by Whit Gibbons

July 1, 2002

In one of the most thought-provoking conservation messages I have seen lately, Professor Ron Brooks of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, suggests that our modern views of conservation and a desire to protect biodiversity are abnormal. His message deserves to be read carefully.

"We think of preservation of biodiversity as a natural behavior, perhaps evolved to ensure that we do not run out of important resources. Many people also assume that conservation of resources by placing long-term benefits ahead of short-term gains is widespread in the natural world, rather than just a cultural phenomenon of modern civilization. For example, we hear of prudent predators or parasites that restrict their own reproduction or virulence to protect a renewable resource base. Similarly, we embrace the view that native peoples or hunter-gatherers have an innate sense of conservation and preservation. So it is argued that modern civilizations have lost touch with nature and should turn to native peoples' wisdom to rediscover harmony with nature and a path to save our depleted planet.

"These preservationist ideas are comforting in suggesting a return to nature as a clear solution to our current environmental woes, but this solution is not supported by evidence or by biological theory. All organisms have their rates of exploitation limited by external factors, usually their prey or competitors, not by self-restraint. Human sport hunters might eschew killing does or fawns because it isn't 'fair,' or because they know that this will help sustain the deer population in the future. Wolves have no such compunction and are subject to neither moral nor rational constraints. Similarly, it is egregious to argue that smallpox or tapeworms restrain themselves, consciously or otherwise, from exploiting hosts to the maximum. Survivors of such scourges are the most resistant individuals, just as the fastest, strongest deer are the ones that escape wolves.

"A lack of long-term strategies in nature is what one would expect from Darwinian theory. Evolution proceeds by natural selection, which operates only on the current context, never with an eye to the future. Those individuals that reproduce most successfully leave the most genes for the future. If an organism committed suicide or remained celibate to ensure future supplies of limited resources, it would lose out. Lemmings do not jump off cliffs to relieve population pressure; otherwise only selfish lemmings would remain to pass on their selfish genes.

"But if nature does not use restraint and conservation ethic to preserve biodiversity, surely our aboriginal ancestors did. Unfortunately, abundant evidence exists that stone-age peoples exterminated species at a rate to challenge even the most rapacious modern empire builders. Literally thousands of species were eliminated by ancient peoples who used only stone tools. These native peoples behaved naturally, taking all they could. Similarly, is any segment of our society more dedicated to erasing biodiversity than farmers and gardeners? Predators, parasites, competitors are all anathema to them. This destruction occurs precisely because these people are in touch with the land.

"Despite the natural tendency to eradicate other life in support of our own, humans have developed an environmental conscience, an extension of our unique ability to worry about the future. But preservationism is largely confined to modern wealthy societies. Clearly, the less constrained we are by resources necessary for survival, the more we have options to plan for the future. Paradoxically, our overconsumption and access to huge amounts of energy have allowed us to see that this pace of exploitation may not be sustainable. We then try to slow the pace, but not enough that we would actually suffer.

"The tenets of conservation are counterfactual and do not conform to prevailing biological theory. From nature's perspective, protecting other species at a cost to ourselves is, in fact, pathological. We must avoid the fallacy that what is natural is good; we must define and fight for our long-term environmental goals as if the weight of mother nature were against us, because it is. To plan successfully for the future of the planetary environment we must recognize that satisfying unrestrained short-term self-interest is normal but it guarantees calamity in the future."

Did you read Professor Brooks's message carefully? If so, you realize he is saying we should, indeed, try to preserve the environment. But we should do so with the understanding that we are the only species that would ever attempt to do so. And unfortunately not all of us want to make the attempt.

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