure their habitat is protected? It is nothing.

Jay Inslee, USA Congressional Record

No matter what we call it, poison is still poison, death is still death, and industrial civilization is still causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet.

Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe

Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change from radically impacting on our lives over the coming decades.

James Lovelock, The Guardian

If you want to save a species, simply decide to eat it. Then it will be managed – like chickens, like turkeys, like deer, like Canadian geese.

Ted Nugent, Kill It and Grill It

Unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation, and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day.

Gifford Pinchot, The Fight for Conservation

Throughout history, men have tried to play God by moving rabbits, goats, sparrows, mongooses, and a hundred other species to oceanic islands and island continents, and later have wished to God they hadn’t.

Victor B. Scheffer, The Year of the Seal

A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.

Adlai E. Stevenson (can’t find source)

We’re the only species that have crapped up the planet and the only species that can clean it up.

Dennis Weaver (can’t find source)

Most evolving lineages, human or otherwise, when threatened with extinction, don’t do anything special to avoid it.

George C. Williams, A Conversation with George C. Williams

We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.

E. O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.

E. O. Wilson, Biophilia

Probably the most visible example of unintended consequences, is what happens every time humans try to change the natural ecology of a place.

Margaret J. Wheatley, It’s An Interconnected World

Nature may not feel herself limited by our lack of imagination.

H. Wolda and B. Dennis, Density dependence tests, are they?

And my favourite…

Every cent we earn from Crocodile Hunter goes straight back into conservation. Every single cent.

Steve Irwin, interview

(for a little perspective on what I would consider the George W. Bush of conservation biology, Steve Irwin, see a previous post here).

CJA Bradshaw

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17 responses

7 04 2013
Thomas Taylor

Loving the collection of wonderful conservation quotes. I have borrowed some to use on my face book page, Force For Nature. Thank you

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8 08 2010
Adam Britton

I wanted to comment on this a few days ago so I may have missed the boat. I certainly believe in the power of education through television and zoos, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re doing a very good job with it. The tragedy of someone like Steve Irwin is that he was able to step outside of the constraints of his core TV / zoo audience, and yet he showed so little responsibility with that power. It’s tempting to suggest that a sizeable part of his audience only existed to witness the inevitable train wreck, but it’s not quite so straightforward. It’s unsurprising if disappointing that Steve used his popularity as a vehicle for his personal value system, becoming figurehead to simple-minded conservation zealotry, but people such as Attenborough show that personal ego does not necessarily have to get in the way of presenting factual information. The problem that Attenborough has always faced is that, despite being extremely knowledgeable about a wide variety of issues, he still has to rely on scriptwriters and researchers to present him with factual information to convey to the audience. Although the BBC are generally better at this than most, the quality of this information can vary tremendously from one show to the next, ranging from completely manufactured nonsense to a certain level of fact-checking with independent specialists. But of course this is not immune to bias and error either.

There’s another problem with people inspired by Steve Irwin and his ilk. Getting someone excited about a subject is one thing, but if you fill their head with biased and poorly informed rhetoric you end up with someone who subsequently takes considerably more work to educate compared with someone approaching the subject cold. Steve Irwin never encouraged people to think, he only ever told them what to believe. Anyone who does that is incredibly dangerous, but I’d hate to think that this is the best we can come up with. Steve’s value towards crocodile education can be measured by the number of crocodile scientists who can’t stand the guy, what he stood for, or his legacy. The argument that public mindshare equates to quality seems obviously flawed.

But I still don’t accept the sweeping generalisation that presenter celebrities have no value. Instead, I would argue that presenter celebrities need a swift kick up the backside to lift their game and put far more emphasis on the subject they’re extolling, and the accuracy of what they’re saying. It’s patently untrue that facts are boring, which shows just how untalented a lot of these people actually are at education.

As for Brockington, he presents a compelling argument but I don’t think he proves his thesis. While the audience for these shows may largely be unmoved to act, this is not universally true. Enough people are clearly empowered by and inspired by what they see to influence their actions as a result, and if the quality of those people lies well above the audience mean then perhaps there’s some hope.

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7 08 2010
Clem Weidenbenner

So, here we are at the zoo – an artificial ecosystem to be sure. Shall I presume that this is as close to most of these critters as 99% of our species is likely to get? Further, shall we stipulate that the fauna and flora on display here is really quite a humble subsample of the vast array of our planet’s rich diversity? And without a specific example of your writing to cite here I will also acknowledge that a zoo does a pretty iffy job of presenting habitat issues in a way that furthers the cause.

So zoos are counterproductive? I’m not persuaded.

To me there is real value in entertainment. Not just that I like to relax and unwind at times, but that I see the value of entertainment to foster communication with others. When we have a common experience we can more readily build on that experience and go on to something more. If I saw a female gorilla at the zoo with her newborn – and so did my drinking buddy at the pub then we can both relate to having been touched at some level by the experience. If I wish to prattle on about some environmental topic then I already have an entry.

This is increasingly becoming a sound bite world. Unless we rail at that reality we have to make the best of what we have at our disposal. So I think of a zoo as a better public investment than say an art gallery. Not wishing to step on the toes of artists, but that’s my inclination. The zoo as microcosm of the wild world… not perfect, but a starting point.

If at the afore mentioned bar I turn to the next bloke and say “Crikey” with as much ‘Aussie’ in my voice as I can muster you can well expect his head will – regardless of how many beers he’s finished – turn to the thought of Steve Irwin. To me this is powerful stuff. One word, in its native sound, and a whole image (good and not so) is conjured up. This is that lightning rod effect I alluded to earlier. Steve worked mightily to accomplish that. So why throw that under the bus? Build on it. Capitalize on it. Sieze the moment that it creates to tell your story.

Another attribute of the quick and (sometimes) ephemeral nature of entertainment that is often lost on us is its capacity to plant the seed of marvel in the young. You talked in the Irwin denunciation piece (16 Aug ’08) about preaching to the choir. So you admit that a choir exits. This is a great thing! And where do members of the choir come from? How do we get more members to join the choir? A simplistic notion – engage the young. Take a kid to the zoo.

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6 08 2010
Clem Weidenbenner

Yep – cross fired comments.

My original point was that I don’t think we want to attack cultural icons. If anything we might do well to piggy-back on their hard earned success.

I haven’t seen your whole Conservation Letter – just your post from 16 August ’08. And will agree that Steve was not the conservation maven he could have been. That said, he does still have the name recognition and personal brand that allows us to enter a conversation with the larger public without establishing a great and tedious baseline. One might recall that despite how much we tend to denigrate cliches… they are pretty handy for making a quick point. In a sound bite world cliches aren’t an endangered species. And so too the possibility of making the point that Irwin’s style of entertainment doesn’t immediately serve a conservation agenda (the very point I get from your previous comments). But in order to advance the conservation agenda you have in mind it is quite beneficial to have a lightning rod like Steve to start the conversation with.

You rightly noted that Steve’s folks were upset by the attacks on sting rays following Steve’s death. One only hopes the miscreants that attacked the rays have had a chance to regret their actions. If too many Homo sapiens with that level of brain power are among us then perhaps my own hopes for progress are doomed.

You said:
“Everything else is merely entertainment” (ever been to a zoo?)

I have. Nice place. I think I see that point. Have to run at the moment but do want to follow onto that last thought a little further.

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6 08 2010
CJAB

Looking forward to continuing the discussion. Right now, I must away.

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6 08 2010
CJAB

And in the case of Irwin specifically, I absolutely and completely disagree – he was a conservation menace that set back the clock. Have a read of our Conservation Biology paper on that issue.

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6 08 2010
Clem Weidenbenner

Just went back and read the piece you linked to about the Irwin Factor in Conservation Leadership. Many great points made there, and no one was made to wear someone else’s underwear.

Will go to look at Brockington’s original comments, but from what you quoted in the piece I have to be pretty sympathetic with his conclusions. And your final conclusion in that piece – about our capacity to change… seems spot on to me. Maybe after all you should “buy a second hand guitar/ chances are you’ll go far/ if you get in with the right bunch of fellows”.

We’re just takin’ care of business…

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6 08 2010
CJAB

Comments cross-fired, but I see we are coming to some sort of consensus.

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6 08 2010
CJAB

Oh dear – touched a nerve here, mate. Now, I appreciate your normally insightful comments and your intelligent discourse, but I’m afraid your words here amount to a load of tripe.

I too used to think that celebrity conservation played a role – the problem is, there isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest that celebrities of any ilk (Attenborough included) have any influence whatsoever on conservation policy. I wrote a post about this in 2008 and cited some of my colleague’s work (Dan Brockington) arguing that this sort of advocacy has probably little, if any real effect.

It’s a nice idea and one, deep down, we really want to believe. Just like the concept of the noble savage or the environmental Kuznets’ curve, it is an attractive hypothesis. The problem is, any human population at sufficient density causes environmental damage, and wealth accumulation degrades environments. Likewise, no matter how well known, intellectual, comprehensive, well-researched and presented the conservation message, these sorts of quotes are merely hollow words. We nod our heads in conciliatory appreciation when someone utters something we want to hear, but we do nothing in response.

I am truly convinced that the only way we can convince the great unwashed (myself included) about the imperative of biodiversity conservation is to link it directly to their pocketbooks, their children’s health and to their general well-being. Without this sort of evidence, everything else is merely entertainment (ever been to a zoo?).

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6 08 2010
Clem Weidenbenner

Now Corey – suggesting that Ted Nugent and Steve Irwin are aren’t worthy to wear David Attenborough’s underwear is a bit over the top… and actually quite a bit over the top if you want my opinion. For beginners its a fairly contrived metaphor to suggest that one’s wisdom on a particular issue is grounds to determine fitness to wear another’s underwear. But my real objection is that just a few days ago we were discussing in this forum what scientists need to be about in order to influence attitudes among our neighbors and politicians.

So lets do a little thought experiment here. Say you and I each go to a fairly large city tomorrow and each of us approaches 100 strangers at random and asks each if they’ve heard of:

1 Steve Irwin
2 David Attenborough
3 Queen Elizabeth
4 Ted Nugent

I’m in the U.S., and less than 300 miles from Detroit so there could be a bias here for Ted over Steve… but I think you see where I’m going.

Now I’m NOT suggesting you learn to play a Gibson guitar just so you can go on a rock tour to promote conservation (though worse ideas could be proposed). But I am suggesting that we really don’t want to denigrate the cultural icons of our society just for our own bemusement. When folks outside the Ivory Towers see this sort of trash talk they tend to dismiss it as the ramblings of an elite who are out of touch.

My hunch is that Steve Irwin did more to popularize wildlife (and by connection the worth of conservation) to the general public than David has done. We need the support of the general public.

My biggest beef with the value of the Ted Nugent quote you posted… they’re actually Canada geese.

And on another note, the Teddy tune – The Great White Buffalo – is about as good a conservation anthem as you’ll find in the rock songbook. Underwear optional.

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6 08 2010
Tom Keen

Nice.

Another one I just heard on the television documentary “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Life And Death” is vaguely relevant to this; “Death is one thing. The end of birth is another”. I believe that quote was from Darwin himself.

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16 08 2010
hanxta

That quote was by Michael Soulé and Bruce Wilcox who stated, “Death is one thing, an end to birth is something else” (Soulé and Wilcox 1980, p. 8)

Not Darwin, but I’m sure that quote was inspired by Charles Darwin.

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6 08 2010
Daharja

Thanks for these lovely quotes. If we could only learn to pay attention to them and act on them, we’d be doing just fine.

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6 08 2010
CJAB

Thanks for the support. Agreed; wise words that usually fall on deaf ears.

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6 08 2010
CJAB

Well, some words are wiser than others. Ted Nugent & Steve Irwin aren’t worthy enough to wear Attenborough’s underpants, let alone share a spot in the intellectual limelight. It was more for the entertainment value I included them (mind you, Old Ted’s comment does contain [a very small] nugget of truth).

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8 09 2012
bytee

CJAB, I love listening to both Attenborough and Irwin and regard them as equals. We need to remember that they cater to different audiences. Attenborough’s softly spoken thoughtful commentary as he squats next to huge wild gorillas is intended to reach the mature audiences who will watch the shows sipping their chardonnays and designer coffees. Steve Irwin wanted to reach the children. They sit transfixed as he shouts: “Crikey!, Look as this little Beauty”, With any luck they won’t spill their raspberry cordial, but the education process has begun… It’s horses for courses and I’m grateful for both of them

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8 09 2012
CJAB

bytee – couldn’t disagree more. Irwin set back conservation and appreciation for biodiversity, not the opposite. He taught a generation of children (and many hapless adults) that animals were toys that you poke for entertainment value. He did nothing for conservation, but used the word to get rich. I have nothing but disdain for his memory.

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