What I am about to try here is to convince policy-makers, businessmen and women, politicians, economists, the local plumber, teachers, parents and the homeless person on the street corner, why we need to save wildlife.
I feel too often conservationists and people that care about the natural world are too quick to assume people should think the same way as they do and there should be no argument about it. However, this is not an ideal world and many people, quite honourably, are just trying to make a living for themselves or their family, working hard every day, so wrapped up in human society that it is very hard to reach them with moral and personal arguments. Why should they care about an endangered tree frog that lives in the middle of a rainforest thousands of miles away? With all the worries of modern-day life, why should they worry about this too? This post will hopefully show why everyone should, and take notice of why people like me are so damn obsessed with protecting the natural world and wildlife.
1.) Right, so let’s start with the economic argument. I often dislike using this point because I sometimes feel uneasy about putting a ‘price’ on nature and wildlife. However, sadly “money makes the world go round” and if we want to get economists, businesses and politicians on-side, this is something we need to do, no matter what ethical issues there might be with this. Indeed, it is this argument that could potentially be the one that has the biggest impact on waking people up to why wildlife conservation matters.
You may have come across the term ‘ecosystem services’ which describe how wildlife and the natural world provide human societies with certain goods and extremely important services that without, would bring about costly and damaging consequences to the whole world. From basic things like fertile soil and freshwater to vital goods like the oxygen we breath and food we eat, as well as life-sustaining services like crop pollination and climate regulation, our planet and its wildlife act as a life-support system every single day to us humans. Economically speaking, a recent study calculated that ecotourism brings in $600 billion USD every year (far more than the $10 billion being spent to protect wildlife reserves and parks) whilst the world’s oceans’ GDP could alone be worth over $24 trillion USD1, with all the services that the world provides coming to a grand total GDP of around $33 trillion USD2. The potential costs of losing resources like these should rattle the economists and politicians into action, shouldn’t they?
If we continue to pollute, acidify and warm the world’s oceans, destroy lush rainforest, melt ice-sheets and permafrost and wipe out species, we will be left with a world that will no longer support life as we know it today. Humans will find themselves having to engineer its way out of environmental problems to cope with the loss of natural ecosystem services, bringing huge costs to human society and making life harder and more unpleasant for all. If we want to avoid suffering enormous costs to our economies 50 years in the future, investing now in saving the planet and its wildlife is what we need to do, and fast – the costs involved will be a fraction of those that would be incurred if we carried on with our ‘business as usual’ approach. Moreover, wildlife contributes a huge amount to developing economies, especially in Africa and Asia. Since it is mainly the developed countries around the world that started the industrial revolution and have the most resources to deal with the current biodiversity crisis, surely there is a moral economic duty to help out developing nations by conserving the wildlife that supports their economies. I guess it could constitute a form of ‘wildlife aid’, so that rather than pumping money into corrupt regimes or industries, the money goes to local communities and native conservation planners to protect wildlife and make sure the benefits of tourism feedback in to the local peoples’ pockets and lifestyles.
2.) Another matter that has been alluded to is the fact that humans need wildlife and the natural world to function normally for our own survival. Losing species and degrading the planet at the rate that we are now could mean the end of human civilisation as we know it in a few 100 years. If we degrade our planet’s habitats and remove species from delicately balanced food webs, we risk making the world almost uninhabitable for the human population that would exist in the future. As mentioned before, without vital ecosystem services like crop pollination and freshwater, life for humans will become extremely difficult and with climate change creating ever more unpredictable and extreme environmental conditions, human civilisation could be headed for an extremely rough period if we don’t act now.
3.) Now for the beauty argument, which may be weaker than most but is still valid. I know very few people in the world that can look at a polar bear or baby seal pup and not go “awh!” or look at a killer whale and exclaim “WOW!” Stepping beyond this, any wildlife-enthusiast will tell you that with a deeper understanding of the natural world, when you realise the way in which the natural world fits together in such an intricate and fascinating way, it is hard not to admire the astounding beauty that we lose every time a species goes extinct, a patch of rainforest burns away or a coral reef is bleached beyond recovery. In fact this beauty isn’t a trivial thing, it can actually have direct benefits for peoples’ mental health and wellbeing. Many studies have shown spending time outside in nature and engaging with wildlife has significant benefits to the mental and physical health of people, with one study even claiming that the electrochemical stimulation of the brain from a walk through nature can bring people into a very positive state of “effortless attention”, reducing frustration, stress and anxiety3. Even if you don’t care about beauty, you must surely care about your health, right?
4.) And now for the moral arguments. Ask yourself this: what right do we have to destroy the natural world and force other species to extinction? Some might say we are the dominant species on the planet and if Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection is correct, only the fittest should survive. This is a gross misunderstanding and misuse of his theory, which I’m sure Darwin would be turning in his grave over if he knew it was used against wildlife conservation. The way in which humans have come to be able to manipulate the natural world at levels even beyond that of a planetary scale (nuclear weapons could easily destroy our planet in a matter of hours) is something that has happened in the evolutionary ‘blink of an eye’ and has never been witnessed before at the rate and scale that it has today. Just because we can cause the 6th mass extinction and have a new geological epoch named after ourselves (the “Anthropocene”) doesn’t mean we should. In fact, our status as dominant species would surely mandate that with our ability for compassion, higher intelligence and understanding of the natural world, that we become stewards of the planet and protect the world that is responsible for our existence.
However, I’d also like to get away from the idea of us being the dominant species on the planet. Being the ‘dominant’ species does not make us top of the food chain, nor does it mean we are better than all other species. Homo sapiens has arisen in such a minute space of geological time, that we are merely a tiny speck of dust on a rich tapestry of life that has come before us. There are many species out there that we depend on to live – take pollinators and earthworms, for example, that allow our crops to grow. In fact, for a moment, indulge in the notion that we are no different to any other species on this planet. Think about how we are finding levels of intelligence in animals like dolphins, crows, pigs and our primate cousins that we thought might be unique to ourselves. The so-called special characteristics of humans like culture and society are shared with more animals than we think and probably more than we know currently. Too long have we thought about ourselves as a ‘cut above the rest’ of the natural world, our ego skyrocketing with our ability to create massive destruction at will and bend the planet to our will. “With great power, comes great responsibility” and I feel that we have abused that power and shirked our responsibility for far too long now. It is this generation’s responsibility to reset the balance, take the reins back from previous generations and show what it means to be human: to show compassion for all living things; to be ingenious, courageous and (often recklessly) curious in the pursuit of knowledge and discovery; to be caring of those who mean the most to us, to love beauty and wonder and to cherish new life. All of these are things that we stand to lose if we don’t start protecting the natural world and conserving wildlife — if we don’t, we stand to lose many of the things that make us human.
We should also consider the fact that by driving species to extinction, we are depriving future generations of experiencing the beauty and diversity of wildlife that we see today. If nothing changes, all that future generations will see will be photographs, documentaries and stories of the wildlife that used to inhabit the natural world — the polar bears will become the 21st century equivalent of the poor dodo. I personally would not know what to say to my children, grandchildren or great grandchildren if they turned round to me and said: “Why didn’t your generation do more to save the planet’s wildlife?” The fact is now we are better equipped, better informed and so better placed than ever before to make a difference and reverse the decline of many species. There really is no excuse not to act and future generations will not forgive us if we don’t.
After making all these arguments, I cannot stress the importance of communicating these enough to the public — hence why I’m writing this post. We must get across the importance of protecting our planet and its wildlife — without getting people on-side, conservationists struggle to fight an uphill battle against unfavourable odds. As a reserve warden on the Threave Bat Reserve in Dumfries & Galloway in South-West Scotland once said to me (yes there’s a bat reserve in Scotland!), “Conservation is all about people. If you don’t have their support, you cannot do conservation effectively. People make conservation.” At the nature reserve we were surveying farm buildings to identify bat roosts (all bat species are European Protected Species) and put up notices to prevent them being disturbed (a big problem is that building works illegally destroy bat roosts and many times this is covered up and hard to prove someone guilty unless the roosts have been identified). The warden had spent many years getting local farmers and resident’s on-side in trying to protect these bats and has spent most of his time communicating and working on educating local people about the bats. He is what I call a wildlife warrior, just after what Steve Irwin envisioned normal, everyday people becoming – much like “Durrell’s Army”.
What we need now is normal people like you reading this (hopefully some people are reading this!) to do your bit to stand up for wildlife. Whatever you do, whether it’s sign a petition, share a facebook post (please share my post!), campaign for a species, donate to a wildlife charity or even volunteer and take part in conservation efforts to protect wildlife, YOUR WILDLIFE NEEDS YOU!
If we can get more and more people caring, understanding and acting for wildlife, we can (and we will) stop the 6th mass extinction.
“The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider’s web. If you touch one thread you send shudders running through all the other threads. We are not just touching the web we are tearing great holes in it.” – Gerald Durrell