Thursday, June 6, 2013

7 Dangerous Notions of Biodiversity Conservation

“Speak too forcefully and other scientists view you as an ideologue; speak too softly and you duck a moral responsibility.”     E.O. Wilson

Dangerous? Seven widely-held and deeply-clung to notions of conservation greatly impede our efforts to conserve diverse life on this planet. If we fail, humanity risks grave hardship and apocalyptic consequences that will arise as our biosphere continues to deteriorate.

1. The first notion is that the biosphere situation (rapidly changing conditions and loss of biodiversity) is not yet so bad that it warrants altering our comfortable, consensus-building conservation routines. The reality is that the rate and magnitude of biodiversity loss and changes to biosphere conditions are now so great and rapidly mounting that we need to escalate conservation efforts to a war-footing (Lenton 2011, Noss et al. 2012, Running 2012). Conservationists have long been cautious about crying wolf, but loss and change is now so fast and pronounced that a strident, sustained call of alarm and action is justified and morally responsible. In practical terms, a war-footing means the biosphere crisis headlines news every day, global leaders and institutions act with focused attention, extraordinary levels of international cooperation, compliance, and funding exist, and global action to avert the biosphere crisis is fervently underway. To save the Earth we may have to find courage and step out of our comfort zones and literally and figuratively stand in front of bulldozers.

Given how quickly and how much the biosphere is changing and how much biodiversity is being lost, the next thirty years likely offers our best window of opportunity to protect sufficient habitat, restore wildlife populations and ecological processes, and reduce pollution (for example, compounds that damage our critical ozone layer and greenhouse gases) to a point where the biosphere can maintain favorable conditions for humanity. We simply do not have the time to gather exhaustive data and sway entrenched skeptics if we are to make meaningful progress in stabilizing biodiversity loss and biosphere change over the next few decades. Yes, many good people and governments are trying, and trying hard, but trying without results at scale is not good enough anymore given the stakes.

Red sediment in river in deforested and burned landscape, Madagascar

2. The second notion relates to the physical and ecological scale of conservation perceived to be adequate to retain biological diversity and global life-sustaining processes. Excellent conservation thinking and efforts exist and much progress has been made, yet there is a pervasive, resigned complacency that protection goals in the neighborhood of 10% of landscapes or seascapes, or wildlife populations, is all that is practical to achieve and, with fingers crossed, much of the world’s species will be saved and the biosphere stabilized. The daunting reality is that somewhere in the range of a third to a half of the Earth’s surface must be maintained in a more ‘natural’ than ‘developed’ (or ‘heavily exploited’) state to stem biodiversity loss and sustain favorable conditions for our species and society (see Noss et al. 2011). The complex mosaic of life forms on the planet cannot be saved in any 10% protection scheme, even if well-sited. Importantly, human-transformed ecosystems and technological fixes simply cannot take of the life-sustaining role of a robust, nature-dominated biosphere, even one functioning at 10% capacity.

Given the trajectories of global biodiversity loss and biosphere change, monumental conservation actions are imperative for regaining a balance with our biosphere: a quarter to a third of coasts and open ocean protected; larger marine species and keystone terrestrial and freshwater species fully protected for at least thirty years; all international trade in wildlife banned and vulnerable species everywhere protected; new coastlines formed through rising seas protected now with preemptive reserves; worldwide removal of obsolete and poorly-considered dams and barrages and restoration of riparian, wetland, and headwater habitats at watershed scales; and an immediate ban on all ozone-depleting compounds and greenhouse gas production minimized. (While global scale action is critical, local conservation success still remains a foundation for protecting diverse life and restoring functional ecosystems.)

A third to a half of the planet ‘natural’? Humans already dominate and exploit most of the Earth’s surface and they use 90% of the Earth’s net primary (plant) production (Running 2012). Demand for natural resources will surely explode along with the projected 40% population increase by 2050. Planetary boundaries are already being reached (for example, freshwater, phosphorous) and we are pushing up against most others. Superlative global changes now occur regularly―the worst droughts, the highest temperatures, the greatest loss of seas ice, polar bears and tigers nearly gone, once great forests in tattered remnants. Considerably more than 10% of the Earth’s surface is still relatively ‘natural’, yet the biosphere and biodiversity are still going downhill fast―very fast―and irreversible shifts to novel, unfavorable conditions may be close at hand or inevitable (Lenton 2011). To think 10% protection will work is a very dangerous notion.

3. Third notion. Some maintain we can save much of the Earth’s biodiversity without having to protect ‘old-growth’ habitats. While protecting and restoring degraded and exploited habitats will make valuable contributions to conservation, ‘old-growth’ habitats act as the only refugia for vast numbers of life forms that do not abide much anthropogenic disturbance. Old-growth habitats also uniquely act as optimal arenas for a multitude of ecological interactions and biophysical processes. Unlogged forests, untrawled seafloors, unplowed grasslands, ungrazed deserts, unfished seamounts are examples. Ecosystems that still retain their full complement of larger vertebrate and keystone species are similarly important. The last remaining old-growth habitats and intact faunas everywhere must be priority targets for conservation action. The loss of old-growth habitats largely drives today’s juggernaut of species extinctions.

                                            Giant sequoia, California Sierra Nevada

4. Many practically-minded conservationists resignedly accept triage as a necessary evil. Too much must be done with too little time and resources. On the other hand, every species has value, every habitat contributes functionally to important processes and ecologic resilience at larger scales, and every conservation effort contributes to saving diverse life forms and functional ecosystems. However challenging it may be to pry it free, there really is sufficient money and resources to protect most of remaining nature and put in place effective conservation at local to monumental scales. A committed humanity can easily survive reallocating funding from the private sector, military budgets, obsolete subsidies, and pharaonic development projects. And there are lots and lots of people to do whatever is necessary. The fourth notion, then, is that it is one or the other, triage or save everything―polarized opinions that often engender distracting debate. Priority-setting must help guide the timing, sequence, and relative resource allocation of conservation efforts, but every species, habitat, and conservation effort has value, no matter how local. No species gets left behind.

5. Fifth notion. Conservation success has been attributed to both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ motivators. One commonly encounters the polyannic notion that ‘carrot’ approaches, such as environmental education and ecotourism, are sufficient, by themselves, for long-term success. But human nature and escalating local and global demand for natural resources ensures that spoilers are everywhere and ever present, whether they are people or companies inside or outside of conservation steward entities. Effective compliance, supported by a good enforcement strategy and program (and equable distribution of conservation-related profits), ensures successful conservation investments and sustainability. Conserve softly but carry a big stick.

6. Sixth notion. Well-intentioned and thoughtful optimists offer hope that as we drive major changes in the biosphere that our species will simply adapt. We may indeed adapt, but the amount of hardship, suffering, strife, and mortality associated with our ‘adaptation’ likely depends greatly on how much natural habitat is retained and how well natural ecosystems still maintain favorable conditions. Again, the notion that technological advances will mend degraded biosphere processes or replace them altogether is quixotic, at best. New technology may reduce habitat loss and pollution, but replacing the role of a healthy biosphere in maintaining planetary–scale life-sustaining processes within the next 80 years is a pipe dream.

7. The seventh notion―the end is near. Barring a nuclear holocaust or sizable asteroid impact, complex life will persist after multiple planetary boundaries are reached and biospheric conditions shift to novel states. Humans may have a hardscrabble time of it, but there is a good likelihood our species will make it through this crisis phase, hopefully to emerge a lot wiser, more cooperative, and in better balance with our extraordinary and singular home. One cannot expect to engender support for conservation by saying all is lost, so it is a good thing there really is considerable hope, but our gravely serious situation should not be understated or ignored. What is at stake is our future quality of life and the opportunities lost, hardships endured, disasters suffered, and cosmic loneliness we will have to live with if we fail to conserve the Earth’s profusion of complex life and profoundly alter our long-sustaining biosphere.

Mariposa lily & buckwheat, Southern California

Explore Further
Lenton, TM. 2011. Early warning of climate tipping points. Nature Climate Change 1:201-209. Doi:10.1-38/nclimate1143.

Noss, RF, AP Dobson, R Baldwin, P Beier, CR Davis, DA DellaSala, J Francis, H Locke, K Nowak, R Lopez, C Reining, SC Trombulak, G Tabor. 2012. Bolder thinking for conservation. Conservation Biology 26:1-4.

Running, SW. 2012. A measurable planetary boundary for the biosphere. Science 337:1458-1459.

No comments:

Post a Comment