“To be or not to be, that is the question…”
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In a period called by scientists the ‘Sixth Extinction’, the question of conservation has never been more relevant or immediate. But what exactly are we conserving for? What are the moral, ethical and philosophical questions that surround the various types of conservation? In this excellent book, M.R. O’Connor highlights some of the species on the edge of extinction and uses them as jumping off points to look at some of the arguments, from the practical to the esoteric, that surround the whole question of species conservation.
It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, if it isn’t already, that the most interesting books, especially in the field of science, are also the hardest to review. There is barely a page in this book that didn’t have me pausing for thought, taking a note, nodding in agreement, becoming outraged, puzzled, saddened, inspired. I could write 20,000 words on it (but I won’t!) and still only give the briefest flavour of the ground O’Connor covers. So rather than try to do that, I’m going to look in depth at the first chapter and then restrict myself to a brief overview of the rest.
The Kihansi spray toad has evolved to live in one tiny area of the world only – in the spray zone of a waterfall in the Udzungwa mountains in East Africa. Previously an unknown species, it was only discovered when plans were being developed to use the waterfall as a massive hydro-power project. In line with global rules, a biodiversity survey was carried out to assess the impact of the project, and the little toad suddenly became famous in conservation circles. In short, the project went ahead and despite all the technological efforts that were ploughed, at considerable cost, into saving the toad, it went extinct in the wild. But two colonies of them still exist in separate zoos in the US with hopes that they may one day be reintroduced into a specially adapted environment in their original habitat.
A common enough little story, but O’Connor uses it to raise some of the ethical and philosophical issues around the whole question of conservation…
Should the project have gone ahead knowing the likelihood of it causing the extinction of the toad? O’Connor discusses the desperate need for more electricity if this region of the world is to develop out of its current poverty. Hydro-power is clean energy – is this not exactly what we privileged Westerners want the ‘third world’ to develop rather than turning to fossil fuel? How will we eradicate poverty if we put biodiversity above human need?
Which leads to the next question – is nature there to ‘serve’ man or does it have an intrinsic value of its own? Are we its master or its caretaker? Was the toad’s existence important before we knew about it? O’Connor ranges fascinatingly through philosophy and ethics in an attempt to elucidate the arguments around this fundamental question.
Can a species really be said to exist if it can’t survive in its own habitat? In other words, if the only remaining members of a species are in captivity, is not that species effectively extinct? This leads on to other questions. How quickly do animals in captivity evolve to suit their new surroundings? One of the scientists working with the toads claims that there are already differences between the two colonies. So can they really be said to be the same species as the one in the wild? If they are reintroduced to the wild, what impact will that have? The habitat has in the meantime been evolving to take account of their absence – are we interfering more by trying to turn back the clock?
In order to create a liveable habitat for the toads, a sprinkler system has been installed at enormous cost – this in a region where children routinely die from poverty and preventable diseases. Could the money have been better spent? Bluntly, is the life of a toad worth more or less than the life of a child? How much are we prepared to spend to conserve a species that can no longer survive without perpetual human management? In these circumstances, can it really be considered ‘wild’ any more… or even ‘natural’?
Along the way, O’Connor discusses the suspicion that sometimes greets conservation efforts in Africa caused by the fact that it has so often been done for the benefit of a white elite – for example, safari parks were originally preserved as private hunting grounds, and to create them native people were frequently driven off their traditional lands. And she shows how divided conservationists are over all these questions – with the pragmatic element feeling that the arguments will go on for ever in academia while on the ground extinctions will continue at an ever more rapid rate.
In later chapters, O’Connor goes much further into genetic conservation – gene banks containing millions of samples, including of species already extinct. Should we try to resurrect these species? How far back should we go – the toad? The passenger pigeon? The mammoth? Neanderthal man? We have the genes for them all. The science is nearly there, but what would the impact be? Are genes alone enough, or is a species defined as much by learned behaviour as genetics? And will these resurrected species be considered ‘real’ or ‘artificial’ – the answer to that will affect how far people are willing to go to conserve them should the species approach extinction again. Will the idea that extinct species can be resurrected in the future make governments less willing to spend money on conservation today?
I hope I’ve been able to give a tiny flavour of how fascinating I found this book. O’Connor is an investigative journalist rather than a scientist and this shows through in her ability both to present complex arguments clearly enough for the non-academic reader, and to take an objective view of the subject. She raises and debates the questions, detailing the arguments put forward by the leaders in the field, but she doesn’t force answers on the reader. She leaves us to think it through for ourselves, and shows us that each case is different, creating its own unique set of questions. From Northern white rhinos and the effects of war, to the panther in the south-eastern USA and its impact on the American character and psyche, the book is stuffed to bursting point with the most current thinking on the ethics of conservation, all written in an immensely readable and accessible way. Without exception, the most interesting and wide-ranging book on the subject I have ever read and one that has made me much more aware of the complexities of the debate. Earns my highest recommendation.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.