Conservation principles 1

contents index, introduction, threats and limitations

By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2001)

In this article you'll discover the reasons for conservation and what benefits it may bring. You will also notice that humans with their many rights and wishes, and their administrative organisations, complicate matters enormously. It is important to learn the rules for successful conservation, from saving a species to saving a habitat. You will also appreciate that the conservation of nature is very worthwhile and satisfying to do.

this long article has been divided in three: part1 (this page), part2, part3 as shown by their colours
introduction Introduction to this article on conservation. Types of conservation.
threats and limits Typical threats to our environment. Conservation tools. Sectors of society affected. Limits to our knowledge. Sustainable development. Typical conservation solutions. Economic tools and incentives.
motivation Motivation for conservation. Perceived benefits. Approaching problems with solutions from all angles. From pillage to paradise. The human dimension. Objections. Ten dilemmas.
conservation biology Principles of conservation. Conservation biology. Biotechnology. The boundary effect.
protecting a species To protect a species, a high degree of knowledge is required. Special species.
protecting a spot A unique spot is worth conserving because there are very few like it. A unique spot may have been caused by a coincidence of chance. Good spots are worth saving. Bad spots much less so. 
protecting a habitat Within a habitat live many species in a working relationship. By saving a habitat, a working unit containing many species is saved. Such units are more resilient than species alone. 
spiritual dimension Doing something for the environment is not only very necessary but also immensely satisfying, because you know that it is not easy, and that it is for someone else, perhaps your own children. Conservation lives only in the mind.
conservation practice The main things to do are: setting aside what is unused; preventing and removing threats; mitigating and fixing problems.
various countries The situation in various countries illustrates their differences and difficulties. Afghanistan, America, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand.
for further study sitemap: our site map gives you immediate access to all articles on this site. (11p)
biodiversity: what is biodiversity? How to understand biodiversity and what is not biodiversity. (32p)
resource management: all conservation begins by understanding resource management first. (28p)
marine conservation: the sea is so different from the land that it requires special understanding. (34p)
marine degradation: whatever we do wrong on the land, threatens the sea. (30p)
soil: our most important renewable resource we are losing fastest. What can we do? (large)
disappearing beaches: we are losing our beaches but few know why, as we do the wrong things. (53p)
science, technology and human nature: if you think we can save ourselves, think again. (35p)
global threats to people and environment: a summary of the threats to ourselves and others. Ouch! (20p)
IUCN Protected Areas recommendations made during the Fifth World Parks Congress (Sep 2003). Covers all aspects of terrestrial and marine proteted areas for further study. Often naive and impractical. (50-60pages, printer-friendly)
world links University of California, Peter Bryant's hypertext book Biodiversity and conservation. Other papers about sustainability.
 go to part2 <==> go to part3
go back to the conservation section with resource management, biodiversity, marine conservation

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This article builds further on the two preceding ones, resource management and biodiversity, and is followed up by marine conservation. Gems of knowledge are revealed in each, so please read it all. In this article, we'll investigate what people do to mitigate (soften) the side effects of their actions. The main recipient of these side effects is nature, but humans affect their own quality of life too. So conservation has become to mean the preservation of nature.
conservation: (L: com-=with; servare= to keep) preservation, especially of the natural environment. Keeping from harm or damage, especially for later use. Maintaining a quantity. The management, protection, and wise use of natural resources, the things that help support life.

conservation is unnatural

Cartoon about habitat destruction and housingConservation is rooted in the belief that something can be done to prevent the loss of an endeared entity. When we saw native forests disappearing to shipbuilding and firewood, we began to protect them, goes the story. However, the truth follows a slightly different path. Forests were saved because people discovered coal, which was much more efficient to use. Instead of building ships from timber, steel proved to be a better choice. Instead of burning firewood for locomotives, coal proved more efficient. Thus coal and steel saved the remnants of native forests. Likewise it was fossil oil that saved the whales. If no economic replacement can be found, people will use the resource to the last little bit. Conservation in its early days, often happened by accident. However, today, people are using knowledge, foresight, labour and technology for proactive conservation.
Conservation objectives of main resource catagoriesNevertheless, it seems that the three underlying causes, population growth, economic growth and material needs ('standard of living') are too holy to be stemmed, or even discussed. So it happens that all our conservation efforts are directed at fixing problems, rather than preventing them. Worse still, the concept of sustainable development requires us to increase economic activity while also conserving the environment, two opposing goals. Conservationists now try to improve our 'quality of life', the need for a clean environment, such as clean air and water, uncluttered living areas, and unspoiled scenic lands. Only very recently has the concept of biodiversity entered the conservationist's vocabulary. It requires healthy ecosystems, not just for the benefit of people but also for those other millions of species. Conservation can be grouped into the following classes:
The history of conservation began with land conservation by terracing cropland (1000BC, including vineyards and olive groves), water conservation by water harvesting and irrigation (100AD), natural parks for wildlife and scenery (1870), hunting and fishing laws (1900). The depression of the 1930s saw active planting of forests on degraded lands, and building dams and levees to control flooding. World War II closed fishing for a while, allowing fish stocks to recover (1939-1945). The 1970s highlighted the dangers of agrichemicals like DDT. The 1980s became aware of the disappearing rainforests, the 1990s of climate change and greenhouse gases, and today conservation is slowly taking in all aspects of unnatural human influence, rendering the subject rather large and confusing.

This article will look at conservation, in order of generality, as saving:

In this article, we'll look at the threats to ourselves and nature, our motivations for doing something about them, and how it is done. In the process, we'll discover some basic principles, benefits and limitations, and a number of solutions. The purpose of this article is not to give recipes, but to foster an understanding of all related issues, so that you can make your own conservation plan. It will become clear that conservation is not easy to do right, and many mistakes have indeed been made. Please note that some gems of understanding have been presented in all the other articles belonging to the section on conservation, of which this document is but one article.

Ever since humans populated the Earth, and constructed civilisations, threats have haunted them. So what are these threats?

Threats to the environment

Most of the side effects of human activity have remained unnoticed because they either happen very slowly, or somewhere else. People have become very good at avoiding unpleasant side effects, like living outside cities to escape air pollution, processing wastes and sewage far away from where people live, and so on. Those with power have often found ways to avoid the unpleasantness of their actions, which is much easier than confronting the issues. As a result, conservation action often comes when the situation has become unsalvageable.

In the Summary of threats to humans and the environment, an attempt has been made to list all the human-made effects and their causes, amounting to a damning report card with frightening consequences. As mentioned above, people do not wish to remove the real causes of their problems, even when continuing their ways makes no sense. For instance, since 1970 the economy more than doubled, but personal discretionary spending remained the same. People today are hardly better off than 30 years ago. We have to work harder in order to be able to afford the same. In the same period, the pressure on the environment and on humans themselves, grew threefold! Clearly, a tradeoff between zero percent better living and 300% higher risk, is not a sensible one.

One would like to be able to classify the threats to the environment by the seriousness of their nature, but this cannot be done, because threats differ from place to place. However, we have placed them here in order of seriousness globally, while also indicating whether old or new. Old threats are those nature has learnt to deal with, and from which it can recover more easily.

All the above mentioned threats have, of course, been created by human activity. The table below attempts to present an overview of human activities and their threats to our resources.
Effects of human activities on our main resources
living, working, recreation construction,
transport, movement energy & mining manufacturing, industry agriculture, forestry
cats and dogs, rats, predation, exotic plants, exotic foods,
development, reclamation, runoff fragmentation by roads, pollution, roadkill, spread of diseases & pests, poison land, poison rivers, disturbance, poisons, habitat loss, exotic species,
monocultures, diseases, competition, 
habitat loss from cities, suburbs, roads, paving, debris, loss from development, reclamation,  fragmentation, roadkill, debris,  disturbance, - habitat loss, exotic habitats,
soil reclamation, paving. landscaping, disturbance, paving, lead, spoils, scars, relocation, paving, erosion, unfertility,
water sewage, using water, fast runoff, rapid streamflow, pathogens,  disturbs hydrology, mud runoff,  oil, heavy metals, chemicals, fast runoff, heavy use of water, poisoned rivers, nuclear wastes, heavy use of water, pollution, poisons, aquifer depletion, eutrophication, biocides, pathogens,
fast runoff,
air methane, CO2,  heavy equipment, exhaust, exhaust gases, nitric oxides, ozone, soot, exhaust gases, poisons, exhaust gases, methane, CO2, nitric oxides,
food, fishing, overexploitation, debris, pollution, sediment, exotic species, ballast water, antifouling paint, oil spills, debris, poisons, nuclear wastes, poisons,  runoff/erosion, fertiliser, biocides, eutrophication,
plankton blooms,
energy electricity, heating, cooking, refrigerating, airconditioning, plastics, use of oil, bitumen, use of oil, plastics, heavy use, oil, coal, electricity, heavy use of energy, use of energy, chemicals, fertiliser,
minerals various minerals, timber, concrete, glass, various minerals, timber, concrete, glass, stone, various minerals, steel, aluminium, rubber, produces minerals, heavy use of minerals, fertiliser,
provides culture, crowding, loss of time, hindrance,  creates new habitat & facilities, noise, space for roads & parking, exhaust gases, noise, hindrance, traffic jams, - provides jobs & income, pollutes, exhaust gases, uses space, -
This table gives an overview of the damage caused by what we do. Horizontally our main resources; vertically our actions. Conservation must be concerned with reducing all threats on all our resources. Note that the activity of fishing has been left out, because it has little or no effect on the other resources. Marine conservation is an entirely separate issue.

With so many threats identified, what are our options and tools to do something about them?
Conservation tools
Solving problems the wrong way: ambulances at the bottom of the cliffSince our threats and problems appear to come from our actions, it stands to reason that controlling those, would bring solution. However, the path to a problem consists of several steps, which can all be addressed to solve or to alleviate our problems. The diagram here shows that problems arise from a need, which leads to action. To look at problems alone, would bring costly fixes that do not last. They look like providing ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, rather than a fence at the top. The best solution is decreasing human population, then abating our needs, followed by controlling our actions, and finally by fixing problems. 

The conservation toolkit consists essentially of controlling the when, where, how and how much, as follows:

Note that combinations of several of the above-mentioned improvements are usually made, like a temporarily closed area, higher quality service combined with reduced risk, and education programmes.

Please take some time now to apply these conservation tools to some of the threats and harmful activities listed in the table above. Imagine the effectiveness of your solutions, and how society would react. Also consider the cost of implementation and enforcement, and how long it would take to show results. Make a realistic implementation plan, followed by a management plan.

It is often thought that by doing nothing (no-take policy), a reserved area will improve by itself over time. However, when the causes of species decline (threats) are not taken away, that won't happen. Conservation is about taking threats away. It makes no sense to lock species up in a prison (reserve) together with their threats. Thus the removal of exotic predator species from island reserves is of utmost importance.

Clark cartoon: conservation of parks and reserves

If people were to immediately experience their own wrongdoings, they would be more inclined to corrective action. How then can they be made to bear the cost of their actions?
Economic tools and incentives
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA) approaches conservation from a freemarket perspective, which dominated the worldview at the time (1992-1995). The idea is that the market price mechanism should be able to drive the conservation effort, which would need no further interference. In the box the suggestions made by UNEP GBA. Please note that none of the options has been tested or proved in practice.

Lowering forest production costs: Costs can be reduced by directly involving the local populations in the protection and management of natural ecosystems (as guards, tour guides, collectors of non-timber forest products and scientific samples).

Using water fees as ecosystem conservation incentives: Local communities derive little benefit from maintaining the watersheds, since the principal beneficiaries are located downstream. Water and hydropower pricing that includes a watershed protection charge levied upon farmers, urban and industrial users, provides a way of compensating local communities.

Internalising tourism benefits: The portion of ecotourism benefits that flow to the local population can be expanded by engaging local people as guards and tour guides, and by issuing ecotourism franchises to communities and allocating a portion of the ensuing revenues to the development of local employment opportunities.

Reforestation incentives: Land owners who keep their land in forests, can receive a tax credit or rate rebate. Since this approach is especially beneficial to large, wealthy owners, a system can be devised whereby small-holders can earn tax credits that they can sell to wealthy taxpayers having taxes to offset.

Differential land use taxes: Categories for classifying land uses can range from environmentally most beneficial (e..g. natural forest) to environmentally most destructive (e.g. industrial site). To internalise the environmental cost of habitat conversion, a charge is imposed on the landowners when land use is changed from a higher to a lower class.

Environmental performance bonds: Environmental bonds shift responsibility for controlling deforestation, monitoring and enforcement, to individual producers and consumers who are charged in advance for the potential damage. These bonds can ensure that adequate measures are taken to minimise environmental damage and that funds are available for restoration of environments if compliance is poor.

Forest compacts: Compacts are undertaken by one country with the support of another, to engage in policy reforms, conservation and investment programmes, that achieve specified targets of sustainable forest management or preservation in exchange for financial and technology resources. For example, Carbon Offset Agreements have been established between a power utility company in a developed country and a developing country, to finance a shift to more sustainable logging practices, in exchange for tax credit by the utility for the carbon stored or retained on sites by the funded forestry activity.

Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) and Conservation Easements: These policy instruments enable a country or private land owner to sell the 'right' to convert a natural habitat for a price that fully covers the opportunity cost.

(Source: UNEP Global Biodiversity Assessment, 1995)

One of the causes of environmental threats is ignorance. What do we know, and how can we spread that knowledge?
Limits to ecological knowledge
Science has become great by applying the scientific method, honesty and intensive scrutiny. Those branches of science able to conduct controlled experiments, flourished (physics, chemistry, microbiology, medicine, etc.). However, ecology, the knowledge of living communities, and how they function, is hampered by a number of problems:

With knowledge of the consequences of our actions in place, we can now develop civilisation further, but on a sustainable basis, or can we?
Sustainable development
The notion of sustainable development comes from the inequality between the developed and the developing world. The developed world became prosperous from the use of technology and excessive amounts of fossil fuel. The developing world hopes to get there using the same formula. It would thus be unfair to apply the same rules to both. For instance, whereas the developed world could sustain savings in fuel by pressing for fuel efficiency, this would be of unaffordable cost to a developing world.
As a consequence, sustainable development has these two aspects: The urge for development also comes from a fictional mandate we have given ourselves, that of not withholding prosperity from present and future generations. Thus the world and its resources must be exploited to their maximum in order not to deny this right to present and unborn generations. However, what we use today, won't be there tomorrow. The concept of sustainable development is riddled with contradictions.

go to part2 <==> go to part3