Posts

Selecting “Surrogate Species” for Conservation: How About an 800-Pounder?

by Brian Czech

These days the American conservation community is abuzz with the “surrogate species” approach to conservation. That’s where certain species are selected to represent all the others. Older conservation biologists see it as another iteration of the “umbrella species” concept, where managing for a critter like the grizzly bear would automatically protect a long list of species, simply because the grizzly bear occupies a vast sweep of terrain and habitats.

The rationale for taking this approach is clear enough. State and federal wildlife conservation agencies are tasked with conserving thousands of species of concern, including threatened and endangered species, migratory birds, marine mammals, all sorts of fishes and other “aquatic resources,” and biodiversity in general. These species are under pressure from left and right, above and below. Mountaintop removal, shale oil excavation, fracking, helicopter logging, stern trawling, factory farming, manufacturing, road construction, dams, invasive species, air pollution, water pollution, BP oil spills, climate change, genetically modified crops… all greased by the information sectors. “It’s the economy, buddy.”

To protect the thousands of accosted species, one by one, entails dealing with threat after threat after threat, in place after place after place. For a while during the first decade of the 21st century, notions were entertained of doing precisely that! Theoretically we could have worked up some computerized flowchart of species’ population goals, converted all the goals into habitat objectives, melded them all together, and spit out maps identifying precisely which parcels on the landscape were necessary to conserve.

And then of course we would have had to actually go out on the land and protect those parcels. Details!

This whole pipe dream was impossibly complicated, and wouldn’t be possible in the best of fiscal environments. It’s not even close to feasible today as we encounter limits to growth and declining budgets. That’s why we’re back to the umbrella species approach, bottling old wine with a new label, “surrogate species.”

There is another, mostly unspoken rationale for the surrogate species approach. The alternative approach to simplifying conservation — the “coarse filter” approach of conserving various ecosystem types — doesn’t connect so well with publics and politicians. It’s a lot easier to generate political support for a real live critter with fur or feathers than for a “submontane broad-leaved drought-deciduous woodland” or a “succulent extremely xeromorphic evergreen shrubland,” examples of ecosystem types.

Yet either way amounts to basically the same thing. You identify some conservation target — critter or ecosystem — then go out and protect it from the onslaught. Sure, you might have a marginally easier time of it politically by saying you want to protect the bear, wolf, eagle, salmon, black duck, or even some cold-blooded fella such as a desert tortoise. But whether it’s a species or an ecosystem, you either have to stop the economic sectors in their tracks, or buy some land out ahead of the bulldozer and then hope to stop the sectors (and their pollutants) when they reach the gates. That turns out to be not so simple after all. You still have to deal with the mountaintop removal, shale oil excavation, fracking, helicopter logging, stern trawling, factory farming… you get the picture. It’s still the economy, buddy, and it’s getting more unwieldy every day.

It’s time for the conservation community to wake up and smell the notoriety it’s courting for fiddling while Rome burns. If there is a surrogate species in need of attention, it’s the 800-pound gorilla called the economy. It sits there in the corner, growing bigger and more menacing by the day, while conservationists either pretend it doesn’t exist, claim it can grow forever without impacting the environment, or say it’s too big to mess with. None of these three approaches is worth a taxpayer’s dime.

How can we keep ignoring the 800-pound gorilla of economic growth?

If we really want to conserve wildlife and protect the environment, we’d better do exactly the opposite of what we’ve done so far with regard to the 800-pound gorilla. We had better acknowledge the critter, explain to the public why it can’t be reconciled with biodiversity conservation, and not shrink at the thought of it. It is, after all, nothing more than increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It’s measured by the supremely secular GDP. It’s not God, Godzilla, or even (despite the metaphor) King Kong! There’s plenty of precedent in American history for questioning the merits of economic growth, with real effects on public opinion (the demand side of the economy). Real, bold conservationists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson played a part in this history, as did real politicians such as Robert F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

Conservationists need to learn this history and add a new chapter. Somebody has to lead the way to a new paradigm, away from economic growth and toward the balance of nature. This leadership is just not going to come from Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the World Bank. Big-picture leadership is required from conservationists — especially conservation professionals who get paid the big bucks — for developing clear and nuanced public understanding of the trade-off between growing the gorilla and conserving the rest of our fish and wildlife heritage.

Everyone knows that conservation professionals don’t make economic policy. They’re better off not even talking economic policy. But neither did Rachel Carson regulate DDT. Her leadership came in the form of telling the inconvenient truth about organochlorines. The policy implications were obvious. Likewise, leadership to address the 800-pound gorilla starts with rigorous public education. With enough such leadership, citizens will temper consumption from the demand side and economic policy engineers won’t be pulling out all the stops from the supply side. Together — conservationists, citizens, policy makers — we can get that surrogate critter on a sustainable diet!

The Next President’s Inaugural Speech (If Only…)

by Brent Blackwelder, Head Speechwriter

Once upon a time the United States was a global pioneer of democracy and justice. The founders of this great nation articulated a noble vision of inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Times have changed. We have emerged from this presidential campaign with an ignoble vision of alienating wrongs — venom, vitriol, and the pursuit of pettiness. The campaign, including my campaign, dodged the most important issue of our era: coming to grips with the ecological reality confronting life on this planet. Today I pledge to make our nation once again the leader in solving economic, environmental, and social crises.

We have built a global economy that refuses to recognize ecological limits to growth. Repeated financial collapses, mushrooming corruption, and rampant speculation have characterized the last twenty years. We will blaze a new trail over the next twenty years; we will take bold steps to confront the failed global economy. Better late than never, we will face the issues of climate change and population growth that we have been avoiding for political expedience.

Modern industrial societies, with the United States leading the way, are emitting so much pollution that we have endangered the stability of earth’s climate and jeopardized the survival of over one quarter of the planet’s species. Our global population of over seven billion needs access to goods and services, but almost a billion are already struggling to obtain the bare necessities. Our civilization is using natural resources much faster than the earth can regenerate them. Scientists explain that we would need one and a half earths to keep consuming at our current rate. We can do better.

Our goal is to create a true-cost economy, a sustainable economy that gives everyone a fair chance. No more cheater economics and no more casino economics. We will put the cheaters in jail and close down the Wall Street casinos.

We will challenge the zealous pursuit of economic growth as the solution to the all problems. Much of our so-called economic growth has cost us far more than it has been worth. We have ruthless growth that benefits a few at the top but does nothing for most Americans. We have futureless growth that destroys resources, such as water and farmland, that will be needed by our children and grandchildren. Our economy should line up with our family values. We tell our children to save for the future. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers and judge the quality of their lives based on quarterly financial reports.

We will fund family planning so that the 250 million women worldwide who want such services can get them. All U.S. foreign aid will be screened to ensure that women will be better off as a result of the assistance.

While America has been sleeping, other nations have stepped into leadership roles:

  • Iceland has become the leader in empowerment of women; women hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly half the seats in parliament.
  • Bhutan has become the leader in measuring progress; this small Himalayan nation has committed itself to maximizing gross national happiness rather than gross national product.
  • Costa Rica and Sweden are leading the way in climate stabilization by instituting carbon taxes.
  • Germany, a nation with unexceptional wind and solar potential, has became the world’s largest generator of electricity in both categories.
  • Several European nations are taking the lead on jobs, shifting to shorter work weeks to relieve unemployment and enable citizens to spend time as they choose.

It’s encouraging to see other nations stepping up, but the United States need to get in the game. We can no longer stand still and watch other nations pass by on the way to a sustainable twenty-first-century economy.

Your odds of being struck by a meteorite are better than your odds of hearing a speech like this from one of these candidates.

Instead of rehashing the vicious debate over the deficit, I will move to implement a Robin Hood tax of just half of one percent on financial transactions. This simple and fair tax would yield billions in revenue and prevent Wall Street gamblers from playing with our money. We can have prosperity without growth.

We will adopt a four-day work week. There is no winner in a rat race. We will share the work, so that everyone can have a job, and we will trade the high productivity of our workers for a time dividend — meaning more time spent with our families and less time spent at the office.

Instead of fighting wars over oil, our military will prevent wars by helping to engineer the transition to clean energy. The military is already far ahead of the public and politicians in recognizing the threat of climate disruption. For example, the U.S. Army is working to get its bases off the electric grid and onto renewable energy. We will accelerate efforts like these and apply them across the nation.

We have only to look at the history of our nation to find inspirational leadership. The United States led in stewardship of the land with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first, in 1872. Faced with mounting pollution in the 1960s, we responded to the challenge. Congress launched the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and assumed global leadership in reducing pollution by passing clean air and water laws. Other countries replicated our laws.

Now, even though most citizens are aware of profound economic and environmental problems at home and abroad, the United States has been a drag, not a leader. Instead of excuses and gridlock, we will take responsibility for our actions. My administration will put aside pessimistic notions of what we can’t do and focus on what we can do.

I am not proposing an unachievable agenda for the American people, but rather a solid plan to build on our past triumphs and cooperate with today’s leading countries, regions, cities, and towns that have begun the quest for an economy with a future. We will systematically transform the United States from the biggest consumer to the biggest conserver. We will take up the challenge of leadership so that we can once again pursue the noble vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.