Why is the Crisis in Conservation Largely Ignored by Media?

With climate change commanding the news spotlight, dominating environmental discourse, you don’t hear much anymore about biodiversity or endangered species, two interconnected issues which, until the last decade or so, had been a focus of many environmental campaigners and widespread media coverage.

A case in point: In recent years, the conservation community has been at war with itself, engaged in a heated debate over how to preserve nature and biodiversity in the 21st century. The acrimonious dialogue reached a boiling point in 2014, prompting a remarkable commentary in the journal Nature, signed by more than 200 environmental scientists. Here are the passages that I figured would jump out at reporters:

what began as a healthy debate has, in our opinion, descended into vitriolic, personal battles in universities, academic conferences, research stations, conservation organizations and even the media. We believe that this situation is stifling productive discourse, inhibiting funding and halting progress.

Adding to the problem, in our view, is the issue that this dispute has become dominated by only a few voices, nearly all of them men’s. We see this as illustrative of the bigger issues of gender and cultural bias that also continue to hinder conservation.

When the editorial appeared in November, I was nearly done with a feature story on the conflict. That piece, entitled “The battle for the soul of conservation science,” has just been published in the winter edition of Issues in Science and Technology. The rift, to a large degree, is about how to reconcile the needs of humanity and nature.

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To be fair, some journalists have already written extensively about this battle. In 2012, Paul Voosen in Greenwire profiled Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and one of the main provocateurs in the debate. (See also Voosen’s long 20013 feature on another ecologist, Gretchen Daily, in the Chronicle of Higher Education–called “Who is Conservation for?”) Several years later, D.T. Max in The New Yorker profiled Kareiva’s boss, Mark Tercek, the TNC president, who has steered the environmental organization into collaborative partnerships with industry. And in 2013, Hillary Rosner (a friend and award-winning journalist), wrote the most forward-looking and comprehensive piece on the different approaches to conservation that ecologists are debating.

So given how this has story been percolating for a couple of years, I thought for sure the Nature commentary (and accompanying petition) in November would spur wider media coverage. After all, hundreds of environmental scientists were calling on one another to behave and open up the discussion to more voices, particularly women. Oh, and they said that “the future of conservation science, practice and policy” was at stake. Those are pretty good news pegs. But it appears that environmental journalists mostly yawned.

Imagine if a similar type of rebuke/plea had been published regarding the climate debate? The blogosphere would have exploded and you can be sure all the leading papers would have reported on it. As best as I can tell, The New Yorker is the only prominent media outlet to cover the recent developments in the conservation story. Michelle Nijhuis, another award-winning science writer, did a nice write-up for the magazine’s website.

Am I missing something? Why isn’t the crisis in conservation a bigger story in the media? As one recent article (PDF) in the journal Frontiers in Ecology noted, “More than 80% of conservation scientists agree that current conservation goals and standards of success should be reassessed.” But these scientists are deeply conflicted about how to proceed, as a fascinating discussion paper (PDF) published last year in Ecological Applications makes clear.

The fraught, tumultuous debate over the future of conservation strikes me as deserving of wider public attention.

37 Responses to “Why is the Crisis in Conservation Largely Ignored by Media?”

  1. JH says:

    ” Indeed, Kareiva’s often ridiculous misrepresentations (cod have recovered, polar bears will benefit from global warming, etc.) ”

    Kieran Suckling

    ???
    Any comment on that? Have cod recovered? Does Kareiva claim they have? Mr. Suckling provides no links….

  2. Charles Kinsley says:

    Hate to say this. I’ve been in the conservation industry for almost twenty years and I’m totally disgusted with the tendency to keep on doing the same old failed things – just because it’s their job, they have a mortgage, their friends/colleagues are happy, etc. People still like to be important, even if what they do is pointless.

  3. mem_somerville says:

    It only gets attention if you put “Monsanto” in the title.

    Ok, I’m kidding, but seems to me that drama affects the bandwidth people have too. And it’s unfortunate, because I was just reading this story on genetic diversity in seed banks. If the $$ spent on advertising* on the stupid labeling laws was put toward this the whole planet would benefit. Sigh.

    I think it’s the 5-year-olds following the soccer ball problem that Jon Stewart talked about in other contexts.

    *the ads from both sides are a stupid waste of money

  4. JonFrum says:

    “this dispute has become dominated by only a few voices, nearly all of them men’s.”
    For ‘men’s, insert Jews, gays, etc. How would that one play?

  5. JH says:

    If you look at just about any controversial environmental issue, you’d have to draw the same conclusion: everyone who’s putting their money into marketing and fighting about is wasting the very resources they claim to want to save. Same is true for lobbying and legal battles.

    Ultimately, it should make more sense to spend your money developing electric cars and/or investing in charging stations or (insert pet cause here) than investing in lawyers to get the government – oops, I mean public – to pay for your baby. If it doesn’t, that’s an implicit acknowledgement that research and/or investments aren’t worth what your group claims they are.

  6. mem_somerville says:

    Yeah. I gave money to CropTrust and not the label issues groups.

    But I think it’s even more insidious than that. It seems to me that some people actually think that if they ban GMOs, they get biodiversity as an outcome somehow. Also bees. Which means not only are they wasting they resources (donor dollars and energy), they buy a complacency instead.

    Oooh–look–my Ben & Jerry’s is now labeled. That’s sorted.

    I think there are real issues with plant genetic diversity resources. And I think those folks are hurting that discussion by lighting everyone’s hair on fire instead.

  7. Uncle Al says:

    how to preserve nature and biodiversity in the 21st century.” Remove all humans, re Chernobyl. A high radiation background is as nothing compared to having people around. If the entire Third World’s population were to disappear overnight, including Inner Cities, what problems would remain?

  8. Steve Crook says:

    The media can only deal with one ‘existential crisis’ at a time. We’ve been sold the climate change thing for two decades and too many governments and NGOs have too much invested in it to want to detract from their core message.

    Pollution, land use change and over exploitation used to be important, but now, all that matters is to push climate change and anything that gets in the way or blurs the message has to be pushed to one side.

  9. JH says:

    “Oooh–look–my Ben & Jerry’s is now labeled. That’s sorted.”

    Wait – am I picking up a hint of sarcasm there? You’re telling me it’s not all better cuz E.Vil.Corp has to spend a few extra dollars on labels?
    wha…?? :))

    IMO not many people are interested in hashing out the real issues when there’s convenient brow-beating to be done. But, you know, once things get into the political arena the real issues are pretty much lost anyway because everything has to be boiled down to the pre-K version to be understood in a sound byte.

  10. Jeremy_Benway says:

    In November, the U.S. shut down virtually the entire fishery because cod had declined to extremely low levels Boston Globe, November 10, 2014: “In an effort to halt dramatic declines in the cod population, federal officials overseeing the fishing industry on Monday announced unprecedented measures that effectively ban all commercial fishing of the region’s iconic species in the Gulf of Maine.”

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/11/10/federal-fishing-officials-ban-cod-fishing-gulf-maine-for-six-months/iD5F3K4AMJFWmwxuO3acKI/story.html

    Kareiva’s statement from Conservation in the Anthropocene:

    “Even that classic symbol of fragility — the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block — may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals.”

    has not gone over well with polar bear scientists who are predicting the species’ extirpation from the United States by mid-century and a high likelihood of extinction by the end of the century.

    These are not random errors, they happen because of Kareiva’s ideological commitment to optimism and his obsessive need to present his thoughts by way of debunking others. He asserts that cod have recovered in order to scold conservationists for saying there is a cod crisis. He asserts that polar bears have “a good chance of surviving” because conservationists are warning of its extinction trajectory. He was scientifically wrong on both counts.

    If Kareiva let the facts of each situation tell the story instead of demanding an optimistic conclusion, he wouldn’t make these errors. There are plenty of real environmental recoveries and conservation successes to point to. Most are not controversial. Most don’t require posturing as a debunker. If Kareiva focused on the real good news instead of thinking he has to expose some else’s bad news he’d make fewer errors.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

  11. Matthew Slyfield says:

    Why the third world’s population. If you really think having people around is so bad, why not set an example and go first?

  12. bbb1496 says:

    Maybe it’s because the Earth’s natural cycle of heating and cooling has been going on for billions of years and the hubris of man thinking they can change it isn’t news worthy. Money and resources need to be spent on finding a way off this rock and finding another one to move to. Our sun will eventually devour or planet and the only hope for humanity to continue is to find another place to go. THAT is news worthy. Not the number of koala bears left.

  13. kkloor says:

    You are trolling with this comment, as you have in previous comments this week.

    It has nothing to do with the subject. I rarely moderate someone, but when someone like you repeatedly makes deliberately inane comments…

  14. Steve Crook says:

    I assumed he was being sarcastic. But it’s getting harder and harder to tell.

  15. Uncle Al says:

    Takers and makers, let each prosper by his own hand. An engine must have honest feedback or it self-destructs. Do you have a problem with physical reality?

  16. JH says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    Yes, to my knowledge cod is still a major problem. But you didn’t point me to anything that shows Kareiva has claimed otherwise. Has he?

    WRT polar bear issues, I don’t think Kareiva is the only scientist pointing to problems with the claims some polar-bear scientists have made.

    Ultimately, though, the conservation community is going to have to face the reality that pristine nature is not a knowable condition nor an achievable goal – and perhaps not even a desirable goal.

  17. DavidAppell says:

    I think it’s more difficult for nonexperts to wrap their heads around conservation and, especially, biodiversity, compared to climate change. Weather and climate are intuitive to us, visual and tactile and visceral. We’ve all experienced heat waves and storms and hear stories about how winters “used to be.” Global warming is easily measured, the science of GHGs is straightforward, and addressing it can be reduced (by the media) to relatively simple political arguments we easily understand: coal or not? Keystone XL or not? Electric cars or not?

    Conservation stories are the same if they’re local — rivers catch on fire, smog hangs in the air, cities expand ever outward. It’s interesting, but Beijing’s air quality problems are theirs, not ours. PM2.5 kills people, but slowly and not obviously. Biodiversity is even worse — Why is it important? How is it measured? All species go extinct — so what if a yellow toad in a Costa Rican rainforest does? How is that going to affect the price of bread? — when it’s easy to imagine how “more expensive” energy increases the price of bread. What is a toad compared to terrorism in Paris or Manhattan?

    I just don’t think biodiversity is nearly as intuitive as climate change — what it is, why it’s important, why losing it matters.

  18. Jeremy_Benway says:

    Here’re Kareiva’s quote from Conservation in the Anthropocene:

    “Books have been written about the collapse of cod in the Georges Bank, yet recent trawl data show the biomass of cod has recovered to precollapse levels. It’s doubtful that books will be written about this cod recovery since it does not play well 
to an audience somehow addicted to stories of collapse and environmental apocalypse.”

    Note that he is not only absurdly wrong about cod recovery, he is wrong in his portrayal of conservationists. Due to his enormous ego and divisive personality, Karieva constantly attacks other conservationists. It seems that being right isn’t enough for him, he also needs to prove others wrong. This tendency regularly causes him to make factual errors and engage in exaggerations.

    If you look at what conservationists actually do day-to-day, you’ll find little interest in “pristine nature”. They are trying to keep water clean, keep species alive, ratchet down green house gas emissions, restore disrupted fire regimes, etc. None of this has much to do with ideas about pristine nature. You don’t need a theory of pristine nature to see that a river is too polluted to drink or sustain fish populations, or that lack of fire has caused damaging tree encroachment, or that building a housing development in a wildlife corridor will fragment species’ ranges.

    Kareiva–with Kloor cheering him on–has repeatedly misrepresented the history of conservation. Check out the detailed critical comment at the end of Kloor’s other recent piece on this topic:

    http://issues.org/31-2/kloor/

    Kloor’s assertions, which are never backed up with any data, are flat out wrong when compared to actual historical information.

  19. JH says:

    Yes, well, the idea that cod has “recovered” is a wee bit surprising. I’d have to agree with you on that point.

    “You don’t need a theory of pristine nature to see that a river is too polluted to drink or sustain fish populations”

    Rivers are far cleaner now than they were 40 years ago – thanks to the efforts of conservationists.

    OTOH, somebody is out there using pristine nature as a marketing tool – and frequently making ridiculous claims on the side of conservation (polar bears?). And reintroducing wolves and grizzlies in the lower 48 isn’t saving species. It’s expanding their ranges.

    So while you make some good points, the green side of the equation has plenty to answer for.

  20. RogerSweeny says:

    Perhaps potential changes in biodiversity aren’t that important. Perhaps potential decreases don’t matter that much. Perhaps that’s why those who talk about it seem to be motivated by a post-Judeo-Christian version of, “That’s the way God made it. We must preserve it.”

  21. JH says:

    Oh man, don’t even get me started on the extensive and deep parallels between popular “sustainability” “thinking” (if that’s what it is) and the old testament prophets.

  22. DavidAppell says:

    This paper doesn’t contain a single reference to “God” or any gods:

    “Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity,” Bradley J. Cardinale et al, Nature 486, 59–67 (07 June 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11148

    Losses of species due to human activities also carries moral questions…And I’m sure you would protest if/when some higher life form decides YOU/HUMANS “don’t matter that much.”

  23. DavidAppell says:

    “There is growing evidence that polar bears are being adversely affected by the changing sea ice in those regions where there are good data. Thus, for example, between 1987 and 2011 in western Hudson Bay, Canada, a decline in polar bear numbers, from 1,194 to 806, was due to earlier sea ice break-up, later freeze-up and, thus, a shorter sea ice season. In the southern Beaufort Sea, polar bear numbers had stabilized at ~900 by 2010 after a ~40% decline since 2001. However, survival of sub-adult bears declined during the entire period. Polar bear condition and reproductive rates have also declined in the southern Beaufort Sea, unlike in the adjacent Chukchi Sea, immediately to the west, where they have remained stable for 20 years. There are also now twice as many ice-free days in the southern Beaufort Sea as there are in the Chukchi Sea.”

    – 2014 Arctic Report Card, pg 6
    http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/reportcard/ArcticReportCard_full_report.pdf

  24. JH says:

    ” where there are good data”
    weasel clause.

  25. RogerSweeny says:

    That’s why I say post[after]-Judeo-Christian. The God is gone but the sentiment remains. Evolution (and geology and …) tells us that things are constantly changing. Mountains are pushed up and erode away. Some species die out and new species are generated. Ecosystems are a moment in time, an instant between a past that was different and a future that will be different. But the sentiment is, “What existed just before us is special and specially good. We should try to keep from changing it.”

    That SENTIMENT is not scientific. It is akin to worship of the status quo ante.

    I protest when any life form tries to kill me or make my life harder. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a Plasmodium falciparum or Blattella germanica or whatever. I was glad when some people deliberately caused the extinction of Variola.

  26. DavidAppell says:

    The Report’s chapter on polar bears is on pages 61-67. It includes many citations.

  27. DavidAppell says:

    We are in the sixth great extinction event, with the largest rate of extinctions in 65 Myrs. Caused by humans and their inability to live sustainably.

    Not only do these animals have their own right to exist, just as much as you, biodiversity strenthens the ecosystems we depend on. “The worldwide economic value of the pollination service provided by insect pollinators, bees mainly, is €153 billion in 2005 for the main crops that feed the world.”

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080915122725.htm

  28. DavidAppell says:

    Smallpox is (was) a natural, existential enemy of humans. Polar bears, black rhinos, bees, etc. etc. are not.

  29. RogerSweeny says:

    Why do all animals have as much right to exist as I do? Does Plasmodium falciparum have as much right to exist as I do? If not, why not? If it doesn’t have a right to exist, where is the line drawn? Lots of people are desperately poor and will die if they can’t do habitat destruction and inadvertently render some endemic invertebrate extinct. Do they get a pass?

  30. Jeremy_Benway says:

    From a historical perspective, it doesn’t make sense to assert that believing we should not drive species extinct is a historical artifact of Judeo-Christianity, but believing its fine to drive species extinct is a natural fact outside of historical influence. This argument displays two very common errors. First, it explains its opponent away as historically determined, but imagines that its own position stands outside of history. You can’t have it both ways. Second, it’s historical claim is simply wrong.

    The Old Testament has been cited for hundreds of years as the justification for trashing ecosystems and driving species extinct. You see it over and over again from Augustine to Pat Robertson. The earth and animals, it is argued, was given to humans to subdue and use. That is absolutely the dominant cultural trend which began to dissolve at the turn of the century and cease as a dominant belief in the 1960s.

    While not entirely absent (life is complex and diverse), it is a tremendous exaggeration to say that protecting the environment is driven by Old Testament beliefs. Environmentalism has mostly fought against Old Testament beliefs.

  31. RogerSweeny says:

    Agreed. Environmentalism is a replacement for Judeo-Christian theologies. But it keeps many of the same sentiments. We are sinful and must repent (we have raped Mother Earth). There once was an Eden. One day there will be an apocalypse.

  32. JH says:

    “also carries moral questions…”
    But I thought there were no gods in this discussion David. Wha…??? When did moral questions become part of science? Isn’t that for religions and gods?
    This is the double standard of the environmental movement – if there’s no science to back up Greendom’s position, they rebrand their position as a position of morality. :))

  33. JH says:

    Jeremy: don’t be daft on purpose.

    I’m did not cite the old testament as an excuse to drive species to extinction, nor do I care what the old testament claims on the subject.

    I’m drawing a parallel between old testament prophecy and modern ecological prophecy, both of which are based on a set of extreme personal values and driven by belief.

    As I alluded to in my comment to David, humans don’t need the old testament or any god to inform us that we have “dominion”: it’s an obvious fact. We are – this is a fact – the only single species that can intentionally control the destiny of the planet. Thus, we have dominion over all (or most) of nature.

    Beyond that, note that I did not claim species should be driven to extinction as you imply. I support conservation efforts except where they have a clear negative impact on people or virtually zero ecological benefit (which is often the case). IMO, a sober cost-benefit analysis is necessary.

  34. JonFrum says:

    Conservation has been pushed aside by climate change as the cause of the day. What difference does it make whether the rainforest is being cut down when the whole planet is being destroyed?

  35. JH says:

    Ah, so only non-enemies of humans have the special moral protection you imply.

    What about wolves, grizzlies, lions and tigers? Are they exempt from the protection of human morals?

    Then should we allow wolves to hunt elk? From the elk’s perspective, the wolf is a natural enemy and should be eliminated, no?

    Your position is riddled with sentiment and utterly lacking a rational foundation.

  36. Jeffn says:

    Need to define “enemy” as well. Is a critter that competes with humans for food an “existential enemy” of humans? Wolves eat all kinds of things people want to eat- sheep, cows, elks

  37. Viva La Evolucion says:

    I think that the the crisis in conservation is largely ignored by the media because the problem can not be realistically tackled without addressing the issue of human overpopulation. I would like to see more effort being put into preserving the DNA of endangered species, as unfortunately I think that is a more realistic goal than preventing their extinction.

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