When the cure becomes the disease

6 02 2012

I’ve always barracked for Peter Kareiva‘s views and work; I particularly enjoy his no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners approach to conservation. Sure, he’s said some fairly radical things over the years, and has pissed off more than one conservationist in the process. But I think this is a good thing.

His main point (as is mine, and that of a growing number of conservation scientists) is that we’ve already failed biodiversity, so it’s time to move into the next phase of disaster mitigation. By ‘failing’ I mean that, love it or loathe it, extinction rates are higher now than they have been for millennia, and we have very little to blame but ourselves. Apart from killing 9 out of 10 people on the planet (something no war or disease will ever be able to do), we’re stuck with the rude realism that it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

This post acts mostly an introduction to Peter Kareiva & collaborators’ latest essay on the future of conservation science published in the Breakthrough Institute‘s new journal. While I cannot say I agree with all components (especially the cherry-picked resilience examples), I fundamentally support the central tenet that we have to move on with a new state of play.

In other words, humans aren’t going to go away, ‘pristine’ is as unattainable as ‘infinity’, and reserves alone just aren’t going to cut it.

Let me elaborate. It is plainly naïve, overly simplistic, unrealistic and ultimately criminal even to contemplate the notion that all extant species can be saved from extinction. Not only does this go against everything we know about the turnover of species on the geological time scale (i.e., 99 % of all species that have ever existed are now extinct), it erroneously overestimates our ability to solve the complex interaction between biology, governance, socio-economics, religion and politics (i.e., ‘conservation’).

And I use the word ‘criminal’ with sincerity. If you are naïve enough to embrace the outlook that conservation triage is unnecessary or even offensive, I’ve got news for you – you are (inadvertently or ignorantly) consigning many more species to extinction by wasting precious resources on the doomed. I have little time for climate-change deniers, religious zealots or alternative-‘medicine’ quacks, so I have just as little time for so-called conservationists that choose to ignore reality.

But acceptance of the ongoing negative fate of biodiversity is insufficient to move us forward. While I agree with Kareiva and colleagues that a semi-religious attachment to the ideal of ‘pristine’ nature is helping no one (not least of which, biodiversity), we can go a lot further than just accepting the ‘new’ paradigm.

As we discussed in a recent post here on ConservationBytes.com, the greatest strides forward in this matured (but doggedly viscous) discipline will be to:

  1. Accept that the biology is more or less well-developed. We can further fine-tune our estimates of loss or minimisations of gain, but the concepts defining how and why species go extinct are firmly established;
  2. Get extremely practical about what to save. Adolescent idealism about saving everything on the planet will get us nowhere. Part of this is to determine WHICH species are the most important components of ecosystem resilience (ecosystem function), and part is being hard-core about designing algorithms that quantify this importance.
  3. Focus on quantifying ecosystem services – which species complexes provide the highest benefits to humanity. Social revolution thus far (and, I argue, will continue to) eludes us, so convincing the blatantly humanist section of society will require some very well-established relationships between biodiversity and human health, wealth and welfare.
  4. Accept that technical fixes are the (perhaps largest) areas of potential gain. Without solving our lust for energy at the expense of dwindling and finite resources, biodiversity will continue down the toilet.

So to all those dedicated and well-meaning environmentalist types out there, if you cannot accept these suggestions, then I have to put you in the same group as the self-interested, myopic, greed hounds that oppose any form of conservation. Get out of the way because you have become part of the problem.

I have some hope, but I remain profoundly pessimistic about our own future as a result of biodiversity erosion. We do not appear, after all, to possess a very strong sense of (long-term) self-preservation.

CJA Bradshaw



3 responses

3 11 2012
Kieran Suckling

I have to take issue with your assertion that that the “new state of play” is “humans aren’t going to go away, ‘pristine’ is as unattainable as ‘infinity’, and reserves alone just aren’t going to cut it.”

There is nothing new here. It describes the mainstream state of the modern conservation movement since the 1960s. Are there any serious scientists or conservation groups that think humans are going away? Do any of them think “reserves alone” will stop the extinction crisis? Is “pristine” the benchmark for any scale-meaningful wilderness designation or restoration project?

Following Kareiva, you set up a grossly inaccurate description of conservationists. It’s easy, but also largely useless to tear down this straw man. Worse than useless, actually: you are reinforcing the false image of conservation projected by right wing politicians and corporations bent on mining, logging, developing and drilling important wildlife areas.

Why is it necessary to misrepresent and attack other conservationists in order to promote your own ideas? Maybe it’s the rule of widgets. Every year’s widget must be “new” and “better”. It must supersede all the widgets which came before. It turns out, though, that this year’s washing powder looks a whole lot like last year’s, no matter how hard the salesmen accentuate its fresher smell.

The conservation of the future, I think, will look a whole lot like the conservation of the past. It will try to protect core protected areas while spending most of its resources trying to improve management of the larger matrix lands outside the cores. It will try to restore processes, structures and components to target habiats as best it can given the state of the land and the historic loss of many important species. It will try to convince humans to live lighter on the land knowing that our population will continue increasing through at least the mid-century.

Those obsessed with newness, tearing down what came before, and demonstrating their superior widgets and minds will find this boring. So what.

Kieran Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity


10 02 2012
See the forest for the trees! | Conservation of Biodiversity

[…] habitats. We don’t have two Earth’s and we can all live together. Corey Bradshaw at Conservation Bytes recently wrote about this (and the role of conservationists) and linked to Peter Kareiva’s […]


10 02 2012
François Olivier Hébert

Hi, I really like the way you write. I think it’s always good to shake people up to make them think about their own visions and opinions. I’ve been following you for a while from Québec, Canada. I’m a masters student at Laval University in Quebec city and we’ve discussed this topic in our last lab meeting. I totally agree with you and now I think we really have to ask the “good” questions regarding the way we want to do conservation biology. Maybe it’s time for a new area of what we could call “conciliation biology”. I am curious to know how people feel about invasive species and their pernicious impact on “pristine” habitats/ecosystems. How should we manage these situations?

There is a good paper on that in Evolutionary Applications from Scott P. Carroll (2011) : “Conciliation biology: the eco-evolutionary management of permanently invaded biotic systems”. According to him, we should first try to prevent those invasions and the resulting habitat destruction (and consequently local species extinction), if it doesn’t work, then we should try to see if the problem can be solved and if it’s impossible, then try to manage the invaded and permanently altered environments by including the invasive species in the conservation plans. It could be an interesting way to save some precious money. I totally agree that wasting good money to save species that can’t be saved or that are not THAT important for the stability of the ecosystems is completely stupid.

Thanks for these interesting positions you take on your blog !

Cheers from Québec,
François Olivier Hébert


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