There are a number of myths and ideas that circulate among the public with regards to conservation. Many people find it very hard to contribute or understand the point of conserving ecosystems and wildlife if humans aren’t directly affected. Others feel it can’t possibly be a priority while there are issues like hunger, AIDS, and poverty to deal with. Some even end up being against conservation, suggesting that loss of tropical forests is required in order to produce more agricultural land to feed the hungry.
So, why is conservation important? What’s the problem with disappearing Hawaiian birds or a few less species of orchid in the world? Does every species really matter?
Knowledge and lost knowledge
One of the key arguments biologists use is the sheer loss of knowledge that we’re facing. The world is just so remarkably diverse, and every species exists in its own world. We may have been working our way through the plants, fish, birds and animals, classifying them, describing them, naming them, for a couple of centuries, but we’ve barely made a dent in the what there is out there to discover. To give you an example of just how jam-packed with life the world is, to borrow from E O Wilson, go outside and scoop up a handful of soil. In your hand you will have something in the order of ten billion bacteria, and as many as six thousand different species. It will be centuries more before we have begun to understand and appreciate even that handful of soil. In fact, taking everything we know about the natural world at the moment, all the books and studies in all the world, Wilson still guesses “existing biology is under one millionth of what will eventually be known.”
A recent report showed that world wildlife numbers are down by 25% in the last 30 years. Imagine for a moment that it was books instead – that the world has lost a quarter of its books in 30 years, because of some movement of anti-intellectual, library-burning terrorists. Does the future look smarter, or dumber? Will human potential be greater, or less? Will our capacity to solve problems be better, or worse? Should we intervene to stop it? Now ask the same questions of species loss. If we carry on at the rate we’re going, we will lose countless species before we ever even get a chance to name them. We’ll never learn anything from them. We won’t even know what we’ve missed.
Following directly on from the loss of knowledge comes the loss of things that would have been really useful, had we ever discovered them. We are far more dependent on plants and animals than we usually realize. I’m going to mention two specifics – medecine, and food.
We’ve mentioned this one before, but it’s my favourite example and I’m going to use it again – the Madagascar periwinkle is a pretty but unassuming little pink flower. But contained within that plant was an almost miracle cure for childhood leukemia, that saw survival rates go from 20% to 80%. Another extract is used to tread Hodgkin’s disease, others for diabetes or cancer. These are just some of 70 different useful compounds contained within that one plant.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the story of Cyclosporin. For a long time organ transplants were theoretically possible, but didn’t work in practice because the body’s own immune system kicked in and rejected the transplants. Cyclosporin solved the problem by suppressing the immune system. Remember that handful of dirt? – Cyclosporin is is derived from an obscure little fungus, found in a soil sample collected in Norway. Nobody even knows quite why it works, but it certainly does, and many lives have been saved through transplants.
Consider how many illnesses we suffer from. We haven’t even got a cure for the common cold yet. It may be out there, waiting to be found in one of the thousands of plants we haven’t got round to examining yet: according to The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, a mere 5% of all known plants have been analysed for medical compounds.
As well as medicine, we depend on the natural world for food. Every food is derived from plants eventually, either directly or indirectly. We depend on a fairly small number of species for our food, wheat, rice, corn and millet in particular. We’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of monoculture, with the collapse of the banana, and if we hit similar problems with rice or wheat, we’re in serious trouble. Our food sources used to be much more diverse, and it’s far safer that way. To quote Wilson again in his book The Creation, “some fifty thousand wild plant species (many of which face extinction) offer alternative food sources… allowing these and the rest of wild species should be considered a part of a portfolio of long-term investment.”
Both of the points above argue that species should be saved because they are useful to humankind, but this is to see the planet and its contents as tools for us, rather than a functioning world that we are a part of. I think a more compelling reason for conservation is that every species has inherent worth.
George Monbiot draws a comparison between conservationists and those who save historic buildings, or buy good works of art for posterity. A historic building may not have any particular use, at least not a use that couldn’t be fulfilled by a more modern building, but there’s no question that we should try and keep as many as we can. Likewise nobody argues for art conservation by trying to persuade us that an old master will be useful to us. It’s taken as given that it is valuable, that it is worth saving. Why? Because it’s a masterpiece, because it’s unique, it’s special, it’s beautiful, because we like it. As Monbiot concludes, “it is surely sufficient to say that wildlife should be preserved because it is wonderful.”
The Christian perspective
Finally, as a Christian I believe there is an added motivation to support conservation. If we believe that God made the world, and he made each species, then each one is his handiwork. In the world’s known history, there have been 5 great extinctions where large numbers of animals went extinct in a short space of time. Scientists believe that not only are we entering the 6th major extinction period, but that this time around we are the reasons behind it. Can we stand idly by and let God’s creation be trashed? Genesis tells us that ‘God looked at all he had made, and it was good.’ If God thinks Indonesian tree frogs or Chinese river dolphins are good, who are we to consider them dispensable?
We also believe that God reveals himself through what he has made. We learn about God and what God is like through the workings of the planet and the creatures that inhabit it. We see, for example, that God values diversity, that he appreciates beauty, that he brings new life from old. The world in its fullness is an epic declaration of who God is. When species become extinct, their contribution to that is abruptly ended, their voices are silenced, and there is that little bit less of God for us to discover.
In summary, yes, every species does matter. Each one is worthwhile in and of itself. How we handle each one is a different debate, and there’s no point in being absolutist about it – I’m happy for the anopheles mosquito to live on only in labs. We just don’t know what we have out there, and we are destroying it slowly but surely. It is also worth noting that conservation doesn’t merely attempt to save one species at a time. It strives to save ecosystems and biomes in which species live. Without saving the latter, we’ll lose the individuals. Going back to the metaphor earlier, there is no point saving the book if we’re burning the libraries. Yes, conservation matters, and we all need to take it more seriously.
There have been 85 known mammalian extinctions since 1600. This does not take into account any other animals that may have gone extinct due to a faltering food chain. If any one animal goes extinct repercussions are felt all throughout the food chain, no matter how small or large the beast. One extinction will lead to another, a path many think the world is on. Inevitably, that affects humans too, especially those who live closer to the land than we do, as we are part of the ecosystem too.