Dreaming the Impossible

Dreaming the Impossible We practice our science and conservation in the initial stages of what could be the sixth great extinction. We can feel its gathering momentum. The signs of it are everywhere, whether in dwindling individual species or in retreating forests and disappearing and degrading habitats of all sorts. Our impact as a species is global in scale: we have altered and continue to alter the basic chemistry and physics of the atmosphere and are changing the chemistry of the sea. If it had been debated in advance it is unlikely we would have blessed such change. Yet we seem unable to grasp the implications, including that the responsibility lies with us. A major part of the problem is imbedded in Orr's Laws, namely that each increment seems “reasonable” in its context but constitutes a huge problem in aggregation. Some seem not to care. A few probably delight in affecting the environment negatively. But the vast majority is simply unaware. We tend to be caught up in our daily concerns as if we and they have nothing to do with negative global change. In the United States “the environment” is labeled as a liberal cause, even though conservation's roots lie in a thoughtful conservative realm. The problems all stem from ourselves and our activities, and we cannot avoid paying the cost (law 1). That in turn means that the causality and solutions are unavoidably political (law 2). The scale and rate of our impact means that our science is continually struggling to keep up (law 3). We should not be embarrassed because we do not fully understand both our positive and our negative impacts. Conservation and the will‐o'‐the‐wisp that is sustainable development are very much about learning by doing. The important thing is to ensure that we do learn as we do. One lesson those of us engaged in the effort to stem the extinction wave often learn is the need for humility—not just the humility born of inadequate understanding, but also the humility that comes from recognizing, in Robert Frost's words, “the least display of mind” (law 5). Wisdom and knowledge come in many forms, not just in fancy degrees and erudite publications. So too the solutions to the problems will come from multiple sources. We must not delude ourselves that any one group—like some sort of eco‐alchemists—has the answers. Only humility will allow us to forge the alliances needed for successful conservation. Part of the answer lies in the natural world and its ability to instill wonder in our souls. As social primates we spend too much time interacting with the “troop” and too little time exploring and appreciating the diversity of life (this should be law 6). Human or microbe, our lineage dates back to the origins of life itself. Most of all there is a need for hope, which should be law 7. All too often we seem to speak in too‐negative terms. We say “don't” and “stop,” and the like, when we can actually transform a problem into an opportunity for a creative solution. Fundamentally, ours is a positive agenda, a dream of a glorious coexistence with a planet teeming with life. Consider that throughout close to four decades, the Brazilian Amazon, despite all the deforestation and burning, has gone from two national forests to what—when certain commitments are completed—will amount to more than 40% receiving some form of protection. Although there is still more to do to conserve the Amazon as a system, this achievement would scarcely have been dreamed of when this journal published its first issue. But what seemed impossible became possible. And so we should keep dreaming the impossible and, like eco‐alchemists—with all our best science and positive good will—render it possible. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Conservation Biology Wiley

Dreaming the Impossible

Conservation Biology, Volume 18 (6) – Dec 1, 2004

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Publisher
Wiley
Copyright
Copyright © 2004 Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., A Wiley Company
ISSN
0888-8892
eISSN
1523-1739
D.O.I.
10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.01865.x
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

We practice our science and conservation in the initial stages of what could be the sixth great extinction. We can feel its gathering momentum. The signs of it are everywhere, whether in dwindling individual species or in retreating forests and disappearing and degrading habitats of all sorts. Our impact as a species is global in scale: we have altered and continue to alter the basic chemistry and physics of the atmosphere and are changing the chemistry of the sea. If it had been debated in advance it is unlikely we would have blessed such change. Yet we seem unable to grasp the implications, including that the responsibility lies with us. A major part of the problem is imbedded in Orr's Laws, namely that each increment seems “reasonable” in its context but constitutes a huge problem in aggregation. Some seem not to care. A few probably delight in affecting the environment negatively. But the vast majority is simply unaware. We tend to be caught up in our daily concerns as if we and they have nothing to do with negative global change. In the United States “the environment” is labeled as a liberal cause, even though conservation's roots lie in a thoughtful conservative realm. The problems all stem from ourselves and our activities, and we cannot avoid paying the cost (law 1). That in turn means that the causality and solutions are unavoidably political (law 2). The scale and rate of our impact means that our science is continually struggling to keep up (law 3). We should not be embarrassed because we do not fully understand both our positive and our negative impacts. Conservation and the will‐o'‐the‐wisp that is sustainable development are very much about learning by doing. The important thing is to ensure that we do learn as we do. One lesson those of us engaged in the effort to stem the extinction wave often learn is the need for humility—not just the humility born of inadequate understanding, but also the humility that comes from recognizing, in Robert Frost's words, “the least display of mind” (law 5). Wisdom and knowledge come in many forms, not just in fancy degrees and erudite publications. So too the solutions to the problems will come from multiple sources. We must not delude ourselves that any one group—like some sort of eco‐alchemists—has the answers. Only humility will allow us to forge the alliances needed for successful conservation. Part of the answer lies in the natural world and its ability to instill wonder in our souls. As social primates we spend too much time interacting with the “troop” and too little time exploring and appreciating the diversity of life (this should be law 6). Human or microbe, our lineage dates back to the origins of life itself. Most of all there is a need for hope, which should be law 7. All too often we seem to speak in too‐negative terms. We say “don't” and “stop,” and the like, when we can actually transform a problem into an opportunity for a creative solution. Fundamentally, ours is a positive agenda, a dream of a glorious coexistence with a planet teeming with life. Consider that throughout close to four decades, the Brazilian Amazon, despite all the deforestation and burning, has gone from two national forests to what—when certain commitments are completed—will amount to more than 40% receiving some form of protection. Although there is still more to do to conserve the Amazon as a system, this achievement would scarcely have been dreamed of when this journal published its first issue. But what seemed impossible became possible. And so we should keep dreaming the impossible and, like eco‐alchemists—with all our best science and positive good will—render it possible.

Journal

Conservation BiologyWiley

Published: Dec 1, 2004

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