Wilson Lab Journal Club: War and Peace and Conservation Biology

Each month the Wilson Lab meets to discuss an important piece of literature, brainstorm grand ideas or discuss research directions and progress. This month, Lochran Traill led the discussion.

Ehrenfeld, D. 2000. War and Peace and Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology 14(1): 105-112.

By Lochran Traill

Written a decade ago, Ehrenfeld’s reference to “great events of the world” that are “inherently too complex to be managed by … science and reason” remains pertinent. Citing Tolstoy’s historical account of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia (in War and Peace), Ehrenfeld points out that scientists err by assumption that an increase in knowledge alone will stop (or even slow) the extinction crisis. As Field Marshal Kutúzov knew, no one leader could control great battles or great events, such things are unpredicted and undirected.

While biologists still struggle to understand the causes of localised extinction events, so the globalisation juggernaut moves ahead, with subsequent capital, human and wildlife movement, climatic shifts and human expansion. As Ehrenfeld rightly insists, these forces are (largely) blind to our science. Not all is lost though. Peak oil will slow carbon output, and human growth trends are negative in some (developed) countries. As conservationists, Ehrenfeld jolts us to keep perspective. That is not to say that we can’t build on our past success, and particularly the knowledge that we have accrued. By keeping conservation effort simple, local (inclusive of the entire community) and most importantly, by developing feedback loops, conservationists can withstand ongoing pressures.

As aspiring, young conservation biologists, we need to develop a sense of accountability, and monitor our career progression through outcomes achieved. Finally, acknowledging for perverse outcomes, we should strive to maintain pristine, connected habitats that support large and genetically diverse species’ populations.