Over the last few days, I’ve stumbled across a few different writings on conservation biology. The interesting part about conservation biology for me is the implied ethics of the topic — the implied value of preserving a certain historical state. The ethical question that interests me is, what historical state are we talking about, and what makes that historical state worth preserving? What captivates me is the phrase “natural state,” which implies an ecosystem absent human activity. We know now that, due to global climate change, no ecosystem is untouched by human activity, even if humans aren’t physically present — with their hands and feet — within that ecosystem. I’ve been reading about how this fact is forcing conservation biologists to question what their field should be about. Ecosystems, as nonlinear dynamical systems, have different stable modes, and we know that it’s hard to know where the tipping points are. Can we keep Yellowstone looking like it did 100 years ago in a world 2 degrees Celsius hotter than then? I’m thinking no. What does it mean, then, to practice conservation?
What about preserving the spirit of an ecosystem — the sights, sounds, moods of it, even as the ecosystem itself changes? If preserving an ecosystem itself — specifically, investing resources to retain whatever stable state we define to be “natural” or “original” — becomes too resource-intensive, perhaps we may have to take such a “mushy” view of conservation in that specific case. In other words, we might ask ourselves something like, “What is Yellowstone? What is Acadia? What is Assateague Island?” Are they a certain set of living and non-living formations? Are they sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations? Are they defined by how we feel when we’re present in them? Or are they just a series of lat-long coordinates defining a geographic boundary? I don’t think most people would agree that a national park is simply a particular spot on a map — if that’s all that a park was, most people wouldn’t bother to go. I imagine that many think of a national park as a place where we can “return to nature,” and it’s that particular definition which raises the ethical question of what conservation is about.
The world is changing quickly, in biological and non-biological ways. We can’t expect the ecosystems of most value to us to remain the same “as before” without majors injections of resources. The act of asking ourselves what we value is very important — it’s an act that makes our implicit assumptions explicit and allows us to see that we may claim to have common goals in mind but in reality might value very different properties, parameters, paths. Choosing different parameters to conserve in an ecosystem would of course lead to different ecosystem evolutionary paths.
I wonder how we should go about making such choices. Is this an area best left to experts, or should the public voice be the primary voice? In actuality we of course have a mix of the two extremes. What’s more important to me is that we share our values with each other rather than assuming that we all believe the same thing about what it means to conserve.
Photo “Forest Coral 1” by anoldent, on Flickr.