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A New Era of Extinction Is Here

And recently, scientists, philosophers, even Margaret Atwood converged to discuss the way forward. A dispatch.

By Leslie Anthony 25 Jan 2014 |

Leslie Anthony holds a PhD in zoology from the University of Toronto and is the author of Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist, published by Greystone Books in 2008. His latest book, The Aliens Among Us: Why Invasive Species are Taking Over the Earth will be published by Yale Press.

Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus was clearly frustrated. "The question I hate most is 'Why should we care?' I hear it all the time from the public, industry, even media -- and I just don't want to answer," bemoaned the world-renowned turtle researcher to her dinner companions at a restaurant in Sudbury, Ontario. "It feels like if that's the question when you're talking about saving a species from extinction, then you've already failed."

Litzgus was deep in conversation with Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University and a global heavyweight in the field. They'd been discussing practices of "ethical conservation," when talk turned to the difficulty of winning public buy-in for conservation efforts aimed at anything but the usual charismatic megafauna suspects -- polar bears, whales, tigers, etc.

Had Pimm chimed in, he likely would have said we should care because of a moral imperative not to allow any species to go extinct. Or that because politicians now decide which species to save -- and not qualified biologists or other professionals -- we should care about the hazards of such decisions. Instead, it was renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood that intervened.

Leaning across the table, Atwood wrapped Litzgus' hands in the deft fingers that have offered us so much insight over the decades. "My dear, you're going about it all wrong," she said quietly, as if talking someone down from a ledge. "You think you have to tell them why they should care from a human perspective, but you should really be telling them why they should care from the turtle's perspective."

A new era of extinction

Although this dinner talk happened outside of the official conference, it's difficult to imagine a more poignant example of the sensibilities on display at "Thinking Extinction," a first-of-its-kind symposium held last November at Sudbury's Laurentian University.

It is widely accepted in science that Earth is now undergoing its sixth "Great Extinction" episode -- and the catalyst is us. We're experiencing the worst wave of species die-offs since the dinosaurs disappeared.

With the extinction rate currently running at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural extinction rate (the rate of extinction if humans weren't around), and much human effort and money directed toward stopping it, many aspects of endangered species conservation have made their way into public discourse, where the clash of science, ethics, politics and economics is abundantly clear. (You're forgiven for immediately thinking of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's panda diplomacy mission, where Canada received a pair of pandas for 10 years while China got who-knows-how-many tacit guarantees that it could exploit Canadian resources in perpetuity.)

"Thinking Extinction" brought together leading researchers, biologists, and philosophers from Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand to address a range of approaches to this burgeoning crisis.

"The innovative aspect of our symposium is that it brings the humanities into what is typically treated as a scientific discussion," said Laurentian professor and Canada Research Chair in Applied Evolutionary Ecology, Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde. "This approach recognizes that all of us are facing fundamental questions about our role in protecting the diversity of species on this planet, and we hope the symposium will add new dimensions to the conversation."

Indeed it did. Typical scientific issues were examined through various philosophical lenses, issues such as captive breeding of endangered species in zoos, the role of emerging DNA technologies in the reintroduction of endangered species, the impacts of endangered species protection on local communities, and how "science-based" Canada's Species at Risk Act assessments truly are.

In his presentation "The Ethics of Reviving Long Extinct Species," Ronald Sandler, professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University, examined the pros and cons of pursuing genetically engineered de-extinction. (Recall how dinosaurs were brought back to life from a smidge of their DNA found in an amber-preserved mosquito in the movie Jurassic Park; then imagine a more-recently extinct creature like the woolly mammoth being re-created from mammoth tissue found frozen in the Siberian tundra -- a project currently underway.)

Pros included the fact that restoring species we recently drove extinct, like Tasmanian wolves and dodos, is a matter of restorative justice; that it could re-establish lost value and create new value; and that it's a useful conservation tool. He also examined the arguments against de-extinction: that it's unnatural; that it could cause animal suffering; and that it could be ecologically problematic or detrimental to human health.

Whether abandoning a species to its fate or re-creating a once-extinct form, such activity adds up to playing metaphorical god. Heavy topics like that were central to the conference. But it wasn't lost on anyone that the human activities which created the extinction crisis in the first place dovetail directly into those being proposed to address it.

Triage mode

Over three days of presentations, the philosophical and scientific challenges inherent in conservation were debated. Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, a biology professor at Toronto's York University, discussed how the imminent "death" of many species combined with limited conservation capacity has led some conservationists to use medical metaphors like "triage" as a framework for making decisions. Developed in mass casualty situations, triage is the process used to determine the priority of a patient's treatment based on the severity of their condition.

In other words, some organizations are now prepared to allow the most fragile, conservation-reliant species to go extinct so that scarce resources can be diverted to those with a better chance of survival. Because it appears objective and cost effective, this approach has obvious appeal among politicians. But Stutchbury argued that efficiency isn't justified.

"If we're OK with doctors conducting triage in order to save lives, why would conservationists be squeamish?" she asked rhetorically. "Because 'conservation triage' isn't anything like what medical doctors do. Biodiversity loss is not an unexpected emergency. More fundamentally, metaphors are more than words: they manipulate our emotions, values and decision-making. And medical metaphors conjure images of authority and god-like decisions."

While provincial governments like those of British Columbia and Alberta appear ready to abandon any form of proactive stewardship -- as evidenced by continued inactivity, including silence over mounting lawsuits against the federal government over endangered wildlife found in their own jurisdictions -- the feds have already practiced triage by eliminating the $250,000/year funding to conserve the eastern loggerhead shrike, a bird with only 25 breeding pairs left in the wild.

Although propped up for years by a successful captive breeding and reintroduction program, the wild population hasn't yet recovered because survival during migration and on the wintering grounds is low and can't yet be managed. Environment Canada, however, simply wasn't willing to wait. "It's like watching water going down the drain," lamented Stutchbury. "I only hope the money stays within the conservation program."

Stutchbury pointed out that the average cost of down-listing a bird species from endangered status is about $1 million/year. "When you consider that open heart surgery costs $75 billion per year, that the U.S. defence budget is $1.8 billion per day, and that the world sees $470 billion in soft drink sales each year, there's plenty of money in the system," noted Stutchbury. "If every taxpayer in North America gave $10 each year, we could probably save everything."

Until they win that long-shot lottery, however, conservationists must prioritize. Dr. Arne Mooers, professor of biology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, conducts research on evolution and biodiversity. His symposium title "Are some species more equal than others?" was purposely Orwellian, prefacing an argument that evolutionary isolation -- as measured by "Phylogenetic Diversity" -- might be a way to determine which conservation efforts matter most.

Biologists use tree-like diagrams to depict relationships between species based on divergences from common ancestors. Sometimes it's only the branching pattern that's of interest -- who's related to whom -- but increasingly, fossil information is paired with DNA sequence data to understand the timing and rates of these divergences -- in effect, the length of the branches. Phylogenetic Diversity is the total amount of independent evolution represented by adding branch lengths for a set of species. "For all 9,993 species of living birds, for example, that's about 77 billion years worth of information; for the 575 of these currently at greatest risk of extinction, it's about 2.7 billion years," noted Mooers. "The next step is deciding what that means from a conservation standpoint."

It isn't an entirely new idea. In 1982 the celebrated biologist E.O. Wilson stated that the aim of conservation should be to preserve all the information contained in all the DNA of all species currently alive on Earth. Mooers' presentation reduced that lofty notion to a more practical one: prioritize species that carry the most information on evolutionary history in their DNA -- for example, those most isolated on the tree of life.

'We cannot save what we do not love'

On one memorable night of the conference, Margaret Atwood discussed themes from her latest novel, MaddAddam, the final volume in a three-book "extinction series" that began with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood. Another evening, a packed house watched Stuart Pimm throw up map after map showing how the deforestation driving many extinctions also contributes 15 per cent of annual global carbon emissions -- more than all cars and trucks on the planet combined.

Pimm reminded the audience that there's a special place in Carbon Hell reserved for Canada, whose boreal forest -- vast acreages of which have disappeared from northern Alberta since 2006 -- accounts for more of the global carbon stock than tropical forests.

If you were ready to cue Harper's pandas again at this point, you're not alone. "Why do we have pandas? Ask Stephen Harper," answered a famous Canadian reproductive physiologist in response to an audience question. "I have to spend three months trying to breed pandas now, even though I don't want to and there are more important things I could be doing for Canadian wildlife. So [Harper's pipeline politicking] is going to make or break my career."

Ultimately, the ideas that found most traction at "Thinking Extinction" were those that were inherently philosophical. Can we identify species we can't afford to lose? Can we make choosing which species to save any less an ad hoc? Can we use evolution as a guide?

The latter may hold the key to future conservation thinking. "People see evolutionarily isolated organisms -- aardvark, panda, platypus, coelacanth, hoatzin -- as both unique and 'cool,' which can be motivating to conservation efforts," explained Mooers. "One-of-a-kind is something people understand; it makes animals and plants interesting and lovable, so they want to aid in preserving them even if the real reason for doing so is a scientific argument."

But neither should one overlook the value of genuine affection. As Stephen J. Gould was frequently paraphrased throughout the conference, "We cannot save what we do not love." It's a sentiment that ultimately informed Margaret Atwood's answer to Jacqueline Litzgus' dinner-table question, "Why should we care?"

"You must tell people to simply love turtles my dear," said the author, her eyes flashing with intent. "The way they love us -- unconditionally."  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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