Jul. 10, 2012

Excerpts from "Out of Nature": Challenges Facing Biodiversity Conservation

by Kara Rogers

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In this second excerpt from my book Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (University of Arizona Press, 2012), I have selected a passage from chapter 8, which discusses the importance of economic and public investment in biodiversity conservation. Part 1 of this series can be viewed here. -- Kara Rogers
 
International and national legislation can go a long way toward changing the world. The ultimate success of enacting eco-friendly regulations, however, depends very much on the voices of individuals in communities. Excellent models for illustrating the far-reaching impacts of the collective action of citizens are smoking bans. In the latter part of the twentieth century, as the negative health effects of secondhand smoke were exposed, public health concerns over smoking in workplaces and public places increased dramatically. Drunk driving is illegal because it places the welfare of others at stake, and so it is with smoking in public places. Cardiovascular diseases and respiratory conditions such as lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke are preventable, and in places that have implemented smoking bans, prevention is paying off. Towns and cities where bans exist have experienced significant decreases in the incidence of acute heart attacks. On average, the incidence of heart attacks in the places investigated decreased by 15 percent in the first year of the ban relative to years before the laws were enforced. Three years into the bans, a 36 percent decrease in incidence of heart attacks was detected. In the long run, smoking bans will save the world trillions of dollars in preventable health-care expenses.
 
If people were as passionate about the welfare of the environment and other species as they have been about the right to breathing smoke-free air in public spaces, the conservation of biodiversity hotspots would be in much better shape than it is currently. The magnitude of what we could accomplish by initiating conservation efforts on local levels, which feed into conservation trends on national and international levels, is enormous. The difference between environmental conservation and smoking bans, however, lies with the fact that all of us, in one way or another, contribute to the activities that are undermining the survival of species and ecosystems. As a result, the collective voice of individuals in communities is far quieter when it comes to supporting conservation than it is when it comes to lobbying on behalf of smoking bans. People generally are not willing to make lifestyle sacrifices to save little-known species like Penland beardtongue.
 
These days, skepticism about the climate and environment has become a worrisome threat to biodiversity conservation. But the evidence exists -- increasing numbers of studies have concluded that the world is warming, its glaciers are melting, and its biodiversity is decreasing. Still, many people would rather point fingers or deny the situation rather than take responsibility for their actions. Within the public sphere, understanding of the scope of the issues faced by conservation is tangential. People may read about biodiversity in popular science magazines or other media, and they recycle and take reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. But unlike smoking, where there was broad recognition of its adverse effects on human health, the impact of biodiversity deterioration on our well-being is recognized by comparatively few. The lack of knowledge and public concern about what is happening to life on Earth as a result of our activities causes conservation efforts to limp along.
 
There are also major hindrances to prioritizing biodiverse areas for conservation. Examples include determining the size of land area that must be set aside, which generally must be very large to ensure that ecosystems can maintain their functions, and determining the value of these places in economic terms. Ecosystem services historically have been left out of economy and policy discussions because measuring their monetary value with any remote degree of accuracy was too difficult. In the past, many ecosystem services could exist outside the frame of economics, since they were so prevalent and their exhaustion through human activities was perceived as unlikely. But things are different now. There are so many people in the world, and the population is growing so quickly, that many ecosystems services, in order to last and sustain humanity, must be given economic meaning.
 
From Out of Nature: Why Drugs from Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity by Kara Rogers © 2012 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press. Learn more about Out of Nature at the book's web site. Read a review here (pdf).
About Kara Rogers

Kara is a freelance science writer and senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is the author of Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (University of Arizona Press, 2012).

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