Do we as humans have a moral duty to conserve natural systems? Do species have a right to exist? Should we conserve biodiversity and natural resources for future generations? These are some of the ethical questions entrenched in conservation biology.
There are differing viewpoints about humans' place in nature that can be traced back to philosophers and land managers in the early days of conservation. These are:
John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, was the main voice behind the preservationist ethic. The idea was that natural areas have spiritual value and should be preserved, as is, rather than have resources extracted from them. Muir thought that all people, no matter what their place in society, could benefit from experiencing wilderness.
This type of thinking is still common today—outdoor education programs are mandatory for school kids in California, and many other summer camps, rehabilitation programs and retreats emphasize the role of nature in leading a fulfilling life.
The resource conservation ethic was put forth by Gifford Pinchot, who had a really awesome name and was the first leader of the US Forest Service. Lucky guy. He thought that natural areas should be managed so that resources could be extracted and the land can be used in a way that will allow "the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time."
The resource conservation ethic suggests we should use our natural areas for all the ways we want to, as long as future generations can use them too. Sounds a little tricky, but it means managing timber and extraction of other resources so we can use them now and still have forests left in the future. Pinchot thought the government should safeguard a nation's natural resources.
The resource conservation ethic is related to the idea of sustainability—using natural resources at a rate that allows the resource to be replenished naturally.
How do we value nature? Can we put a monetary value on natural systems? How much money are ecosystems worth?
Some people believe we should preserve biodiversity because species and ecosystems have intrinsic value, or value of their own just for being, not because of what they provide to humans.
It is hard to quantify intrinsic value, and ecosystems have not historically been put into monetary terms. Ecosystems provide so many things to humans—food, water, air, filtration of pollution, prevention of storm damage, gas, and electricity—that it is hard to even imagine putting a dollar amount on them.
Without the ecosystems around us, humans could not live on Earth. Duh, right? Unfortunately, it is not so obvious to everyone that natural things are important. If ecosystem services do not have dollar values, they do not even get considered in economic-based decision making. The World Bank is currently working on Payments for Environmental Services, a program that pays landowners for the ecosystem services of their land. Find out more .
Thinking about ecosystem services in terms of monetary values is an expanding area of research. Another related topic is the economic costs of climate change. Future rain patterns and temperatures will make some areas better suited for farming than others, which will have economic impacts. Currently, the Midwest and Great Plains regions of the United States produce most of the grain for this part of the world—wheat, corn and rice. But as the climate changes, it is going to get too hot and dry to grow grains in the US and the so called "grain belt" will move north into Canada. This will have a big impact on economics of both regions, as farmers in the US will have to find new jobs.
Coastal states are in big trouble, too. Increased water temperatures will negatively affect fishing industries, as marine organisms move or die out. Flooding due to sea level rise is a huge threat for low-lying states and cities, especially in the southeast US. Remember what hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans? Imagine that in more coastal cities, as sea level rises, hurricanes happen more often and with more intensity, and storm surges become more powerful.
In Washington State, economists have predicted the economic impact of climate change if things continue on as they have with no major climate change solutions. They predict it will cost the state $12.9 billion by 2080 in increased energy costs, lost fishing revenue, damage from storms, and other climate-related losses. See their report here.
How did humans value and care for nature in the past? Why are we facing a biodiversity crisis now? What can we do about it?
Through much of European history, land and wilderness were viewed as resources that people could and should use for their own benefit. Most of the forests and Mediterranean ecosystems in Europe and its colonies were lost since they were turned into lumber, farms, and ranches.
At different times throughout the 1700s and 1800s though, colonial land managers realized that they needed to preserve some forests to prevent soil erosion, keep clean water flowing, and maintain food and lumber supplies. In Europe in the late 1800s, many species started declining in number or going extinct all together, which spurred the creation of various conservation groups and societies.
In the US, two areas were set aside for preservation as parks, even before the existence of national parks as a concept. Yosemite Valley became a state park in California in 1864 (now it is a National Park) and Yellowstone in Wyoming became the first national park in 1872, since no state government existed to manage it at the time.
In the late 1800s, Americans were starting to develop their views of nature and its relation to man. The main idea behind conservation in the United States is that wildlife belongs to the people—this concept is called the Public Trust Doctrine, and was formally instituted in a Supreme Court case in 1872.
Since wildlife belonged to the people, anyone could hunt, fish or harvest, which led to overexploitation of many game species (like the bison mentioned earlier). Hunters, worried their livelihoods were at stake, influenced the first game laws that restricted the methods and number of animals one person could take.
Leading the way in this regard was President Theodore Roosevelt, who created 230 million acres of protected land for wildlife conservation while he was president. Two 19th century philosophers also influence Americans' conservation thoughts: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about nature as a spiritual place. The writings of these two and John Muir, a wilderness explorer, pushed for preservation of natural areas with minimal human influence or modification.
After President Roosevelt put aside all that land, someone needed to be in charge of taking care of it. After all, Roosevelt was a capable man, but it would take more than one man to manage 230 million acres. Congress created the National Park Service in 1916 to look after the already protected areas and parks that would be created in the future.
Though there was some debate over what activities should be allowed on protected land, the conservation scene didn't really heat up again until the 1960s. In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, blaming the pesticide DDT for killing large numbers of birds.
DDT, short for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, is a chemical that was used to kill insects during and after World War II. While it was effective at killing agricultural pests, it affected other animals too. DDT goes through something called bioaccumulation, where it becomes more and more concentrated higher up in the food chain. When DDT meets birds of prey, it causes thinner eggshells, abnormal embryo development, and behavioral changes in adults. The combination of these changes led to big drops in population numbers for bald eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons in the 1950s.
DDT was banned in the US in 1972, around the same time other environmental laws were created. A big environmental movement in the 1960s led to creation of laws that protect air and water, and the Endangered Species Act.
Major environmental laws in the US have not changed much since the 1970s. There is currently a debate about whether carbon dioxide emissions should be regulated, since they contribute so much to climate change. These are exciting times we live in.
Conservation biology includes many different topics. How organisms respond to climate change is a hot area of research. Once we have an idea of how species respond, we can try to create policies or reserves to protect them. Research in both the science and policy of conservation biology is currently ongoing.
Biological responses to climate change: Biologists have already documented many changes in animal and plant communities related to climate change. Coldwater fish have decreased their abundance and warm water fish have increased in abundance in California waters.
Conservation biologists can predict where species might move as the climate changes. They do this by combining climate models that show temperature and precipitation predictions with species distribution maps (where species live now). They can see where suitable habitat will be in the future for a species or group of species. This helps plan how to protect future habitats.
Conservation strategies: Researchers examine the social and political reasons behind threats to biodiversity. Research on hunting wildlife in Ghana, Tanzania, Madagascar, and Cameroon attempts to understand the impacts on both humans and wildlife, and may eventually help reduce wildlife hunting. Other research in conservation studies how and when animals move across landscapes to better plan land management.
Environmental effects of disasters: After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, radiation was released into the air from a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. A month later, scientists sampled kelp off the coast of southern California and found that it had radioactive iodine in it from the nuclear meltdown. Radioactive iodine has a short half-life, and a month later it was gone. However, it is unknown how the radioactive iodine affected fish and other marine organisms in California or Japan. This shows that activity in one part of the globe can affect organisms in other places.