Monday, April 27, 2009

The roots (and futility) of conservation

The modern idea of conservation was born in 19th century evangelical United States and has its roots in literary - i.e. anti-evolution - Christian ideas about life on Earth and the age of our planet. According to these ideas, life on Earth is static and does not evolve. It was created ex nihilo by an omnipotent designer a few thousand years ago. The last of the designer’s creation, us humans, were bestowed with the obligation of presiding and preserving Earth’s Garden of Life, God’s Creation. Hence, the creation of Yellowstone, the first national natural park of the world, was vociferously argued by Theodore Roosevelt on the basis of Christian duty, thus swinging the republican vote in favor of spending a considerable sum of federal money on the project.

Since then, natural conservation has an aura of sanctity about it. This sanctity has an appeal for many, and brings together very disparate groups of people under one umbrella, namely the “saving of the planet”. Such a premise is misled, unscientific and dangerous.

I have already argued the reasons for being misled. It is unscientific because to try to “preserve” a dynamic system such is life on Earth is simply futile. It is like trying to preserve a sunny day for ever. The difference is one of time scale only. Our “sunny day” is the Pleistocene (plus Holocene – for those who like making the distinction) Era. We, today, see the world in an evolutionary, geological and climatic snapshot of its last 1.8 million years. However, the film reel so-far is 4.5 billion years, or 4,500 million years. “Conservation”, in the sense that is currently dominant, is the unscientific attempt to stop the film of evolution.

That is why conservation can be also dangerous. The current climate debate is an example. The idea that humanity can somehow “stop” the planet getting warmer, and somehow” return” to a pre-industrial time of low CO2 levels, is not only unscientific and futile, but diverts considerable global resources to the wrong kind of project.

So what can the “right” project be? Certainly not to lay waste on Mother Earth by polluting the air, the ground and the sea, and killing every living species! The idea of conservation must undergo serious scientific overhaul. The emphasis should shift from static to dynamic, and should encompass three main action areas:

Increase our understanding on Earth’s systems and their interplay. Instead of studying systems separately, we need a cross-disciplinary approach to include the concurrent study of geological, climatic (i.e. atmospheric and oceanic), space and life feedback systems.

  1. Develop monitoring systems to observe and measure human interference with Earth’s feedback systems.
  2. Develop technologies that can support a comfortable and healthy life for all human beings, which operate in harmony with Earth’s feedback systems.

The current political, and dominant scientific, agenda must change.

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