End of the Wild

To the Editors:

Stephen M. Meyer proposes a science-based, broad-scale approach to conservation that differs little from the methods adopted by The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations (“End of the Wild,” April/May 2004). Unfortunately, Meyer prefaces his worthy suggestions with a litany so gloomy that even the most committed conservationist may lose hope before reaching the end of the article. Meyer cites irrefutable evidence of the harm human beings have wrought on many species and ecosystems, but we need not accept his conclusion that we have already crossed the point of no return.

Meyer appropriately highlights the key challenges for conservation, including invasive species, global climate change, the limitations of existing parks and reserves, and the inevitability of extinctions due to the loss of habitat. Despair may seem an appropriate response to such a daunting array, but despair is an emotion we cannot afford if we are to actually address the issues that Meyer raises.

Meyer outlines global problems, and then as evidence of how grim the cause of conservation is, he lists dire stories of individual species like red squirrels and monkey puzzle trees. Not until the very end of his article does Meyer recognize the incongruity; we cannot solve global problems by attacking them one species at a time. Meyer does not prove his case that any steps we take are already too late, but in the process he offers compelling evidence for a new approach to conservation.

Meyer also confuses identifying a trend (such as a declining population of an endangered species) with understanding a problem. To take one of Meyer’s own examples, the conservation challenge with the California tiger salamander is not that the population is shrinking. Rather, the problem is the host of factors (including habitat loss and pollution) driving that trend. Meyer spells out those factors but then throws up his hands and declares the situation too hopelessly tangled. We need to take the next step. Conservation problems are indeed complex and demand innovative solutions. The role of conservation and conservation science is to disentangle the complex web, to make explicit the consequences of human actions, and to identify the points at which we can intervene with a host of tools, such as changing laws, providing economic incentives, buying land, and working with local communities. Hard, yes, but far from hopeless.

The approach that Meyer proposes at the end of his article is nearly identical to one now embraced by some conservationists: match the scale of conservation solutions to the scale of conservation challenges. The Nature Conservancy among others has been developing methods for carrying out conservation across landscapes that cover thousands of square miles and cross many political jurisdictions. Meyer’s vision of what he calls “meta-reserves” has been a part of the science of conservation planning for some years now and is already being applied, from Arizona to Indonesia.

Meyer is absolutely right that we must think and act at far broader scales than we ever have before. That change in thinking, driven by the development of new scientific tools, is already underway. That is cause for hope, and hope is indispensable. Tales of ecological woe, no matter how well-founded in science, rarely galvanize people to action.

Meyer notes that many choices have been foreclosed, but our course is far from determined. Given the growing human population, writes Meyer, “we cannot change our current course.” Not so; if history, ecology, and conservation biology have taught us anything, it is to beware of anyone who claims the end is near or all is lost. We know only that the future will not look like the past. That leaves enormous room for us to muster the hope and courage to vary our course to secure our natural heritage.

Jonathan S. Adams, conservation biologist 
M. Sanjayan, lead scientist 
The Nature Conservancy 
Arlington, Va.


Stephen M. Meyer replies:

In writing “End of the Wild” I tried to be extraordinarily careful in constructing the essay, even in my choice of words, to minimize the chances that readers might misconstrue what I fully recognize to be an unsettling argument for some. Having read Adams and Sanjayan’s letter, I see that I failed. They criticize a methodology I do not use, points I do not make, and conclusions I do not draw. For example, nowhere in my essay do I assert or imply, that “the end is near or all is lost.” Rather, “End of the Wild” argues that Earth will remain rich in biota, but rich in a way drastically different than in the past. Ecosystems, and the plants and animals that help define them, will be dominated by human-selected species that thrive in human-disturbed landscapes. In this sense, “the wild” will no longer exist.

The species-specific illustrations I offered were intended to be just that: illustrations. They were not presented as proof (anecdotes are not proof of anything) but as tangible benchmarks for the lay reader to think about. The proof, as I noted, is found systematically and consistently in the scientific literature of the past decade.

As the careful reader understood, my story about the California tiger salamander had nothing to do with “populations trends” but rather tried to illustrate how a multiplicity of human activities compound in complex and unstoppable ways to drive species and associated ecosystems out of existence.

Adams and Sanjayan also confuse my notion of a meta-reserve (perhaps a poor choice of terms on my part) with the concept of meta-population reserves—which are highly controversial among biologists, and in any case not what I was describing.

Indeed, Adams and Sanjayan’s fear that “even the most committed conservationist may lose hope” while reading my essay raises the question, lose hope of what? The notion that we can keep the Earth’s remaining great natural places preserved “as they were, as they are” is the stuff of advertising agencies and fundraisers, not conservation science. Even the vast Amazon basin is today far less than it was 50 years ago. And it will certainly be much less of what it is today in 50 years. As long as environmentalists cling to illusory notions of pristine wilderness unaltered by humanity the conflict between environmentalism on the one hand and economic prosperity and social development on the other will continue to intensify—all to the detriment of the environment.

Instead, we need to recognize that the human hand now firmly grips all ecosystems on the planet and that that grip will only tighten in the decades ahead. The message of “End of the Wild” is for us to acknowledge this, confront the changes ahead, and take responsibility in the form of active systematic management and manipulation of ecosystems.