CONSERVATION A PATHOLOGICAL CONDITION?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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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