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Conservation biology is a crisis-oriented science. Notes about what conservation biology is...
Biology Articles » Conservation Biology » What is Conservation Biology?
Conservation biology means different things to different people. For the purposes of this course, conservation biology covers all of those topics that I have chosen to include in the course and none of those topics that I haven't chosen to include. But seriously, there are reasons I chose what I chose to include. To understand what they are, it may help to begin with a little history.
I don't think I have to convince anyone in this room that the world we now live in is far different from the one that was here a few thousand years ago. The reason for that difference is two-fold: the growth of human populations and the enormous resource demands we make on the planet.
All in all, 83% of the earth's land surface has been directly influenced by human activities (Figure 4), and our impact is pervasive in densely populated areas like the northeastern United States (Figure 5).
The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment  summarizes the four key findings of their study this way:
In the United States, it is possible to recognize three different responses to these problems. Groom et al.  refer to these responses as ``ethics'' because each is intended to provide guidance about how we should act and the choices we should make with regard to our interaction with nature.
In the mid-nineteenth century Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir waxed eloquent about the wonders of nature in a mystical, almost religious language. Their writings convinced many of the need to save wild places, regardless of whether those places provide any direct economic benefit. The Sierra Club, which was among the earliest of the formal conservation organizations, grew out of Muir's efforts to protect Yosemite and other parts of the Sierra Nevada.
In the late nineteenth century Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, and others recognized that it was in our own best interest to protect at least some portions of the natural world. Their motivation for doing so, however, was that we derived important ``natural resources'' from the earth. Unlike the philosophical conservationists, who hoped to protect natural areas for their own sake, Pinchot and the utilitarians hoped to protect natural areas for what they could do for us.
The most eloquent exposition of this approach is, of course, in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. It is, in many ways, a synthesis of the preceding two. It lacks, mostly, the quasi-religious overtones of Thoreau and Muir, and it lacks the strictly utilitarian approach of Pinchot. Fundamentally, the land ethic recognizes that we do derive benefits from nature, but the connectedness of ecological systems means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify only some components as useful.
The first rule of an intelligent tinkerer is to keep all of the pieces. Aldo Leopold, The Round River
We'll return to a more complete discussion of these ethical issues in the last lectures of this course. For now I just want to point out that the first and third of these ethics are widely accepted within conservation circles, but only the second has been persuasive to those not already committed to conservation. As a result conservation efforts, especially those prior to about 1960, were predominantly either concerned with:
Interestingly, conservation efforts, at least until the early 1960's, were almost entirely concerned with biological conservation. In the 1950s and especially in the 1960s, these concerns broadened into more general concerns about pollution and population (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring; Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb). Still, academic biologists in departments of botany, zoology, or biology2 were little involved in providing advice to resource managers charged with protecting endangered species or with managing parks and nature reserves. Resource managers were trained largely in departments of forestry, natural resources, and wildlife management - departments whose faculty often had little contact with colleagues doing basic research in ecology, evolutionary biology, and systematics.3
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Mike Soulé and others in traditional biology departments began describing the need for a field of conservation biology that would take the basic principles of ecology, evolutionary biology, and systematics and apply them to the problem of saving endangered species. Soulé and Bruce Wilcox edited a book, published in 1981, that those in traditional biologists often regard as the founding document of the field.4 In the nearly twenty-five years since Soulé and Wilcox a SOCIETY FOR CONSERVATION BIOLOGY has been founded, programs in conservation biology have sprouted (often in departments of forestry and natural resources) around the country, and traditional biologists have shown increasing interest in the questions conservation biologists pose. The focus of the field has also broadened. Two strains can be recognized within it:
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