04 January 2014

The Gentle Art of Conservation Ju Jitsu

A panda yesterday.
What should we conserve? How much effort should we expend on preventing animals and plants that are having obvious evolutionary problems surviving in the modern world going extinct? Are photogenic megafauna useful? Should we pander to pandas? This was the question that the indefatigable Messrs Robin Ince and Brian Cox grappled with in a recent episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4.

Presenters and panel covered such thorny issues as whether we should protect ugly animals (yes, even including the threatened human pubic louse, apparently endangered by habitat loss due to Brazilians, I kid you not) or whether photocopier-friendly beasts such as the Giant Panda should be let slide gently into that good night of eternal extinction. Or, by focusing on individual species, are we missing the bigger picture? No species is an island - they - WE - all exist as part of a wider biosphere, itself composed of multiple interacting ecosystems. Those ecosystems are themselves often phenomenally complex, and impact on other systems in ways that we probably haven't even thought about yet. Loss or significant degradation can have profound unforeseen effects.

But the illusion of stasis - implicit in the word "conservation" - is a mirage. In fact (and this was brought up in the programme), the biological world is in a constant state of flux. That's the very clockspring of evolution - species and ecosystems change, and we are as much agents of that change as any invasive species. Indeed, humans can be described as the Japanese knotweed of the mammalian world, as one contributor put it.

As a 45 minute discussion it worked well, but I feel this issue needs much wider attention, as well as a comprehensive focus from government and society in general. Not because pandas and the other inhabitants of Brian's Ark are cute, but because our very existence depends on them, and more specifically the interactions between multiple species and environments that give rise to ecosystems and the biosphere. In that respect, the beetles, wasps, fungi and bacteria are every bit as important - perhaps even more so - as the big fluffies.

Allied to this (citation needed!) it is widely quoted that the top six inches of soil contains more than double the carbon that is in the atmosphere contributing to global warming. Yet land being farmed in monoculture by modern agricultural methods is actually highly degraded in organics, and the massive production that we achieve on today's large farms is achieved on injured depleted soil at the expense of massive application of fossil-fuel-intensive fertilisers. Plus, in modern arable farming we engage in spectacular ploughing activity, which breaks up soil ecosystems and further kicks soil carbon into the atmosphere for the short-term expedient of high yield of pricey annual crops. We're mining the soil as well as the oil.

So from a conservation (in the wider sense) viewpoint, is there a solution? Is it just the case that seven billion of us on this planet are doomed to trash the place, degrading our ecosystems to the stage where the larger biosphere just collapses (at least as far as maintaining human civilisation is concerned)? I don't think so, and neither do many other people. It is possible to design systems of high agricultural yield that require much less fossil fuel input, and that as byproduct build fertility back into the soil and capture carbon at the same time. These systems thrive on biodiversity and encourage it. More complex systems are (perhaps counter-intuitively) more resistant to catastrophic collapse - resilience flows naturally from the process.

And when you think about it, this has to be the case - after all, life has survived and flourished on Earth for several billion years. What we need to do is figure out how to keep that process dynamic and functional, while at the same time living off the interest, rather than the capital. Can this be done with billions of people on the planet and a continual quest for economic growth and cultural advance? I can't see why not, although (as I have outlined before) I do feel we need to take steps further out into the Solar System, rather than keep all our precious eggs in one glittering yet fragile basket. But while we continue to undervalue biodiversity and the intricacies of the tangled ecosystems that comprise our life support system in an inimical universe of black holes, cosmic radiation, dark energy and (mostly) vacuum, we're threatening our very survival as a species, and endangering the one chance that our universe has, via us, to experience itself and know itself.

What if we change? What if we learn to work with the processes of nature/ecology/evolution to achieve our civilisational aims, rather than breaking them to our sadly short-sighted will? What if we converted a dry desert to lush and productive greenery, while increasing incomes and quality of life? Here's how it might work.

Let's change.

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