If we continue the wanton destruction of the natural world, it will scarcely matter how much money you have, we will all be impoverished. No area of the planet is untouched by man (and I do mean men). Not the deepest deep-sea trench, nor the highest peak in the Himalayas. Not even the atmosphere is beyond reach. From where I write in southwest Virginia, my back porch looks out onto a fabulous sea of green. These are some of the richest, most ebullient forests in the temperate world, and the view is spellbinding. But here too, the discerning eye can pick out certain cracks in the picture that have formed in recent history. There are objects on the canvas that don’t belong. English walnut, Chinese chestnut, and Norway maple clutter the ocean of trees. European starlings and house sparrows occasionally monopolize the bird feeders, in a tumultuous way reminiscent of British tourists. In 2020, we have finally come face to face with the impact of unchecked human travel. We unwittingly transport novel pathogens to new continents, and we intentionally introduce species outside of their native range for our own selfish fancies. Clearly this has to stop.
Invasive species pose a particular challenge for the conservationist. Firstly, it highlights the flaws of simply ring-fencing an area of land in the hope of protecting it. The creation of a national park, say, doesn’t really address the problem. This is not to mention the rather imperialistic overtones of such land-grabbing activities; pretty much all protected areas in the US required the forcible eviction of Native American communities for their establishment. And conservationists have the nerve to call themselves the good guys. But that’s a story for another day. For the vast majority of threatened and endangered species, the primary agent of their decline has been habitat loss. It is often a zero-sum game; the species I studied for my PhD, the incomparable reticulated flatwoods salamander, has declined by 97% because, you guessed it, 97% of the forests they once inhabited have been chopped down. It seems obvious then, that restoration of habitat should be a key priority of conservation endeavours, but expectations must be tempered. The forests outside my window were clear-cut less than a century ago. They are far from natural. But are they good enough? Most invasive species will never be eradicated, and indeed much of the environmental damage wrought by human beings is irreversible. Where are the goalposts?
Restoration is necessary, but unfortunately nobody can agree on what we should be restoring. Some cling on to lauded hopes of pristine wilderness, others are more conciliatory. My approach is to shoot for the moon; aim high and even if we fail to meet targets, we will have done some good. The people with the check-books don’t like this of course, and policy makers don’t like setting unachievable objectives. Well not every policy maker; Donald insisted Mexico was going to pay for that wall… But if we can afford 2,000 miles of bricks and mortar, surely we can rustle up the funds to save something as important as the environment, whatever we deem the environment to be. We could invest in barriers, or we could invest in the future of the planet. It’s our choice. It is still difficult for me to comprehend, as a conservation biologist, that part of my job involves arguing the case for the natural world. Yeah, nature’s pretty important. But sadly nature currently looks like Jake LaMotta after going thirteen rounds with Sugar Ray. Bruised, battered, and bloodied. And this is real life; there’s no guarantee of a miraculous Rocky-style comeback. There is no bell to save us. The world is on its ass, and the referee has started to count.
Indeed, this is why I’m not entirely sold on the term “conservation”. At this point it is not good enough to simply conserve what we still have. Wholesale restoration is an imperative to secure the long term prospects of the natural world. We must dig new ponds and create new wetlands. We must replant the forests, and we must re-establish the grazing dynamics of the American prairie and the African plains. We must mitigate the impacts of invasive species, and take measures to prevent new invasives from establishing. Of course, this isn’t going to be cheap. If we had done this a century ago, it wouldn’t have been nearly as expensive. A stitch in time, and all that jazz. We have been ignoring the tears in the fabric of nature for far too long, but there’s no point crying over spilled milk. Hindsight after all, is 2020. We must act, before it really is too late. The earth is bleeding out, and rather ironically, we can no longer afford to be miserly. Empty your pockets, or the world will empty them for you.