The Biodiversity Blunder
The IUCN (1948)
It was a magnificent innovation: the Red List, a list of threatened species around the world published regularly by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Union was established in 1948 in the heady post-war years of hope and innovation. It was founded to offer the university academic community access to world issues of conservation and quickly became the icon of conservation, ever in need of funds to feed urgent projects. Supporters took what they saw as a large but necessary step in founding the World Wildlife Fund in 1961 with its international office in Morges, just outside Geneva, with the purpose of raising funds to support IUCN initiatives. The design of the WWF was around specific national appeals including, of course, a US arm, WWF-US, which grew over the course of the next three decades to dominate the world organization. Not surprisingly, the national appeals developed their own programs quite independent of the IUCN. There were many innovations along the way but the Red List stood forth as a primary statement of the mission of conservation. A listing put the finger on species and sites requiring attention.
The approach was effective, remarkably so. By 1963 there was recognition of a need for more formal support for preserving species and the IUCN drafted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which became known as CITES. The convention had received sufficient governmental recognition by 1973 that a meeting of representatives of 80 nations could be held in Washington where a process was established for ratification and implementation. CITES entered into force in 1975 after 10 signers had ratified and become Parties to the Convention. By 2009 175 nations were Parties and the Convention was gathering muscle as nations developed their own internal rules for protecting species and were reaching for international leverage as well. Additional attention was going into special international challenges such as whales, big cats, and tuna.
In the academic world papers and books appeared around the truism that extinction is forever. The Red Lists became longer, overwhelmed in fact in the early 70’s, and it was clear that too many species were threatened and the challenge was to save the full range of species on earth. A shorthand developed. “Biodiversity” emerged as a term consolidating all purposes in preserving species. Defending biodiversity in all its imaginable forms became the core objective in conservation.
It was an unfortunate choice. While the arguments advanced in the interests of preserving biodiversity were true and desirable, the emphasis on species was inadequate to the point of misleading, both as a concept of science and as an objective for political action in conservation. The inadequacy appeared only over time as both science and conservation slipped to the margins of human affairs and biotic impoverishment soared globally. Biotic diversity was a useful concept but it offered no implement, no tool in science, and no model, no example of success, no clear cost of failure. It was a concept, ephemeral to most and not easily defined or measured or conserved in practical, specific, understandable terms.
But the concept was attractive to many scientists, bolstered by books, many compendia of papers written by the world’s best known scholars asserting articulately the importance to all of keeping every sprig of the earth’s green mantle. And research efforts were undertaken to find objective evidence that the metric of biodiversity, the number of species present, defined structure and function in landscapes and conveyed substance to ecology and succor in various forms to human interests. The search intensified as scholars recognized that there are large differences in biodiversity around the globe: tropical forests for example have many more species than the boreal forest. “Hot spots” of biodiversity are obviously more attractive and important as objectives in conservation than places less well endowed. Or are they?
The logic refuted, or simply ignored, a century of analysis and exploration by botanists who had struggled with the questions around the concept of plant and animal communities which they saw as no less a product of evolution than the species themselves. And to be sure, the interactions among species, the mutual dependencies, and structural complementarities provided ample basis for the theories. An arm of science emerged under various names including phyto –sociology and ecology itself. In all of that discussion the species list was one of the richest elements, but only if accompanied by several of the other elements of structure and, later, physiology and genetics,,. In this new revolution in concepts all that history was ignored in favor, not of the species list per se, but simply of biodiversity” It was strange argument for it prejudged species numbers and novelty as important and worthy of preservation. It overlooked genetic variability, ecotypes, community structure, species dominance, minimal ranges, interdependencies and propinquity. It also overlooked broad, chronic, changes in environment such as chemical pollution and climatic disruption, that changed the environment out from under each individual, not a species, but each organism, each survivor of the competitive business of life, and every ecotype, selected for success in that place. In such a world saving a “hot spot’ of biodiversity is little more than a hope, a wish, certain to be dashed as chronic changes in environment accumulate and produce the inevitable impoverishment of land and water. The impoverishment offers no hope of restoration, for the neighboring ecotypes have all been lost as well, long before the species has been lost, and there is no resilience remaining.
Never the less, biodiversity became the criterion for establishing an interest in conserving places, land and water; hot spots of biodiversity and parks and reserves were established to preserve such sites. The emphasis on local parks seemed appropriate and appeared to satisfy the needs of conservationists who, thinking of migratory animals, moved to attempt to connect parks with corridors left in their natural state. That, too, was an excellent if difficult plan. But, again, the emphasis was narrow and specific. It took “conservation” out of the main stream of politics and economics and left the rest of the world open to business as usual. Business as usual was in fact destroying all life on earth, despite the elaborate efforts at protecting biodiversity in parks. Conservation had to become the business of government, the core business, if it were to be effective. But the practitioners were busy with parks and reserves to support biodiversity.
In many cases the parks were far too late, even to provide a moment’s respite from the rasp of industrial expansion and exploitation. The examples are legion. I recall as a boy visiting family friends who lived on T-Wharf on the Boston waterfront. I was enthralled by the throng of commercial fishing vessels that crowded that large dock several vessels deep. These were small, sturdy, diesel-powered wooden craft rigged with trawls that were put over the side and drawn aboard amidships: “beam trawlers”, I was told, and I was fascinated as any boy would be. Then, on family visits to the coast of Maine, I could hear and see the trawlers working the inshore fishery and hear the comments of the locals about how the trawlers were taking everything and there was nothing left. And there was nothing left. The trawlers got everything….and sold it in Boston or Portsmouth or Portland or ……..There was no refuge, no protected zone. The protected zones have come recently, but too late. Now there are no fish to protect.
Years later I came back to New England to live in the marine community of Woods Hole where Spencer Baird had settled to work on fish and fisheries in the 1870’s. Persuaded that the fisheries were in peril, he managed to have the Congress establish the US Fisheries Commission. He became the first Commissioner, serving without pay. He was correct, of course, about the fisheries but the depredations of that time were trifling by comparison with what was to follow over the next century.
Recently 140 years later dead dolphins washed up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, victims of the massive oil dump from a failed British Petroleum deep-drilling platform, the largest such catastrophe ever. The response was, of course, to try to cap the well and stop the flow. Nothing worked and the gusher continued at tens of thousands of barrels daily. To keep the oil from soiling the beaches and marshes of the Gulf shores, the company used dispersants, emulsifiers, to spread the oil through the water column and make it less conspicuous if even more available to marine life. And the emulsifiers themselves constituted a further exotic chemical, a toxin in fact. The effects?
There was no marine laboratory in the nation that did not aspire to having staff members on the site studying the effects. On the one hand it would have been reasonable for the scientific community to withhold judgment on this unmitigated disaster until these scientists had a chance to review the site objectively and make an appraisal. But, scientific analysis or not, the fact is that it was an unmitigated disaster, inexcusable, and with a total cost to the world beyond appraisal. No amount of scholarly review could mitigate that obvious fact. Nor will any technological insight or clever manipulation correct, reduce or deflect the disastrous effects of a prolonged, huge release of toxins into the Gulf and, ultimately, into the global oceans. The only mitigation will be the gradual decay of the oil, but residues will be around a century from now.
Furthermore, the effects on the Gulf are predictable, both the biophysical circulation of the toxins, and the systematic biotic impoverishment of the entire Gulf of Mexico as the oil enters the Gulf’s gyre and is carried widely. Some will decay, some will be sedimented, some washed up on the beaches and marshes of the Gulf and some will be mixed sufficiently to pass through the Straits of Florida into the Gulf Stream and into the North Atlantic gyre. The use of the emulsifiers assures us of that circulation. We also know that the oil from the 1969 Florida barge spill in Buzzards Bay that washed into a West Falmouth marsh persisted in those sediments for decades . We know that this latest insult is precipitating a broad crisis of biodiversity in the Gulf and on its shores and beyond. The effects are best described, not as a loss of species and a biodiversity crisis, but as part of the incremental biotic impoverishment of the Gulf, a completely predictable trend produced by any chronic disturbance. The process is predictable and costly and preventable. It produces the elimination of the larger, longer lived, slowly reproducing forms and assures the survival of the smaller, abundant, rapidly reproducing forms in all habitats. The Gulf with its incredibly rich biotic systems moves toward the biotic structure of a sewage pool. Avoiding that cumulative erosion of biotic integrity requires strict attention to avoiding chronic environmental disruption.
Has an emphasis on biodiversity protected the Gulf from this insult? From the excess of nitrogen flowing from agriculture into the Gulf from the Mississippi drainage? From the open-ended global warming? From the increasing acidity of all oceans as the carbon balance shifts with increasing carbon dioxide? Biodiversity is not a part of the discussion and conservation and conservationists have protected nothing, even to the extent of allowing governmental regulatory responsibilities to be ignored, a failure that led inevitably to the most extensive and disastrous oil spill ever. The problem is larger than species, by far. .. and writ large in our history and experience.
Back in the latter decades of the 19th century fishing vessels turned from wind to steam power and trawlers were developed and had their way. They worked the abundant inshore stocks of fish, especially herring, mackerel and cod along the New England coast. The cod were especially abundant and valuable in that they were large and could be “ flaked”, dried, salted and traded far and wide. Those cod stocks, the inshore strains, despite their original abundance, are now gone and have never returned. Such populations were unquestionably ecotypes, genetically fixed to the inshore environments, temperatures, depths, currents, food, place and to all predators except the trawls. The cod disappeared along with the trawlers that fished them out, never to return. One might think the stocks would be replaced by populations from the deeper waters, but those populations, too, are ecotypes, fixed to their special places in the world, and they are under pressure from the newer innovation in efficiency, the stern trawlers, larger and far more powerful than their predecessors and able to stay out for weeks or more if necessary, hauling large bottom trawls that scoop up all life for miles. These smaller ships can feed a selection from their take to large factory ships nearby. Conservation? Biodiversity? Great thoughts, but outside the discussion. So, too, the once huge cod stocks of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, were destroyed by over-fishing and have not recovered despite many years of protection… and hope. Again, their conservation was clearly the business of government and we have allowed ourselves to be distracted and have lost….. dismally: the fishing grounds, once the richest in the world, now impoverished beyond recovery.
The fisheries are a model for the forests which once covered about 44% of the land area and now cover less than 28% . The forests, too, have lost ecotypes and the losses spin upward daily as the environment erodes out from under them.
Meanwhile, still seduced by biodiversity, we struggle for a better rationale for conservation and try the argument in favor of preserving biodiversity because of the public service functions of nature. We try to “sell” those functions as having a financial value. But the value accrues to the public at large and protecting it falls to government, which must fight the private interests that can profit immediately from selling the last fish. Again, the public losses are fact and avoiding them is a worthy purpose, but again we scientists and conservationists set ourselves outside the flow of politics and economics and are easily ignored, simply set off to the side as irrelevant. Our frame of reference is not compelling. We are fumbling, incoherent, ineffectual, marginalized by commerce and industry and by the governmental agencies and interests that should be our own.
The fact is that the global environment is a biotic system, dependent for its continuity of function on the totality of its elements, its total genetic pool, not only recognized as species, but all of its ecotypes, communities of plants and animals, on land and in the global waters. It is the totality of life that is now threatened with systematic impoverishment, vividly before us as the biotic feedbacks of the climatic disruption swing into action and take the potential for control of climate out of our hands. And as catastrophes such as the contamination of the entire Gulf of Mexico by one oil well join a global explosion of chronic disturbances, the erosion of climate and an untold profusion of industrial toxins, to produce a systemic corruption of the environment and the progressive biotic impoverishment of the earth. The remnant human survivors a thousand years from now will read the sedimental record and marvel at the gross stupidity of a culture that could so effectively march from Eden into oblivion.
The enemy is chronic disturbance, cumulative, relentless, irreversible, physical, chemical and biotic disturbance that moves the world systematically down the curve of biotic impoverishment, place by place, until the effects fuse and the disturbance becomes global and feeds on itself to end this phase in the evolution of the biosphere.
Conservation, focused tightly on preserving biodiversity, has been effectively defined to be outside the core of governmental function at the very moment in earthly history when preserving the conditions that have succored all life should be at the very core of every governmental consideration, now and for the all of the future.
We, scientists and conservators of life and environment, are engaged in a perpetuating a monstrous, unnecessary, and potentially fatal, blunder.
 To be sure I was a participant with many others. See various authors in E.O. Wilson , Editor. 1988. Biodiversity. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.
2Tilman, David, and John Downing. "Biodiversity and Stability in Grasslands." Nature 6461 (1994): 363-365. Tilman, David. "Competition and Biodiversity in Spatially Structured Habitats." Ecology 75 (1994): 2-16.
 Oosting, H.J. 1958. The Study of Plant Communities. W. H. Freeman and Co. San Francisco. 440 pp.
 Kramer, P.J. 1949. Plant and Soil Water Relationships. McGraw-Hill. New York
 Myers, N. The Environmentalist 8 187-208 (1988); ^ Myers, N. The Environmentalist 10 243-256 (1990); ^ Russell A. Mittermeier, Norman Myers and Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier, Hotspots: Earth's Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions, Conservation International, 2000 ISBN 978-9686397581; Myers, N., R. A. Mittermeier, C. G. Mittermeier, G. A. B. da Fonseca, and J. Kent. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403:853-858. See also: S.A. Levin, Ed. 2001. Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. Vols. 1-5. 2001. Academic Press, NY
 See sanders below/
 Sanders, H.L., J.F. Grassle, G.R.Hampson, L.S. Morse, S.G. Price, C.C. jones. Long term effects of the Barge Florida oil spill. U.S. EPA. Municipal Environmental Research Laboratory, Cincinnati, Ohio. Jan. 1981.
 P 1, Chapter 1, in Forests in a Full World, G.M. Woodwell . Yale 2001