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.