Preserving species diversity – long-term thinking

The latest question in the Ask A ScienceBlogger series is actually not that easy to answer, though some have, so far, valiantly tried:

Is every species of living thing on the planet equally deserving of protection?…

My attempt at the answer is under the fold….

My first knee-jerk answer is “Yes, of course!” Then comes a qualification: “As much as we can”. I guess I could just leave it at that.
But why do I think that? Why people who answer with a more-or-less guarded ‘Yes’ think that way? Apparently, and I cannot now think of the source where I read this taxonomy (Google found this), there are several reasons why people feel there is a need to preserve the diversity of species.
One is utilitarian – many species are sources of food, medicines, perfumes and other stuff we need and want. Also, wanting to preserve the species means wanting to preserve their ecosystems, which in some sense is bound to be good for our general health in the long term.
One is religious – as we are supposed to be the guardians of Nature.
One is aesthetic – the visions of a species-impoverished Earth are just plain ugly, even scary.
One is moral – this is a sense of duty: who the hell we think we are to make the life-or-death decisions to entire other species? How presumtuous and arrogant!
Personally, my reasons are primarily moral, secondarily aesthetic and then utilitarian (need to preserve the environment for the continued success of our own species).
Beyond a simplistic explanation – e.g., greed, short-sightedness, miseducation – I cannot even start to fathom what goes in the minds of those who would answer “No” to this question. So, I will just leave it at that and assume that some variation of “Yes” is a correct answer (it is for me) and try to see what one can do about it.
The strategies are many, and depend on one’s point of reference. Thus, the responses vary along several different continua, for instance:
Spatial continuum – focus on preserving one or more species in one’s own vicinity is the most local way of thinking, preserving the global ecosystem is at the other end, with regional, national and continental consideration in the middle.
Temporal continuum – focus on helping a species survive yet another year is at one end of this continuum, middle-term (e.g., 20-100 years) survival and health of a species is somewhere in the middle and the long view – thousands and millions of years – is at the long-term end of the continuum.
Scope continuum – on one extreme is the un-evolutionary attempt (by animal rightists) to save individual animals, especially cute ones. On the other extreme is the wish to preserve the entire Earth’s ecosystem as it is today (or was in some recent past before the industrial evolution). In between are more realistic attempts to save particular populations, or particular species, or particular ecosystems.
Pragmatics continuum – on one extreme is the wish to save every single species no matter what the cost to human civilization and the modern way of life. On the other extreme is the “whatever” sentiment, i.e., nature will take care of those species that deserve to survive, but humans come first. In between are more realistic programs to protect particular environment and species in them, or particular single species.
Tactics continuum – on one extreme is making publicity stunts, chaining oneself to a tree, or even doing terrorist acts (as ALF does). On the other extreme is getting elected to a powerful political office and getting stuff done. In between are various types of activity alone, with local, national and international envirionmental organizations, trying to influence the media (e.g, by making movies like “The Inconvenient Truth”), lobbying, etc.
It is difficult for any single person to keep the perspective over the whole continua all at the same time, so most people focus on a particular problem and a particular set of solutions for it. Depending on how you look at the problem, different solutions will present themselves to you. Do you try to save Ricky The Asian White Rhino, or all Asian White Rhinos, or the ecosystem in which the live, or all rhino species, or the global environment in which, of course, rhinos will thrive? Do you pick rhinos because they are charismatic megafauna, thus a better sell to the public, though you are really more concerned about the environment as a whole? Do you try to save rhinos by preserving their natural habitat, or by effective prevention of hunting/poaching, or is captive breeding OK? Or should we do all three?
If we now managed to stop all species extinctions by fiat, and keep at it for the next million years, are we then interfering with evolution, i.e., preventing the natural flow of extinctions and speciations? Earth frozen in time? If not, how do we figure out which species we should save and which not? Do we target for preservation those whose fate is most obviously in our hands – our activity turned them into endangered species in the first place thus we have the greatest responsibility to take care of them and not so much those species that were on their way out even without our interference? And how do we know for sure?
What factors would make environmental work easier (or harder) in the future?
Global warming is an obvious threat to many species as the ecosystems undergo wholesale remodelling, e.g., in plants, birds and mammals. If we manage to slow down, then stop, then reverse global warming, that would be a huge help towards wholesale survival of many species. We have preciously little time and too little political guts, though.
Global population is supposed to grow to about 10 billion by the middle of the century, then stabilize at that level before, perhaps, dropping a little bit later on. Doing something about it is one of those ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’ prospects. The greatest population growth is in the poorest areas of the world. Those are also the wildest areas containing many species worth saving. But, you cannot ask starving people not to eat! They will plunder the environment around them, then, after there is not much left, the overpopulation will bring about diseases and wars, as in Somalia, Haiti and Sudan right now, for example. If you feed them and bring them up to the Western standards of living, the Earth cannot support that – far too much fossil fuel used, far too much garbage. But, once they reach Western standards of living, they will tend to have less children which will bring down the population pressure. Can we do something in the meantime?
Global agriculture and Global economy can be good or bad. Easy availability of cheap food and easy transport of such food from one part of the globe to another, if not hindered by politics, would relieve some pressure on wild habitats as the locals do not have to burn them down and start their own agriculture there. On the other hand, agricultural-industrial complex is turning the world into monoculture and producing huge problems with chemical pollution of land and water, while at the same time producing food that is not as healthy, resulting in problems like obesity and other diet-related health problems that cost the society tons of money. We cannot all go back to being hunters and gatherers, but a push towards a more sustainable agriculture, as in organic, post-organic and natural foods, should help feed the growing populaiton which will then be less likely to turn wild lands into agricultural lands.
Realization that environmental concerns and business concerns are not neccessarily at odds and that the two sides should become collaborators instead of enemies, can ba yet another important factor in preserving biodiversity. Eco-economy by Lester Brown, Win-Win Ecology by Michael Rosenzweig and Collapse by Jared Diamond are chockful of examples of just that kind of collaboration.
Global Enlightement – if more people got their heads out of their behinds and started looking at the world with realism and not through the distorting glasses of Rapturist religion, conservative politics, macho foreign policy, femiphobic emotions, and laissez-faire economics, we would have no problems at all as we would be able to all work together towards the best possible solutions.

10 responses to “Preserving species diversity – long-term thinking

  1. Katherine Sharpe

    Hey Coturnix…where did you get your population-projections for the Earth? (10 billion by midcentury, then stabilization, then maybe a drop)? That’s interesting stuff. I’ve always been intrigued by population/overpopulation matters, and I wouldn’t mind reading more about it…

  2. Thank you, Coturnix.
    Thanks for redirecting the question toward the crucial, bigger picture.
    Katherine, I’m glad you’re interested in human population growth. It’s an important topic that serves as an entry point to the other important issues that Coturnix described.
    There are many models of human population available. They reflect varying degrees of optimism, pessimism, and wishful thinking.
    I can try to dig up some links, as will Coturnix, I’m sure. But you might try entering some key words into your favorite Internet search engine: “global population projection model” returns some typical results. The UN and MIT have models on the web, as I recall.
    Coturnix, thanks again for outlining the Global Big Picture.

  3. I pulled it out of memory, really. I think it is one of the medium-harsh projections I have seen most often cited around the net as probably the most likely. It may be out-dated for all I know and I am ready to change my mind if someone points me to a better, more up-to-date model.

  4. That human population number seems typical of the models I’ve seen recently. Where things get really “interesting” are the mechanisms people like to argue/cite/proclaim/wish.
    Folks assert stabilization based on such factors as food limits, energy limits, social cohesion limits, magical technology, or just plain magical thinking.
    Folks assert human population reduction based on education, contraception, dwindling food supply, dwindling energy supply, social breakdown, magical technology, or just plain magical thinking.
    And whether those mechanisms will be enjoyable for the humans involved is also a topic of lively conversation.
    Lurking within all that are some truths, some of which are very inconvenient.

  5. Maybe all species are equally _deserving_ of protection (though I doubt it), but whether deserved or not, I’m enough of a speciesist to want to send a few species down the path of extinction. I’m not thinking of mid-sized, cuddly creatures here, but those that maim and kill. Maybe, working in medical research so distorts my perception that I can’t see how deadly viruses and bacteria are as deserving of protection as little kids.
    On a different topic, if you’re interested in how sound economics and sound environmentalism can be brought together, check out the Rocky Mountain Institute.

  6. Suggesting the Rocky Mountain Institute is an excellent contribution. Thanks! They’re among my favorites, and they’re online at
    Hunter Lovins, from RMI, is currently focusing on concepts of natural capitalism, at She’s an interesting and inspiring speaker; if you ever have chance to listen to her, it’s worth your while.
    Some other resources include the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics in Vermont, the International Society for Ecological Economics (and its national chapters), and the Sustainability Institute

  7. How much protection does the polio virus deserve?

  8. How much protection does the polio virus deserve?

    Virus is not a living organism. Still, the polio should be kept in a few vials in a lab for research.

  9. “Enlightenment” vs “Rapturist religion, conservative politics, macho foreign policy, femiphobic emotions, and laissez-faire”
    None of those bad things have any effect on the central issues:
    eg 100kph personal automobiles (“cars”). If you dont accept the need for world-wide 30kph speed limits for cars, then youre part of the problem. No politics or religion involved, 100kph cars are just a lot of fun and excitement (180kph even more exciting!) Unbeatable for pulling chicks. No combination of bio-diesel, coal-gassification, hybrids etc etc can offset the fact that with 100kph cars we are condemned to global warming and to mass extinction.
    Big houses in suburbia, also necessary for getting a wife. Shame about the 1 hour 100kph commute.
    Jet travel: I dont have a car, but I dump a few tons of CO2 anyway, when I fly on vacation. Excitement, sex, the whole world must retire to a monastery. Aint gonna happen
    Airconditing: insisting on operating all day in hot climes wearing wool suits & neckties. You might say its a macho thing.
    Maybe if Iran takes over the world, then no-neckties mught rule (along with rather naff beige windbreakers)

  10. Big fast cars, big houses, ties, as you say, are part of macho culture, thus tightly related to machismo underlying the conservative political ideology.