Conservation biology and our western individualism

I am sure many people would agree with me that conservation biology is as much a social/political matter as it a scientific endeavor. Even though scientific information on conservation status of species, general population studies, the efficacy of nature conservation and the causes of biodiversity decline is vital, but it cannot change (at least not easily) the priority we humans give to biodiversity conservation and thus the amount of effort and money we are willing to spend on it. And even if we give priority to biodiversity conservation, we tend to favor some species over others, while there is no scientific rationale for this in terms of one species being ecologically more ‘valuable’ than another. What seems particularly hard is to make people act on the obvious statement, that it is in our own self interest to conserve all species. When we look at amphibians, there is only a very small niche of the scientific community let alone of the entire human population that actually cares about them disappearing. Or, like the Canadian scientist Stan Orchard puts it: “I am sure that we all (the scientists studying amphibians, MB) recognize that to the great mass of humanity amphibian survival has little meaning”. Or maybe they would care but not long enough or strong enough to come into action.

I write this blog in the aftermath of the Rio 20+ conference on sustainability (albeit quite some time after the conference) in which one of the big themes was biodiversity loss. Due to circumstances I hadn’t been able to follow the news on the conference very closely, but from the statements and articles I have read afterwards predominantly springs forth that a sense of real urgency still lacks. A lot of effort, time and money has been put into resolving the economic crisis, because of which the ecological crisis seems to come into second or third or fourth place. Which is peculiar, because our natural capital (biodiversity) is absolutely essential to economic growth. So if you would be interested in a real sustainable economy with chances of perpetual growth (quite a contradictio in terminis I would say, but ok) first we need to direct our efforts into making the economy in line with the resources that our planet can provide us. This would first and foremost mean that we have to ensure that our natural capital doesn’t degrade any further.

The diversity in human cultures has always fascinated me, mainly because it shows me that there are many alternative ways of living for humans. And that there exist many alternative ways of looking at nature and valuing it. To me it seems that western society has more trouble seeing the value of nature than other societies, like eastern ones. I have read several books on Buddhism and in this religion a more holistic worldview is propagated.  In our society a holistic approach can count on much scepsism, however we shouldn’t dismiss it, especially in ecology. It was no surprise to me to find out that Buddhism puts great emphasis on caring for the environment (Bhutan, a buddhistic country was the first to introduce the indicator Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product) and that it has much to say about ecology too. Because it promotes the idea of interconnectedness, in which everything and everyone is linked together in this world, it resembles the principles behind ecology, namely looking at nature by studying all biotic and abiotic factors that work together. A consequence of the interconnectedness is that caring for the environment therefore follows logically from caring for oneself. Because when I acknowledge that I am truly part of nature as a whole (Gaia, as Lovelock said), then my own needs are congruent with those of nature as a whole.

Western society on the other hand has been dominated by the principles of the Enlightenment, within which resides a mechanistic worldview, isolating effect and cause from the greater context. It has been a very useful worldview, because it has brought us great advances in science and technology, using an approach in which we strive to understand the working of all parts of the machine in order to understand the working of the entire machine. But by focusing on isolated effects we might have lost the idea of looking at the greater picture that shows us how all these isolated effects work together.

I have a feeling that our individualism comes from this as well, because we tend to see ourselves in isolation from the rest of the world. We are so trained into thinking that every effect has one cause, that also in our own lives we connect one event to one specific cause. In doing so, we conclude that if we change these causes, i.e. take matters in our own hands, we can change our lives and become the sculptors of a life with a perfection achieved by Bernini in that marvelous sculpture of Daphne and Apollo. We tend to forget that circumstances, which are a lot of times actions from others or events in our surroundings we could never control, matter most. I am not saying we let things just happen, but that we should respect and act according to the great influence that our natural world and other people have on our own lives. You could say I am pleading for at least an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of this world and all people living in it. I very much recommend reading into Buddhism more if you are interested.

Of course there are historical explanations for our individualism as well; the industrialization has given rise to an increased productivity per person and has given people the opportunity to focus more on self-actualization (according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). This has lead for instance to a drop in birth rate, with consequently smaller families and less tight family ties, and I guess it also has lead people to put more energy into their own individual self. As an addition to the previous paragraph people are very tuned into their own contribution to their own lives, neglecting the contribution of chance and their environment.

In today’s globalized world, the interconnectedness is greater than before and therefore individualism in a sense of only focusing on yourself, is further from reality than ever. Whatever product I might buy will probably have been produced somewhere else or at least will have had an impact on people somewhere else, for instance because of the resources that have been used for producing it. But, ironically,  at the same time many countries are reversing time and looking for a way to protect their own economies instead of furthering cooperation between countries. This has a negative influence on conservation biology in two ways: firstly it becomes harder to progress to a more global political system in which problems on a world level, like biodiversity loss, can be attacked efficiently. And secondly, we are getting further and further from the holistic worldview that can help people understand why it is so important for the benefit of the individual and humanity as a whole. In focusing on their own individual problems, people will not have the time and energy to ponder on more fundamental and abstract problems.

In conclusion, I want to point you to a documentary by Bruce Parry (Tribe) in which he stayed a month with the Babongo of Gabon. In the end of this month he underwent an initiation ritual which involves taking a very powerful psychoactive drug Iboga, extracted from the root of the plant, that brings up very powerful visions. He suffered dearly from eating the root, as it is both foul-tasting and poisonous. However, as the saying goes; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Because for him it was a life-changing experience; he saw how every action of his had had influence on someone else and he could feel the grieve that he had caused in that other person as if it were his own. And he understood, truly felt it into his very being, how we are all interconnected in this world and found this a very humbling experience. I wish for ourselves that this powerful sentiment and life-changing experience of Iboga someday soon will seep into our minds as well.


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