Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why is this important?

An idée fixe has crept into my life lately, and I’m frustrated my lack of a good response to it. Although many people intuitively grasp the notion that conserving the world’s biodiversity is important, there are others who want an explanation of why we should be bothered. It often comes up in interviews with the media. Sometimes the question is asked directly- other times it’s subtler. I’m often asked, particularly regarding insects, what the ecological role of a particular species is. What does it do? The unstated question is what is the value of trying to preserve it.

I gave a talk on butterfly conservation for teachers over the weekend. The same question emerged there. Last year, a teacher became frustrated with my reluctance to provide simple answers. She was trying to lead me to expound on the importance of butterflies as pollinators. And while it’s true that butterflies are pollinators, it’s also the case that they are relatively minor players in that role. If butterflies were to vanish from the planet tomorrow, most pollination would continue unabated. Do butterflies have to do something, particularly something that is important to humans, to be worth saving? Does anything?

I went to a morning of media training last week. We were reminded of the importance of a questioner’s sense of WIIFM (what’s in for me) when responding. In a world where people seem increasingly unwilling to consider any point of view other than their own, I felt like I was being asked to be an enabler by taking that approach.

Yesterday, this month’s Scientific American arrived in the mail. There’s an article in it about a new approach to conservation. The authors were arguing that making the case for the intrinsic value of species and attempting to conserve hot spots (areas with high degrees of biodiversity) isn’t working. We should refocus our efforts on those species whose loss would precipitate some tangibly negative effect for humans. The article set my teeth on edge, because it felt like giving up. It seemed to make the concession that we will lose most of the planet’s biodiversity anyway, so we should focus efforts on those species that it’s easiest to make a case for saving. People may well be too self absorbed, but we should just go with that and meet most people on their own grounds. We can’t expect more than that.

Until recently, humans have nibbled around the edges of biodiversity destruction. Sure, we killed off a bunch of megafauna at the end of the last ice age. Islands have been hard-hit. We’ve lost a dodo here, a wooly mammoth there, but most of the species that were around before humans began civilizations are still here. That status is now changing. The people alive today have the potential to extinguish a sizeable fraction of the species on the planet. To no small measure, this generation will determine which species survive and which do not- and we will make this decision not only for ourselves, but also for every single generation that comes after us. Ever. To link these decisions exclusively to human needs, indeed to the particular needs of but one generation of humans, is an appalling act of hubris.

I wish I had a magic bullet-- a simple, clear sound bite that would convince folks that this sort of work is important. I’d be thrilled if someone criticized my work by claiming that it is insufficient, which it is, rather than irrelevant because there’s no evidence that the swamp metalmark butterfly might contain a wonder cure for cancer. Unfortunately, I’m coming up empty. Like so many things today, the realities of conservation are more complex and difficult than many would like it to be. I wish it were otherwise. But it’s not.



At 13:17, Anonymous bug_girl said...

I think the ecological society is onto something with the idea of "ecosystem services".

You sell them the whole package as a working unit. You'd never repair a car by randomly replacing or destroying parts.

I identify with your frustration because I'm about to embark on a serious bout of enabling as I try convince undergrads to come to my biological station. (Where there are no bars, no bands, no nothing but nature.)

Unfortunately, that's where we are as a culture. WIFM.
One of the many things that's screwed up these days :(

At 05:51, Anonymous rcwbiologist said...

This is a great post. I have the same question asked of me. And like you, I can't always come up with a great response depending on which species the question is being asked of. If I don't know alot about the species in question it is obviously harder to respond to it. Lately, I've been thinking quite a bit about the interconnectivity of biological systems as a whole, as you may have been able to decipher from a few of my posts lately. Specifically I've been thinking of how there are so many moving parts to ecosystems that we can't really pretend we know how everything works in that system. I've tried taking the tact that even if we don't know why a species is important, we can almost certainly realize that it has a function within the ecosystem. There are plenty of examples of why this is important, ie, large predator absence and deer populations exploding.

At 08:20, Blogger Ur-spo said...

people want simple explanations for everything; complexities drive them mad. it has always been and not limited to nature; try explaining to someone 'why they are depressed'
so hang in there.
complexities are and we have to be content with no simple explanations.
good post indeed.

At 08:52, Blogger burning silo said...

I've been asked the same thing quite frequently - usually when I'm doing a field work day with high school science students. My usual response is that nature is like a tapestry (as is your blog), and that when we remove parts of it, we are creating damage that we don't really understand very well. An insect may hatch at a time that makes it critical as food for a certain bird, etc... Btw, on the topic of why a particular butterfly or moth might be "important", Cindy Mead wrote a nice piece on a moth species that is a food source for Kirtland Warblers - a rare species. During a day of field work with students, I usually try to find some good examples of food chain reliance - last time out, I stopped at a hawthorne bush to explain why such a thorny bush was a good thing to leave in a fencerow as it was useful to shrikes who impale small rodent prey (so, the shrikes provide a form of rodent control - there's the tie back to "what does it matter to us?"). The other day, someone on the Nova Scotia nature list posted the most incredible report from a whale watch trip with high school students, describing a sort of feeding frenzy they happened upon - swarms of zooplankton, herrings, jellyfish, and then a humpback whale appearing with her calf to feed, with gannets diving all around. I think those are the type of experiences people have to have in order to get it through their heads that you can't remove parts of the whole without creating unexpected consequences. However, I guess the "problem" in all of this comes back to the "who cares what happens so long as it doesn't have any effect on me. It's all about me, me me!" issue. I don't know if there's any possible answer that addresses such an anthropocentric mode of thought. Guess the only thing that might get through to "them" is to ask how different their world would be if their iPods and cellphones all vanished overnight. Anyhow, excellent topic for discussion.

At 09:46, Blogger robin andrea said...

I love this post, doug. And the comments are so thoughtful and interesting. I like the idea of explaining how we don't fully comprehend the interconnectivity of everything, and the dangers of removing something that seems inconsequential, but ultimately is not. The natural world is not here to please or amuse us (sorry, dominionists). We are merely a part of the whole, but because we tend to overwhelm and poison the planet, it is more than in our interest, it is our responsibility to be better stewards. That means labs to save the metalmark. It's the real butterfly effect.

At 12:40, Anonymous Mark said...

Try turning the question around: What value does a human have for a butterfly?

At 12:51, Anonymous Dave said...

I'm with you, Doug. It's all very well to mention the human benefits of this or that species, or talk about ecosystem services, but we must not abandon the notion of intrinsic value as the overriding reason for preserving other species. I don't think one needs to buy into the whole animal rights ideology (I certainly don't) to recognize that ecocide is just as evil as genocide, and asking "What good is x species?" is little different from asking "Wouldn't the world be better off without the Jews?"

At 13:08, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

Excellent post. I'm going to try and find that issue of SA now, too.

This is what I think: I don't know how you can explain the value of biodiversity anymore than you can explain the wonder of the Grand Canyon. But, if you can show someone the Grand Canyon, or a
Kirtland warbler, then you might just capture their heart in a way that a story in the paper never could.

I never saw a true prairie until I was in my early twenties - but once I did I was hooked! But, I have to admit that I sought that experience out for myself. There are always going to be people who will see the Grand Canyon (for example) and shrug their shoulders and get back in the bus.

I'm convinced that if more people saw these things for themselves they'd start to understand the connection between the insects - plants - birds - etc. and therefore understand the value of biodiversity in a tangible way.

But it will be an uphill battle if people can't recognize even the simple players like violets, cardinals, oaks, or cicadas...

At 20:58, Anonymous Jyoti said...

Excellent post...
I can feel the passion for preservation as well as the frustation. Sometimes I feel that some people understand that everything cant be put so simply, yet they dont practise it ...

At 08:10, Blogger Doug Taron said...

bug girl- I like the idea of presenting the whole thing as a package. It fits in well with my experiences with ecological restoration. Good luck with the undergrads. Will they be having cornflakes every morning at the biological station?

rcw - Excellent thoughts. Your recent posts have contributed to the fact that I'm thinking about this issue a lot lately.

Spo- I'm sure that you are right about the challenge of explaining complexity extending to many fields. The complexities of the natural world are just where I am called upon to do it most often.

Bev - Thanks so much for the kind words and for the shout out on your blog. I was hoping to get some interesting comments on the issue (seems I've succeeded), and the link from your post has definitely helped the process along.

Robin- > The natural world is not here to please or amuse us (sorry, dominionists).
Brilliant! Thank you.

Mark - There are days that I wonder what value this human has for other humans, let along for butterflies.

Dave - I agree completely about the intrinsic value issue. I'm less sure about the comparison with genocide. It is not typical that people are acting with the primary goal of killing off species- that's a byproduct of some other activity. With genocide, the killing is the primary goal.

Dave Coulter - I'm with you 100% about the value of having people experience the wonder of the natural world. It's a big part of my motivation for working where I do.

jyoti- Thanks. The frustration part waxes and wanes. In part I posted this because there are some smart and interesting people stopping by here. It seemed an opportunity to get some good opinions on the matter. In this, I have not been dissapointed.

At 11:37, Blogger Bill Mueller said...

Doug, thanks so much for this post. You'll see I linked to it on my blog...then kind of went in a slightly different direction...

Bill Mueller


At 16:30, Blogger rodger said...

Then again if we kill off all the bears the forests would be safer for hikers and there would be more salmon to eat!

I really appreciate this post and the comments.

It took years after moving to this semi-rural spot on the hill to convince the neighbors that spraying insecticide around the house to kill harmless spiders was destroying our bird populations. They finally caught on and now even put up with mice in their garages and wood sheds.

I do believe that your "insufficient" work and your blog (as well as those of your commenters)lead the uninformed in the right direction, toward conservation, understanding and appreciation of our natural world.

At 17:20, Anonymous mark h said...

Fabulous post! Well let's see. EVEN if the rulers KNOW that OIL is going to cause disaster to millions within a century, they are still headed toward their greedy dollars going 100 MPH in a Humvee. IF THEY can't beyond that, I don't know IF there's hope they, let alone the millions of shallow "me" folk watching FOX will ever learn that the reason this earth was so fabulous for us all to live on is entirely because of environmental complexity. I can only imagine your frustration being at the forefront in this work battling ignorance, apathy, arrogance, etc. Keep up the work, Doug, YOU inspire US and MANY that don't let you know there in Chicago. Keep us posted when you're on WGN again, we get it via here..... Cheers to ya! I'll raise a toast to your Lab tonight.

At 14:34, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Bill - Thanks for stopping by. Deep ecology definitely has some interesting things to say.

Rodger - No more bears? That would be wrong on so many levels! What a great example of working quielty at the local level to make a difference.

Mark - Thanks so much for the encouragement.

At 09:09, Blogger butterfly girl said...

Every summer I have a list of things I have to see before fall. The list is this:
1. A snake of any kind, in the wild.
2. A turtle. Any kind, in the wild.
3. As many dragonflies as possible.
4. As many butterflies as possible.

And I am sad if I miss out on any of them because I have to wait another year. I can't imagine having to wait forever. If you catch my drift. Butterflies are important, there Mother Nature. Mother Nature has a way of healing through these things for me, and I am not the only one. Keep up the good work Doug!

At 09:10, Blogger butterfly girl said...

...they are Mother Nature, I meant.


At 22:52, Blogger Kathiesbirds said...

Doug, this is an excellent post to link to my page! I hope more people will come here and be challenged to think in new ways. So many good and thought provoking comments. Isn't the fact that a butterfly exists enough? It is for me! In a totally sentimental vein, we wouldn't have "butterfly kisses" without butterflies! Butterflies teach us how fragile life is. Look at all the poetry, art, music and songs that have been inspried by butterflies. They pollinate our minds as well as our flowers! It is only those with dollars for souls who can't grasp this concept!


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