Why Conservation Biology Matters

Being right too soon is socially unacceptable

~ Robert Heinlein


The multidisciplinary enterprise of conservation biology is helpful to understanding the concept of near-term human extinction. The pillars of conservation biology — speciation, extinction, and habitat — are poorly understood by most scientists, yet they are crucial to understanding and predicting the demise of organisms, including Homo sapiens.

Conservation biologists are reluctant to apply words such as “field” or “discipline” to their collective endeavor because these words are deemed too narrow to be accurate. Conservation biology draws from several subjects to tackle complex topics such as guild, niche, functional extinction, and species diversity. I would be hard-pressed to think of an endeavor that requires broader understanding than conservation biology. A mix of theory and its application makes conservation biology simultaneously difficult to categorize — much less understand by those unfamiliar with the relevant vocabulary — and crucial to preservation of life on Earth.

Conservation biologists readily understand the fragile nature of life. We know the importance of soil, wind, fire, precipitation, temperature, bacteria, fungi, and myriad other factors on the continued persistence of every life form. We study the importance of interspecific competition, mutualism, and evolution by natural selection. We are aware that every species continually dances on the edge of extinction, constantly hovering on the brink.

Extinction occurs when the last individual of a species dies. Most species are driven to extinction as a result of habitat loss. I suspect the final human will follow this path, not long after habitat is destroyed by abrupt climate change. A few species are hunted to extinction by humans. Violent though we can be, I doubt we join them.

Counting the losses is the saddest of jobs. As pointed out by Aldo Leopold, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Few within civilization are aware of the horrors of civilization. They don’t feel the wounds, for they are ignorant.

Conservation biology is the science of connecting seemingly disparate information into a clear, compelling story. It is the scientific study of the intricate, interconnected web comprising life on Earth. Disappearing birds, linked to disappearing insects, is one of the stories of conservation biology. That humans could be next is an obvious conclusion to every conservation biologist and stunningly few other people.

In sharp contrast to conservation biologists, engineers and CEOs are addicted to “fixing” rather than understanding. Furthermore, the culture in which we are embedded claims that quitters never win. Hollywood piles on with fantasies we love to believe. Even strategic retreat is disparaged by the patriarchs this society heralds as “winners.” The most deluded of these people incorrectly believe we can build our way out of extinction. More and bigger buildings surely will pave the way — pun intended — to a brighter future characterized by bigger, better, faster, and more. What could possibly go wrong?

There are other reasons self-proclaimed scientists fail to address the most important topic in the history of our species. Privilege, including the attendant prestige and money, comes immediately to mind.

Considering the fantasy known as the dominant, infinite-growth paradigm, is it any wonder we can’t let go? Is it any wonder we deny death, at every level?