The extinction debt pt.2
Source Louis Proyect
Date 04/06/16/02:11

End of the Wild pt.2

Prohibitory regulation. Virtually by definition all regulatory efforts at species protection and recovery are focused on relics and (unknowingly) ghosts, which have no chance of true recovery. Occasionally there are extraordinary exceptions, such as the American alligator, which having been almost extirpated is once again abundant. But our very few alleged successes are nothing more than manifestations of the growing dominance of human selection in evolution.

The very notion that we could regulate ourselves out of the extinction crisis?that government could force the wild to remain wild?is based on a fundamentally false premise: that the causes of species extinction are finite and reducible and that the number of true threatened species is reasonably limited. When the U.S. Endangered Species Act was recrafted in the early 1970s, wildlife experts naively believed that at most a few hundred species would require protection. Although the current U.S. list of domestic "endangered species" tops 1,300, the list would contain almost 5,000 entries if politics did not prevent it. (Species may be placed on the U.S. Endangered Species list only after a biological review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Practically all such reviews these days are initiated by petitions from environmental groups. The Bush administration has halted these reviews, claiming it has run out of money.)

More to the point, the great irony is that the U.S. Endangered Species Act is the very institutionalization of human-driven evolution. We decide which species get on the list for protection and which are kept off. We decide which habitats of listed species will be labeled critical. We decide the recovery goals: how many of a given plant or animal should be allowed to persist, in how many "populations," and where they should (and should not) be distributed across the landscape. The official recovery goal for wild bison is for a total population in the low thousands, not their original numbers in the tens of millions. The wolf recovery plan envisions several dozen packs confined to carefully delineated refuges in a few key states, not free-roaming wolf packs in every state that would reflect their true former range. And the government still shoots both species if they wander off designated lands. Recovery goals for plants (for which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spends less than five percent of what it spends on animals) are limited to restoring populations in the locations where they are presently growing as relics and ghosts, not to restoring their former range.

Similarly, International Whaling Commission rules, CITES, and other international conventions convert human values into biotic structure; they are not regimes designed for ecological restoration. How many minke whales are sufficient to allow hunting? How many zoo requests for gorillas should be honored? Fundamentally, the determination of which species make it onto these protection lists and the timing of those listings is more about what appeals to us in an aesthetic and charismatic way and economics than about pivotal ecological roles and biology. Pandas get lots of attention and support; the many thousands of disappearing aquatic invertebrates do not.

Although legal prohibitions and strict enforcement can preserve some relic species at the margins and temporarily forestall the extinction of ghost species, they cannot prevent or even slow the end of the wild. Regulation, then, does little more than transform nature into a product of the human imagination.

Refuges and preserves. Biologists and ecologists have long recognized the limitations of species-specific preservation and have lobbied instead for the creation of protected areas that would shield ecosystems and all the plants and animals within. The idea behind refuges, bioreserves, and the like is to somehow wall off the wild from the harmful disturbances of humanity. Set aside 20,000 acres, limit human activity, and allow nature to proceed unhindered in its special space. And for a while this appears to work. But this too is largely an illusion. The refuges and bioreserves we set aside are no more than our paltry conception of an ecosystem, and the species within their boundaries are in most instances part of the extinction debt and all the while in decline.

As they exist today, bioreserves are the proverbial barrel in which fish are more easily shot: three quarters of the deaths of large carnivores in bioreserves are causedby people. The failures of this approach are only now becoming obvious.

Direct and indirect human encroachment into bioreserves is relentless and, with ever expanding populations in the developing world, unavoidable. Mexico's Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, North America's last remaining rain forest, extends across 820,000 acres and is home to half of Mexico's bird species. Having already lost a quarter of its tree cover in the last 30 years to illegal logging by local residents (which Mexican authorities have ignored) the park has become a magnet for those looking for land to clear and till. In Africa and Asia, bioreserves have become the preferred hunting grounds for poachers and bush-meat traders: that is, after all, where the animals are!

Bioreserves will always be too small and too isolated from each other to accomplish their stated goal of preserving the wild as it is today. Embedded in a matrix of human habitation?cities, towns, farms, mining and logging operations?they cannot be insulated from broader human disturbances in the region, even if their own boundaries remain inviolate.

Consider one of the world's favorite eco-tourist destinations: the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. This ecologically significant area covers more than 30,000 acres and hosts more than 2,500 plant species, 100 mammalian species, 400 bird species, 120 reptilian and amphibian species, and thousands of insects. The problem is that the cloud forest appears to be drying out. Deforestation is the apparent cause, but not from logging in the preserve. Rather, the clearing of lowland areas outside the preserve for agriculture is causing changes in the local patterns of fog and mist formation, thereby altering cloud formation up in the preserve. Thus, despite strong protections within its boundaries, the cloud forest may soon lack its defining feature: clouds. And the multitude of species that depend on that moisture will go the way of the extinct golden toad.

This weakness in the call for specific ecosystem preservation becomes all the more apparent in the context of climate change. The creation of a network of isolated, independent bioreserves assumes that the global environment?in particular the global climate?is relatively static. For the past 11,000 years this would have been a fair assumption. But this has changed. Climate models project far cooler and wetter weather during the critical winter months in what are now the most important Monarch-butterfly wintering grounds in Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Bioreserve, which will become unlivable to the insects over the next few decades. Similar problems confront many of Europe's protected birds.

Lastly, by concentrating species within a limited geographic area, bioreserves increase the vulnerability of relic species to catastrophic, unrecoverable losses from natural disasters, epizootic diseases, war, and so on. During the summer of 2003, for example, fires in Brazil's two refuges that are home to the Brazilian Merganser duck (Mergus octosetaceus) wiped out 70 percent of one of the 53,000-square-kilometer parks while decimating large parts of the other and may lead to the creature's extinction. Only 250 existed before the fire.

Ultimately the transformation of wilderness into a patchwork of static bioreserves is just another tool of human selection?the antithesis of the wild.

Sustainable communities. Much has been said and written about sustainable communities as a social approach to easing the extinction crisis. Sustainability has been something of a crusade for the UN, various international agencies, and many nongovernmental environmental organizations. The argument goes that if local communities could learn to live within the carrying capacity of their environs, the pressures on terrestrial and marine ecosystems would be eased. And of course this is true.

But in the context of the extinction crisis, sustainable development is an anthropocentric resource-use policy, not an ecological model. Consumptive demand measured against resource supply, not ecosystem function, determines the limit of sustainability. What is the maximum amount of mahogany, or tuna, or leopard pelts that can be harvested and still allow projected human demand for the product to be met for the foreseeable future? The demands of the ecosystem are not truly part of the equation.

In addition, for sustainable development to have an impact on conservation it must be tied directly to local demand, where the costs of overexploitation are borne by those who benefit from it. This makes sustainable economic programs a moving target because communities grow. As medical services and standards of living improve, the size of a community, its economic aspirations, and its demands for resources grow. What was sustainable for a Kenyan village in 2000 will not be sustainable in 2020. The collapse of Africa's wildlife populations in the face of the bush-meat trade is just one example.

Moreover, if there was ever a hope for this strategy, even at a limited level, economic globalization destroyed it. Consider what might be regarded as an exemplar of sustainable development: Brazil-nut harvesting in the Amazon. Originally the idea was to protect the rain forest by creating a local economy based on the collection and sale of Brazil nuts. Initially this was quite successful. But today, local residents in the Brazilian Amazon harvest over 45,000 tons of nuts from the forest floor each year, yielding some $43 million in global trade. Unfortunately, nut gatherers harvest so many nuts that few if any seedlings are taking root. As aging Brazil-nut trees die off, they will not be replaced. Global demand for this environmentally friendly and sustainable crop drives the harvest and has made it unsustainable in the long term.

Similarly, the depletion of global fish stocks shows the basic flaw in the sustainability strategy. Local fishermen fishing for the local market are not depleting the stocks. The problem is the rise of global markets to satisfy the demands of people remote from the fishing grounds. Gross disparities in wealth between those who supply (low-wage labor) and those who demand (high-wage developed societies) ensure that sustainability will be a function of maximum bearable price, not ecological balance.

The notion of sustainable communities, then, is not about the wild. It is about long-term economic efficiency and the wise use of natural resources.

Wildlands. The wildlands concept is fantastic in both senses of the word. This idea, advocated by those in the deep-ecology movement, has two main components. First, national populations would be resettled into tightly drawn sustainable enclaves. In the United States, for example, huge, formerly ecologically significant areas such as Florida and the Rocky Mountains would be depopulated and restored to a natural state. About 50 percent of the United States would be converted into an expansive set of connected wildlands, surrounded by extensive buffers. Human access to this half of the country would be prohibited. Similar wildlands could be created on every continent.

Second, extensive social engineering would be necessary to alter land use and consumption patterns. The goal would be to reduce the ecological footprint of humanity so that much of the planet could be free from human exploitation.

In theory this strategy could reduce the slide of ghosts and relics into oblivion if it could be implemented immediately and universally. It would be a form of global ecological zoning that would significantly lessen the influence of human selection in the excluded regions. Wildlands would enable species and populations to adapt to climate change. As an ecologically centered strategy it is most likely the only approach that could truly reduce the scale and scope of the biotic collapse that is already underway.

Yet the notion that upwards of seven billion people could live hobbit-like with nature is hard to accept. With the right social framework we might have been able to do it modestly in 1304, but not in 2004 and certainly not in 2104. Global society is moving rapidly and inexorably in the opposite direction.

To be fair, advocates of wildlands acknowledge that, owing to enormous social, political, and economic hurdles, their vision would be at minimum a 100-year undertaking. The problem, of course, is that the end of the wild will already be complete.

Genetic engineering. Each year some of my students suggest that genetic engineering can end the cascade of species loss. Why can't we store DNA and, once the technology matures, bring all the species back and release them into the wild?

This kind of Jurassic Park thinking ignores the fact that all of the factors that contributed to species loss will remain in place and probably become even more powerful. If 95 percent of desert-tortoise habitat has been developed and its primary diet of herbs, grasses, and desert flowers is no longer available in 2004, exactly where will our reengineered tortoises live in 2030? At best they could exist as genetic relics in a zoo.

The miracles of genetic engineering cannot alter the fact that the wild will cease to exist even if we can individually manufacture each of its constituent parts.

A Reason to Do Nothing?

We cannot prevent the end of the wild. Absent an immediate 95-percent reduction in the human population (a truly horrendous thought), we cannot change our current course. This leads us to the question, If we are unalterably moving to a world in which half the currently existing species will be relics or ghosts, why should we continue to do anything to preserve biodiversity? Why not rescind national and international laws protecting endangered species, eliminate bioreserves, and let the unfettered market determine how and where we consume natural resources? By bowing to the serendipitous elements of human selection in setting the course of biotic development and evolution we could happily bulldoze, pave, or grass over every square inch of the planet in the pursuit of human progress. But it is not that simple.

This why-bother strategy would greatly magnify the scale, scope, and destructive consequences of the end of the wild. First, it would effectively bifurcate the earth's biota into two groups: weedy species and ghost species, the latter subsuming virtually all relics. And in this respect the number of lost organisms would surely shoot well past the 50-percent threshold noted earlier, while the time scale would contract to decades rather than a century-plus.

Indeed, even weedy species could face serious threats in this environment. The American crow and the blue jay, for example, have already seen their numbers decimated in many areas of the United States as a consequence of the invasion of the alien West Nile Virus, which first struck in 1999.

Second, this human-selected biosphere will not necessarily be a human-friendly one. Without direct management many species that we view as key natural resources, such as timber trees and marine fish stocks, would be consumed out of existence. The invisible hand of the market is all too invisible when it comes to the exploitation of natural commodities. The multiple collapses of once bountiful Atlantic and Pacific fisheries?which are now regulated, albeit poorly-represent just a taste of what would happen without any controls in place. (The North Atlantic, for example, has less than 20 percent of the fish it held in 1900.) The destructive effects would rebound through the economies of many nations.

Certain types of ecosystems and biotic communities, such as tropical rain forests and wetlands, might completely disappear. Thirty-five percent of the world's mangrove swamps?essential breeding habitat for many marine fish species?have already been lost, and the rate of destruction is accelerating annually. Surviving ecosystems would be impoverished and would fail to provide the range of services (e.g., water purification, flood and storm damage control) that we depend on.

Third, this approach would almost certainly increase the predominance of pests, parasites, and disease-causing organisms among the weedy species. Already today white-tailed deer populations in the United States (and Britain) have been allowed to grow virtually unchecked. There are now over 350,000 deer-auto collisions a year in the United States (50,000 in the U.K.), resulting in over 10,000 serious injuries to motorists, 150 human deaths annually, and billions of dollars in property damage. (By comparison there have been fewer than 50 confirmed human killings by mountain lions in the United States in the past 100 years.) In Britain there are about 50,000 auto-deer collisions, 2,400 human injuries, and 20 deaths. White-tailed deer, moreover, are an essential vector for the highly debilitating Lyme disease, which is spreading rapidly in the eastern United States. Indeed, many human pathogens and diseases are likely to flourish in this environment, finding it easy to skip around the world from country to country as was the recent case of the SARS virus.

Fourth, the global spread of invasive species would explode if left unchecked. Ecological concerns such as biotic homogenization aside, the economic toll would be disastrous. The economic harm caused by the 50,000 non-native invasive plants, animals, and other organisms already in the United States is approaching $140 billion per year. Florida's government alone spends $45 million annually battling invasive species, which cause some $180 million in agricultural damage.

The why-bother approach, moreover, would kill off a large proportion of the relic species in the wild that have particular psychological importance (existence value) to humanity: elephants, gorillas, whales, owls, and hawks, and other charismatic animals. From a humanist standpoint the quality of life on earth would plummet.

In the end, the notion that we could let nature take its course in a world so dominated by humanity is as dangerous as it is self-contradictory. Like it or not, nature now works for us. If humanity is to survive and prosper on such a planet then we have no choice but to at least try to manage the fine details of the end of the wild.

Since we cannot possibly restore relic and ghost species to their former status, nor do we have the knowledge to pick evolutionary winners and losers, we should focus on two core concerns: (1) safeguarding future evolutionary processes and pathways and (2) preserving ecosystem processes and functions.

We should begin with a massive and sustained two-decade global effort, reminiscent of the International Geophysical Year, to map systematically and dynamically the earth's biota. Only about 20 percent of the earth's species have been formally described. We need to know what is here, how it lives, what it does, and what is happening to it in order to prepare for what will be lost. More significantly we need to understand the intricacies of genetic and functional relationships among species?especially for relics and ghosts?to understand how evolutionary and ecological processes will be altered.

This means recording not just what species exist, how they look, what they do, and how they are linked together, but also what is happening to them as populations, as communities of populations, and at the landscape level. Undoubtedly this will be expensive, but spending $100 billion over the next decade to understand fully the dimensions of the accelerating biotic extinction on Earth will have infinitely greater significance for humanity than scratching at the surface of Mars for signs of remotely hypothetical billion-year-old bacterial extinctions.

Meanwhile we must move away from the haphazard strategy of protecting relic and ghost species in isolation. Specifically, we can begin to think about trans-regional schemes for building meta-reserves. These would be non-contiguous assemblages of terrestrial and aquatic sanctuaries and proto-sanctuaries, significantly larger than current bioreserves. Sites would be selected to protect broad ecosystem functions and processes in a dynamic environment rather than species-specific habitat needs or singly-defining (highly peculiar) ecological characteristics. In other words, these meta-reserves would involve the designation of multiple and disparate terrestrial and aquatic refuges, many of which could have future, but not current, special biodiversity value. Each meta-reserve would be modeled around an one or more existing core biodiversity hot spots and a constellation of satellite sites, with the expectation that climate change and other human disturbances are likely to shift the ecological processes and habitat values of current biodiversity hot spots among these sites. The satellite sites of these meta reserves would periodically receive (by our doing) biotic community transplants as experimental "migrations" as abiotic characteristics such as rainfall change. The goal?admittedly a gamble?would be to avoid mistakes like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reservation.

For these meta-reserves to operate properly, three conditions will have to be met. First, plant and animal populations within these meta-reserves will have to be actively and heavily managed at all levels - exactly the opposite of how we think about present-day bioreserves. Ecosystems cannot be conserved by benign neglect. We must determine population levels within the meta-reserves as well as when and where plants and animals should migrate among meta-reserve sites. We must determine when it is time to introduce new genes into a species, as we are presently doing with the Florida panther. Restricted-range and sessile species would require our explicit intervention to disperse them to potential new habitat areas.

Second, meta-reserves would need highly porous wildlife boundaries within a broad network of corridors and connections (e.g., forest tracts and wetlands) allowing wildlife to move freely and stochastically to new areas. Movement, migration, and colonization are the goals of meta-reserves, not imprisonment. These corridors would be buffered by wide swaths of landscape where ecologically compatible agriculture and heavily regulated resource use were allowed.

Third, given the above, substantial human and financial resources would have to be devoted to continuous management and rigorous enforcement, or else these efforts will be futile. Annual global spending on ecosystem protection (including acquisition) is just over $3 billion (the price of two B-2 bombers). In order to nudge the end of the wild toward a more human-friendly outcome, we need to spend ten times that much to compensate for the unintended impact of human selection.

In this context the issue of alien plant and animal species becomes problematic. On the one hand the intentional and unintentional movement of species among the continents can be a dangerous and harmful manifestation of human selection. Controlling the flow of exotic parasites, pests, and predators will increase the cost of global commerce and disrupt short-term profits. But it will save far more in the costs associated with trying to eradicate destructive alien pests such as the zebra muscle or the Formosan termite.

On the other hand, in confronting the end of the wild, the notion of meta-reserves implies that the intentional transplanting of alien species might be desirable from an evolutionary perspective. If climate change and development are going to render some regions unsuitable for certain species, should we transplant them out-of-region to where they might thrive? For example, the Puerto Rican coqui (Eleutherodactylus coqui), a tree frog, is under increasing pressure from development and pollution at home. But in Hawaii (where they were illegally transported) they are thriving. Habitat substitution in the face of dynamic environmental change is not the same as biotic homogenization. Should we oppose it or employ it?

Finally, prohibitive policies such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act and CITES need to be kept in place and strengthened. Although they are at best stop-gap measures, they buy time for us to examine the ecological roles of relic and ghost species and assess the impact of their loss. Perhaps more significant is their moral imperative. Like the Ten Commandments, they remind us who we could be. They make us examine our own behavior and obligations as the planet's stewards while giving pause to the brazen and needless destruction of species in our own backyards.

The end of the wild does not mean a barren world. There will be plenty of life. It will just be different: much less diverse, much less exotic, far more predictable, and?given the dominance of weedy species?probably far more annoying. We have lost the wild. Perhaps in 5 to 10 million years it will return. <

Stephen M. Meyer is a professor of political science at MIT and the director of the MIT Project on Environmental Politics and Policy.

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.

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