Conservation Offers Reasons For Conditional Optimism, But We Seem To Prefer Feeling Glum

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Photo by Michael LaRosa on Unsplash

It’s become fashionable to depict our species as a greedy, stupid, and unprincipled killing machine. Unquestioning acceptance of the idea that everywhere we go we leave nothing but death and destruction in our wake has become almost compulsory in many circles.

This one-sided view of humanity is dispiriting to say the least. In addition to failing to consider the big picture or take the long view, it’s a narrative that tends to undermine the very values those proclaiming it claim to hold dear.

Consider the “obituary” published for the Great Barrier Reef in the October 11, 2016 issue of Outside Magazine.This unfortunate commentary will hopefully go down as one of the greatest premature pronouncements in history.

The obit for the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet declared that after 25 million years in existence that included numerous environmental changes, at least a few of which were pretty stressful even relative to current events, Homo sapiens proved to be too much for the reef to handle. According to the article “The Great Barrier Reef was predeceased by the South Pacific’s Coral Triangle, the Florida Reef off the Florida Keys, and most other coral reefs on earth.” In the final sentence the author asks mourners to send donations to the Ocean Ark Alliance “in lieu of flowers”.

But why would anyone bother with a donation to a conservation organization dedicated to saving ecosystems that have just been declared dead? Even if this piece of hyperbole was intended to scare people into action, as presumably it was, the only reasonable emotional response to this sort of rhetoric is a paralyzing mortification.

Coral reefs are, of course, vital ocean ecosystems that are facing increasing stress from climate change, pollution, and other impacts associated with human activity. That we need to do more to protect these and other areas isn’t in dispute. However, urging people to act by falsely advertising the moment to save a particular ecosystem has passed is like including a solicitation for funds to facilitate grandma’s recovery with a premature announcement of her memorial service.

Humans have been having a profound impact upon the environment for quite some time. For example, a major extinction event on the continent of Australia has been strongly linked to the arrival of people there roughly 45,000 years ago. That the first humans to arrive in North America may have pushed much of the megafauna there over the edge has also long been the subject of considerable speculation. It’s widely understood that before European settlers arrived indigenous peoples in the Americas engaged in intensive agriculture.

However, it’s important that past interactions with the environment be considered in context. The state of human knowledge at the time is relevant to any judgment we might care to make regarding past human activities. To say that concepts like population biology and ecology were merely foreign to our ancestors is to risk underestimating the degree of human ignorance relative to our own throughout most of human history. They lacked the information needed to even speculate about the possibility of many of the theories that we take for granted today. Just 200 years ago the idea that humans might actually be able to engage in agricultural and industrial activity on a scale that would change the global climate would have been extremely difficult to imagine and impossible to demonstrate using the available data.

The good news is that as our understanding of the natural world has grown, our desire to protect it has generally increased as well. Just in the United States alone the Endangered Species Act, Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Antiquities Act, and the creation of the National Park Service all serve as prominent examples of legislation that reflect changes in values that can be directly linked to increases in our knowledge.

Globally efforts to protect habitat and conserve resources have also seen dramatic advances. According to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2016 the amount of land under some form of protected status rose from 8.2% to 14.4%. Terrestrial and marine areas combined receiving some form of protection increased from 6.2% to 12.8% between 1990 and 2014.

Though greater optimism is justified, it shouldn’t be unconditional or uninformed. Realistic evaluations of the challenges we face and accurate assessments of both our progress and our failures are necessary to building and maintaining any momentum we might achieve. However, we have fallen into the habit of focusing almost exclusively upon our failures while minimizing, ignoring, or even denying our progress. The environmental movement in particular seems to have turned cheerleading for pessimism into a kind of dystopian art.

This toxic atmosphere of continually pending disaster has left people increasingly convinced that government is a failure and other institutions are utterly unresponsive to growth in human knowledge or evolving social values. To see the cost of this distrust and cynicism one need look no further than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Humanity has, to be sure, failed at times. Like its individual members, our species makes mistakes. Sometimes we need to make them a number of times before the lesson of those mistakes begins to sink in. Positive change doesn’t occur everywhere at once or at the same pace everywhere it is happening. But celebrating our successes is as essential to persuading others to join us as data. Happy warriors are much better at recruiting new soldiers than those urging people to join a lost cause. The world could use a few more happy warriors at the moment.

Other recent articles by Craig include: Winter Is Pub Season, But The Rest Of The Year Belongs To Nature & Equality: The Yeast That Makes Liberty Rise

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at

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