Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, May 06, 2011


Cŏn-sērve', v. to keep in a safe or sound state; to save, to preserve from loss, decay, waste, or injury; to defend from violation.” -Webster's Dictionary

At a recent public meeting, I was accused of caring more about tortoises than people. It wasn't the first time I'd had such charges leveled against me; in fact, it's the rare argument against conservation that leaves this rhetorical barb in the quiver. Of course, if it came down to an actual choice between the lives of tortoises and people (rather than between tortoises and the further enriching of a handful of fat-cats), I'd have to side with my own species. But the real fallacy of this accusation is that at its core, conservation is a practice based in self-interest.

Our sustenance-culture forebears engaged personally each day with the resources they consumed. To them, the conservation of nature was basic common sense. Those cultures that consumed resources faster than they could replenish themselves simply died out. It was a folly analogous to outspending our own weekly paychecks. In today's industrial world, most of us consume resources gathered from far away lands, and gauging the sustainability of their harvest is difficult. Still, by the Nineteenth Century, as the global population passed one billion, the alarming decline of the of the Northern Hemisphere's forests alerted visionaries like Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh to the need for a new conservation philosophy. This philosophy was informed by two assumptions: first, the undeniable fact that Humans, as facets of ecological systems, are dependent on those systems, and have a vested interest in their remaining healthy and operational, and that Humans have an intrinsic need—call it spiritual, biological or psychological—for nature. The ecologist Edward O. Wilson called it “biophilia.”

Since the days of Marsh and Thoreau, the Human population has expanded exponentially, more than doubling during my own lifetime, stressing the biological systems that ultimately support us all. In addition to increasing resource consumption, population growth exacerbates the non-consumptive displacement and stress caused by human activities, elevating innocuous enterprises to ecologically devastating ones. Adding to this is the increasing per capita rate of consumption, which is harder to assess. It's probably best measured with the closely related indicators of standard of living and economic growth, which are usually expressed with the soft metric of currency, but its rise over time has, if anything, exceeded that of population.Conventional wisdom has told us that economic growth will alleviate the problems of overpopulation and ecological degradation. Standard models predicted the Human population stabilizing at about 9 billion by the middle of this century. The latest U. N. study, just released on May 3, casts doubt on this assumption, predicting continued growth, and a population exceeding 10 billion before century's end. More dubious yet is the oft-cited idea that as poor countries become wealthier, the state of their ecological systems improves. While it's true that more efficient technologies become available to the masses with increased wealth, along with better education, which depresses fertility, most of the fuel for this hypothetical process comes from the historical fact that as their living standards improved, northern nations looking increasingly beyond their own shores for natural resources, relieving themselves of many of the downsides of resource extraction. This option will not be open to the currently developing world. Where the natural impact of Humans in wealthy countries is global, that of poor countries is local. While the ecologically devastating land-use practices of a few very poor nations like Madagascar skew the picture, the ecological health of the world's poor nations is inversely proportional to their wealth, just as the planet's total ecological health is inversely proportional to the overall wealth of its Human population: a sobering realization.As ecology defines how energy circulates among organisms, economics defines how wealth circulates among individuals, and the same principles govern both sciences. It's the outstripping of resource renewal by consumption-- that same paradigm we call “economic growth,” and are used to seeing as an amenity--that makes conservation necessary. Clearly, the primary goal of any conservation philosophy must be to reach a point of economic equilibrium. Planning a route to that equilibrium will cause hardship, but failing to plan for it will ensure that same hardship in spades. Those of us in wealthy countries have the most power to act for the ultimate good of all, and each of us as individuals must decide how much of the burden we're willing to shoulder. It's not for the tortoises, it's for ourselves.

Next up in the series: Conservation vs. Management
upper: DESERT TORTOISES (2008) acrylic 20" x 30"
center: Graph from Wikimedia, adapted by CPBvK