Conservation From the Top Down

By Peter Harris, co-founder of A Rocha

Grey Wolves, top predators

Scientific research doesn’t ‘prove’ religious truth but nevertheless each set of convictions addresses the same reality. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a recent insight within the discipline of ecology aligns beautifully with the foundational biblical perspective that human beings have the God-given responsibility to care for all creation. At least this would seem to have happened with our realization of the significance of trophic cascades. For an entertaining explanation of cascades see George Monbiot’s great little film, How Wolves Change Rivers. He argues that we now understand that ecosystems take their character, and change, from the top down. It is the influence of their mega-fauna which often makes the greatest difference, and so ecosystems are not exclusively set in their ways by their underlying geology, developing as was previously imagined, from the ground up.

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Until reasonably recently the significance of people as the ultimate ‘mega’ was perhaps under-estimated by the conservation world. We were all about saving species and that meant working with habitats and fauna. We could leave people for ‘the humanitarians’ and the social development enthusiasts. It is now well understood that it is human choices, founded on values and therefore fundamentally on beliefs, that are quite literally shaping the ecology of our planet. And so two things should give us pause for thought.

Firstly, the beliefs and values that direct the way we treat the world need to be deeply coherent and fit for purpose – and self-evidently the prevailing dogma of our consumerist societies that ‘the more stuff I can accumulate for myself, the more happy I will be’ is not.

Secondly, those concerned with finding a way towards a more sustainable future cannot avoid engaging with human communities in all their complex and contradictory realities, which have at their heart deeply held beliefs and convictions.

The work of conservation has therefore become both more complicated and fundamentally far more rewarding as human flourishing is now at the heart of the task. Gus Speth puts it this way,

‘I used to think that the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we scientists don’t know how to do that.’

Spoken like a true trophic cascader.

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