Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with the diversity of life that Earth contains. I absolutely adored animals. Jane Goodall was my hero. I imagined myself being able to explore the Amazon Rainforest, one of the most wild and diverse places on earth. It broke my heart to find out that it was being destroyed because the value of rainforest land is perceived as only the value of its timber by short-sighted governments, multi-national logging companies, and landowners. I didn’t understand how someone could cause such harm to such a grand ecosystem just to make a profit. I guess money really does make the world go round.
Relative to the existence of the Earth, humans have only been alive for a short time, yet in that relatively short time period we have managed to wreak havoc on Earth and the inhabitants we share it with. There are at least 8 million unique species of life on the planet, if not more. Yet, Dozens of new species going extinct every day—scientists say that more than 20,000 plants and animals are on the brink of disappearing forever. There have been five extinction waves in the planet’s history — including the Permian extinction 250 million years ago, when an estimated 70% of all terrestrial animals and 96% of all marine creatures vanished, and, most recently, the Cretaceous event 65 million years ago, which ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Though scientists have directly assessed the viability of fewer than 3% of the world’s described species, the sample polling of animal populations so far suggests that we may have entered what will be the planet’s sixth great extinction wave.
If extinction is a natural process that goes on even in the absence of humans, why should we stop it? Is it worth worrying about it all? Sure, it will be sad if there aren’t any more cute pandas on the planet, but it’s not like we depend on them. Besides, surely it’s more important to take care of humans – who, let’s face it, have their own problems to worry about – than to spend millions of dollars preserving animals. What, in short, is the point of conservation?
Well first off Many of us love the natural world. We think animals are cute, majestic, or just plain fascinating. We love walking in the dappled sunlight of an old forest, or scuba-diving over a coral reef. Who doesn’t think mountain gorillas are awesome? Endangered species that get a lot of love are often those that elicit the broadest public interest. Tigers are often rated the most popular animal in surveys conducted in the West, says Eric Dinerstein, lead scientist of World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Conservation Science Program. The problem with this argument is that it spells doom for all those animals and plants that people are less fond of: the ugly. Also it comes from a position of luxury and privilege. It’s easy for a wealthy person in the western world to want to preserve tigers because they’re nice to look at, but a villager in rural India whose family is in danger from one probably doesn’t feel the same way.
We often hear that we should keep ecosystems like rainforests because they contain useful things, like medicines. For example “what if a plant goes extinct that could be the cure for cancer?” The practice of exploring nature to find commercially useful products is called bioprospecting, and although it has at times led to useful discoveries but most of the time the effort to discover it isn’t worth the hassle or the funding. In modern times we have plenty of ways to find new medicines, which don’t involve trekking through thousands of miles of dangerous jungle in the faint hope of finding a miracle plant. And again, what happens to all the species that don’t make useful things like medicines?
One of the most convincing points in the conservation argument is that animals and plants benefit us just by being there. These benefits, which most of us take for granted, are called “ecosystem services”. Some of these services are obvious. For instance, there are plants and animals that we eat. Meanwhile, photosynthetic plankton in the sea, and green plants, provide us with the oxygen we breathe. Sometimes the services provided can be more subtle. Pollinating insects like bumblebees are an obvious example. While we could, in theory, do all these things artificially, it would be very difficult. It is far easier to let the existing wildlife do them for us.
How much is all the life on Earth worth?
In 1997, ecologist Robert Costanza and his colleagues estimated that the biosphere provides services worth around $33 trillion a year. For comparison, they noted that the entire global economy at the time produced around $18 trillion a year. (BBC) Conserving nature is a staggeringly good investment.
“Forests, fish stocks, biodiversity, hydrological cycles become owned, in effect, by the very interests – corporations, landlords, banks – whose excessive power is most threatening to them,” environmentalist journalist George Monbiot wrote in 2013. But how do you put a price on such a thing? Well, you can’t, but that doesn’t stop us deciding what it’s worth. We do it all the time with paintings, music and other forms of art. One of the budding industries in this field is eco tourism. Ecotourism offers a way to make the beauty of nature pay for itself. Of course, this idea has its difficulties. Tourists bring unfamiliar diseases with them and may disrupt environmental surroundings.
So to sum up
Whether you put it in economic terms or not, science is telling us that ecosystems provide us with a host of things we can’t do without, and that the more diverse each ecosystem is, the better. Also as we often forget we ourselves are part of an ecosystem. We can’t take care of ourselves without also preserving nature, because we need it for so many things. This means seeing human society and wild ecosystems as one inseparable whole. Because it is. We can’t just pick and choose what to save.
This doesn’t mean preserving every last species, which we couldn’t do even if we tried. It’s also not about keeping things exactly the same, because that’s impossible too. It’s about learning to coexist with nature. By shifting from our consumerist values and fossil fuel powered world to more sustainable methods we can save and restore our beautiful planet.