Written on 2019-05-13
“These lectures always make me depressed”, a colleague of mine said as we walked out of the tropical biology course last Thursday. “Why?”, another asked. “Because every time, they show you just how badly we're messing up nature.” The rest of the group had to agree: studying ecology can be horribly depressing at times. Species are disappearing faster than we can count them, whole ecosystems are collapsing right in front of our eyes, and we don't seem to be able to do very much about it. So how do we deal with this desparate outlook? And is there any cause at all for optimism?
There's no doubt that things are looking grim. Just last week, the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) published a mammoth report on global biodiversity, detailing how and where and why nature is being destroyed. It's enough to make any nature-lover's heart bleed. Except that it really doesn't contain any surprises: we've known how bad things are for decades. IPBES just summed it up.
In aforementioned lecture, for example, we learnt about marine tropical ecosystems, especially mangroves and coral reefs. Mangroves are coastal, salt-water forests, that amongst other things play an important role for fish communities. However, they are frequently cut down – either for firewood, or to make space for (heavily subsidised) shrimp aquacultures. Over a third of all mangrove forests in the world have already been destroyed. This not only threatens a unique and fascinating habitat, it also has serious knock-on effects. Most importantly, mangroves act as coastal defences, protecting inland areas from cyclones and reducing soil loss from erosion. Without mangroves, death tolls after storms rise and valuable soil is lost out to sea. This soil, by the way, often ends up on coral reefs, silting them up and thus damaging important hotspots for the tourist industry. Although the indirect benefit to society of intact mangroves is much greater than the slim earnings from shrimp, it is usually the people making a direct financial profit from the shrimp who are in charge. How do you solve this conundrum?
Wherever you look, it's the same story. The people making the money are not the people paying the price. Or, as in many cases in the Third World, the people paying the price are too poor to pursue alternative courses of action. If you need firewood to cook your meal tonight, you're not going to give much thought to whether you'll still have enough wood in fifty years time.
This is the reality of conservation. And yes, hearing story after story of nature being destroyed as people pursue their own (selfish?) gains can make you very depressed. And pessimistic.
But we can't stop there. Problems don't go away if we don't look at them. Somebody has to do the looking, and somebody has to care enough to keep looking. And if you look closely enough, you will discover sparks of hope.
Sometimes it's the small things that can make a difference. Like my colleagues in Zambia who are developing sawdust stoves. These stoves are dead cheap, burn a readily-available industrial waste product, and mean that you don't have to chop down any more trees yourself. Or other colleagues, who teach villagers farming techniques that don't involve slash-and-burn agriculture, giving them a more secure food source while simultaneously protecting the environment.
And sometimes, we can celebrate big successes. Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” and we stopped using DDT. We banned CFCs, and the ozone hole is mending again. We increased the protection for various species of song birds, and their numbers are rising again.
Not least, we still have a lot of beauty left. Looking out my train window as I write, I see a small yellowhammer fleeing from a buzzard. There are still larks over our fields and squirrels in our woods. It is spring, and I hear the birds singing. Whatever else it is, it isn't silent.
So yes, there is cause for concern, massive concern; and as ecologists and conservationists we have a lot of work to do. But there is no need to despair. A century from now, much will have been destroyed, but we will have saved a lot, too. We are making a difference. To quote T.S. Eliot (perhaps a little out of context):
Thus, love of a country
Begins as an attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent.
It may start with the small steps – but then, all great journeys do. I think it's time for conservation optimism.