Protecting biodiversity: Local and global policies
In article we’ll focus on policy making that can help protect biodiversity. How does interest in biodiversity and conservation solutions feed into the idea of actually making policy?
The important thing to recognize about all of this is that organisms don’t really care about borders and boundaries. Ecosystems don’t have to respect the political divisions that humans make. And what we mean here is that although we can start with individual action and encourage it to become broad-scale change, it still has to translate somehow into local, regional, national, and eventually international policy. We need ways of engaging in dialogues across political boundaries that allow some kind of regulation, some sought of formal process for developing policy that can lead to protection of biodiversity worldwide. We have to consider that economic factors generally trump almost all other considerations. Decisions are usually made with short-term gain in mind at the expense of longterm effects. And that’s something we have to be prepared to deal with at every point when talking about policy and regulation. But we’ve also seen how long-term effects are now starting to impact even this short-term view.
Things that we once thought might not have an effect until a long way in the future, are affecting us now. We’re no longer at a point where environmental change and damage to biodiversity and ecosystems are things that we can ignore. I remember as a kid people saying, “Well, some day this is gonna be a problem.” But this is some day. Conventions and policies have evolved over time to recognize that some species really are in a whole heap of trouble right now. There are policies invoking trade limits on natural resources of various kinds, such as regulations on logging of trees for their wood, or strip mining for metals in both developed and developing countries, or the act of stripping entire mountains down to their core to extract coal. These are things having deep and abiding effects on biodiversity. Still, they’re governed by treaties that are economically based.
The very nature of international trade has effects on biodiversity in sometimes subtle ways that we don’t always see right away. For example, political statements inditing certain government actions that are threats to biodiversity can put economic pressure on governments, such as recent pressures put on Japan for what is called Research Whaling. These pressures grew out of international discussions between organizations that may or may not have been involved in the International Whaling Commission. Speaking against policies of another country that was doing things that many different groups deemed harmful to biodiversity. Such actions are not necessarily parts of formal treaties. They grow out of concern by individuals that can work its way all the way up to international policy. Let’s look at local policies for a moment. They can include things like formal recycling programs or the establishment of local clubs that set up biodiversity gardens, or the monitoring of open spaces in the local park lands. Neighborhood watch programs are likely going to become much more than a neighborhood watch for crime. Some day there are gonna be neighborhood watches for people letting their pets run free and eat birds or just generally doing things that are degrading local environments. Organized active cleanup efforts are becoming more and more formal policy for some communities and beach cleanups are becoming a big part of this too. You see signs for highway trash cleanup programs everywhere. This part of the highway is being looked after by so and so. Now it might sound trivial that we wanna cleanup the sides of highways, but in fact, highways are enormous sources of trash. Things like plastic bags that still fly around with frightening regularity. Which actually brings us around to the management of plastics as a really big concern. Plastic is a relatively recent human invention and we’re starting to see now some of the effects that the wide use of plastics is having, on biodiversity around the world. Although the scope of the problem is huge, like the great garbage patches in the oceans, we’re talking about fairly simple solutions, like local and international policy that can help regulate the use of plastic bags. The banning and recycling of plastic bags has been introduced by communities of smallest fishing villages in the Philippines to giant metropolises such as San Francisco. But it’s also clear that policy can only be enacted effectively when based on verifiable, testable, and comprehensive scientific data. We need the research that leads to proper decision making. And from where I’m sitting, there are really two main categories of data that need to be taken into account.
First, there are data coming from what scientists call primary studies. In part, primary studies rely on the work of scientists, sometimes with the help of citizen scientists, who go out in the field and collect data directly from nature. Things like expeditions and local field work still have important roles to play in documenting biodiversity in its native habitat as well as seeing firsthand the threats to natural ecosystems. Primary studies can also consist of experimental analyses in laboratories that help to figure out how things like ocean acidification or other changes can affect certain organisms. Results from this work can then be applied to the natural world. Metabolic studies on how organisms process chemicals and, therefore, energy in their environment can establish how some organisms have competitive advantages in certain settings. This can be important for understanding introduced species and how they become invasive. Policy can grow out of this knowledge in attempts to control such species. In addition to field and laboratory analyses, there are other types of data coming out of primary studies in the form of things like remote sensing projects using satellite imagery. These types of primary data can have an immediate impact on policy because they allow people to step back and see their local situation in a bigger picture. I’m thinking, for example, of Meg Lowman, who in northern Ethiopia had the opportunity to show local leaders satellite photos of the small remaining forested areas protected by the local churches and priests. These areas had been protected in the face of major agricultural needs for the land. When the religious leaders themselves saw that their churches represented the only natural greenery left, the only relatively unaffected reservoirs of biodiversity in the landscape, that had a deep effect on the value they placed on what they were doing, inspiring them to do more. Remote imagery is also showing the receding edges of natural areas, slash and burn, invasion of roads, clear-cutting of native forests, pollution in the oceans, and the expansion of deserts around the world. Real time videos record change. You can actually see in the remote sensing imagery how these ecosystems change over time. This ability to step back and just look at what’s happening is very powerful.
What about the second kind of data, the second kind of science that can lead to policy? This is known as meta-analysis. Meta-analyses take all of these published studies from scientists working in the field and in labs and combine them in a variety of different contexts, compiling them into big picture overviews that summarize a lot of complex information from which major conclusions can be drawn. It’s important not to oversimplify, of course, when you make these summaries. But it’s also true that major trends and patterns can emerge from looking at broad swaths of the published literature. Sometimes, they can result in models of how complex systems work so that predictions can be made. Meta-analyses provide a survey of what’s known and, perhaps most importantly, what’s not known about biodiversity in certain critical areas, providing pathways along which good policy can be taken. A good example of this was the effort to classify biodiversity hotspots. Masses of primary data were assembled and synthesized, representing studies by people who were out there with their boots on the ground identifying and counting plants, sometimes finding new species and recording those findings in scientific journals. Those findings were then combined to define hotspots and how to regulate what goes on in them to decrease the threats to biodiversity, threats that are integral to the very definition of the hotspot. Other examples come from synthesizing the data coming from biodiversity studies that could lead to the establishment of marine protected areas. You need to have data indicating where marine protected areas in a given region are the most needed and can do the most good. That’s all well and good, but the elephant in the room, of course, is enforcement. Enforcement, at its heart, requires the resources and, of course, the will to implement policy decisions in the name of biodiversity protection. This is particularly problematic in developing countries, but it can be difficult in developed ones as well because you have to have political as well as economic support. But in developing countries, it’s particularly acute because those are also most often the places where biodiversity is not only the least known, but still existing at higher levels because by definition, it hasn’t been threatened by development. On the basis of what I might know about a given country’s biodiversity, I’d never dreamed to tell a policy maker to make a policy that would protect biodiversity, but threatens the livelihood, health, or economic well-being of the people that live there.
This is hubris of the worst kind. But it’s not hubris to use the combined power of science and education to illustrate and reinforce how good policy protects biodiversity while still providing for sustainable use of the natural world. It’s not hubris to reinforce the importance of longterm sustainability, not just short-term economic gains. If we don’t do that, then future policies will be too late to reverse the effects that the loss of biodiversity will have on both ecosystem function and services. And then we’ll have to face what that will mean for coming generations.