Thinking Bigger

As human activity impacts our natural environment at an unprecedented rate, conservation biologists face monumental obstacles in their efforts to preserve wildlife populations. They find themselves defending increasingly smaller areas of land, with increasingly stronger oppositions and each day wondering just how far the definitions of the words “critically”, “endangered”, and “crisis” can be pushed before action might be taken or support given. It’s a fight that has left conservationists exhausted, panting on the sidelines, from shouting at the world. And as one of those breathless individuals, I can attest to the frustration.
One of the main problems, yet something inherent to human nature, is the extensive disconnect between most peoples’ everyday lives and the frontlines of conservation issues. Until the problem has an impact on someone personally, they are very unlikely to make an effort to ameliorate it. That’s not to say that people don’t care. If you were to poll a handful of strangers on the street, most would probably say “yes, human activity impacts the environment”, “yes, entire species are under threat and at risk of extinction”, and maybe even “climate change is real and its effects should be mitigated”. However, their responses will most likely be followed up with “…but I can’t really do anything about that, I’m sorry I’m late for work.”

And to be honest, I don’t blame them. It is unrealistic to expect a human to care about something that is not a part of their experiential sphere. It’s just not in our biology to expend energy and resources on issues that don’t immediately affect us or our family’s evolutionary success. And with social media and the world community shouting at everyone to care about this, that and the other thing, people are, unfortunately, just ‘tuning out’.

Under these circumstances, change must be advocated for at a higher, more central level, such as through governments or private corporations. If every American changed their lightbulbs to high efficiency CFLs, it would certainly have a positive impact on the environment, but nowhere near the impact that a single government adding protection status to a rainforest would. Rather than expending countless resources on efforts to change the average human’s daily routine and products consumed, we should instead shift our focus and resources to work with governments controlling these disturbed landscapes and the corporations often responsible for the disturbances.

A single industry, the palm oil industry, has been responsible for over 18,000,000 hectares of deforestation in Indonesia alone since 1996. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, palm oil production in Indonesia was responsible for 2-9% of worldwide carbon emissions from tropical land use1. In South America, the vast majority of deforestation is the result of a single cause as well: land clearance for meat cattle. The Brazilian government itself estimates that over 60% of deforested land in Brazil is for cattle ranches2, while researchers estimate it to be well over 80%3. As the human population skyrockets and more populated countries become increasingly industrialized, the global demand for beef has never been higher. But beef is an environmentally expensive meat, requiring massive amounts of land not only for the cattle themselves but more so to produce enough grain to feed these populations into adulthood. The Amazon is currently being cleared, in a large part, to provide cheap beef to the industrialized world.

Conservationists need to be focussing on these single causal factors when attempting to protect ecosystems as a whole. At this stage of crisis, larger actions are necessary if we have any hope of slowing rapid habitat loss. The most prudent and sage move at this stage might well be to pull together contacts, resources, and finances to tackle these large-scale causes of deforestation. Only through a targeted, united effort, will we have any hope of saving these ecosystems and ensuring the survival of countless endangered species and the health of our planet.

  3. Gibbs, Holly K., et al. “Carbon payback times for crop-based biofuel expansion in the tropics: the effects of changing yield and technology.” Environmental Research Letters 3.3 (2008): 034001.