Science, education and management to redress ongoing losses of biodiversity
Despite public appeals on the importance of the ongoing extinction crisis, public opinion has changed little over the past two decades. During this time, ecological assessments have become considerably more pessimistic, with increasing threats to broader suites of taxa. Students in conservation classes now express a sense of pessimistic futility with species level conservation efforts, and favor systems level management of ecosystem services. Within this context, how do we leverage ecological science, education and resource management to most effectively minimize extinction risk and preserve biological diversity? I use three arguments to frame an ecological agenda for biodiversity. First, democratic principles of private rights constrain the capacity to preserve biodiversity or the processes that generate biodiversity. Second, economic drivers constrain resources for biodiversity and relegate biodiversity to a second tier social concern. Third, scientific and public perceptions of the sanctity of biodiversity differ, leading to an under-utilization of public cooperation in conservation efforts. Together, these sociological observations suggest that ecological science, education and management needs to integrate ethics and societal choice in order to appropriately address biodiversity issues.
Well-established proposals for biodiversity prioritization focus on social, economic values, or biological diversity values. Biological diversity values can, similarly, be disaggregated into prioritizing species relative to extinction risk, recovery costs, phylogenetic distance, or ecological roles. The result is an unclear message to the public about how to protect diversity overlain on uncertain projections of risk to specific elements of biodiversity. These patterns suggest a need to emphasize risk and uncertainty in expressing values in the protection of biodiversity: attributes that people are generally poor at accurately valuing in most aspects of our everyday lives. Given these constraints, there are an amazing variety of research, education and public engagement opportunities emerging from the ecological community. Minimizing biodiversity loss over the next century will require effective use of all of the tools at the disposal of ecologists combined with careful integration with other sectors (economists, social scientists, marketing) to effectively deploy limited resources. However, minimizing biodiversity losses may also require careful study of compromise positions. For example, would we rather choose an elevated risk of species extinction to retain genetic integrity, or utilize all possible tools but risk genetic introgression? Purist ecological thinking dominates our scientific approaches. Is it time to reconsider?