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:
- 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;
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.