Friday, March 4, 2016

Wilson's Half World

If global problems were written by professors merely to perplex students, the intersecting problems of global human inequality and global biodiversity decline would merit tenure and promotion (assuming, that is, a fictional world where professorial teaching is admired and rewarded). Stripped of their immediate ethical and practical importance — admittedly this is the primary reasons we are paying heed in the first place — the problems are fascinating because solutions to them seem, at first glance, to be in competition. World global biodiversity peaks in those geographical areas where economies are relatively undeveloped, where population growth rates are high, and where poverty is at times extreme. To solve one is to exacerbate the other.
In the oldest paradigm for biological conservation – the one that informs Wilson’s work – the task of conservation is achieved by setting aside large reserves. The larger the better: “single large”, to use the coinage of applied ecology, rather than “several small” reserves. And if one sets aside land that radiates out from the so-called biodiversity hot-spots, this, according to the old paradigm means that biodiversity conservation is achieved with some loss, or at least modification, of human economic ambition. So, unless one can find ways of growing economies in a manner that simultaneously reduces their resource footprint and lowers population size and per capita impact then people and nature will be at loggerheads to some extent at least.
The newer paradigm for conservation that optimistically embraces novelty, welcomes non-native species, endorses conservation strategies in anthopogenic landscapes, holds out the prospect of doing conservation — preserving ecological function at least — without large preserves. As an urban ecologist, involved in restoration work in Chicago, I find myself optimistic about some aspects of such scenarios. But one shouldn’t kid oneself: such strategies will work for adaptive species, those that are already disposed to getting along with the humans. Very often the optimists found their optimism on thin science (see, for example, my review of optimist Fred Pearce’s The New Wild here:…/is-there-need-for-the-new-wil….)
Thus, my fear at least is that global biodiversity will drain down the massive sinkhole opened up by our optimism.
In an ideal world the lion of human economic acquisitiveness would be able to settle down with all the vulnerable lambs, insects, microbes and so forth that collectively constitute global biodiversity. It may be the Wilson’s solution is unworkable, and we may not, justifiably have the stomach for the choices we face. But as we dither, we lose. I certainly agree with the authors of this opinion that “addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality” but I have yet to hear a solution to the conundrum of balancing justice for vulnerable populations and conservation of the rest of nature.
If God is a professor, She will get tenure for this case study.

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