Preserving biodiversity falls short of what is needed

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Those of us active in preserving and restoring natural areas recognize the traditional approach to economic development could, over time, degrade our restoration efforts. The warning signs are all around us, as summarized in the concept of our ecological footprint.

George Woodwell, founder, director emeritus and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, declared in an article printed in Caliber that defending biodiversity as conservationists’ core goal is a blunder, perhaps a fatal one.

We have followed Woodwell’s career ever since our late colleague, Doug Wade, introduced us to him in the mid-1960s. George indicated his interest in ecology and future career were influenced by the ecologically-oriented expeditions led by Doug when he taught at Dartmouth. For us, Woodwell’s acknowledgment is a reminder of the importance of direct outdoor experiences in unique natural areas to the development of an ecological conscience.

Woodwell is now concerned that the nearly exclusive focus of environmental interests on preserving biodiversity is misleading both as a scientific concept and a basis for political action. It overlooks the broad, ongoing changes in the land, air and water that undermine our economic well-being. He fears that saving hot spots of biodiversity will eventually prove inadequate given the widespread cumulative and irreversible global ecological degradation

He reminds us that the focus on places is too narrow and too specific as life on the planet is dependent on the totality of its elements and not just the diversity of its species.

Woodwell cites the example of the destruction of the cod fishery off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The fish were abundant and widely traded. They were well adapted to environmental conditions of the area, but overfishing and trawler damage to the sea bottom drove them to collapse. They have yet to recover, despite years of protection.

He recognizes that the focus on preserving biodiversity lies outside the core of governmental responsibilities at the very moment when preserving the conditions for all life should be at its heart. He points out the need to preserve the physical, chemical and biotic integrity of the entire earth. Similarly, these concerns are not central to commerce and industry.

Kurt Cobb warns us that the economic challenge to ecological management and democracy itself has intensified with the Supreme Court’s ruling eliminating any limitations on what corporations can spend or say anonymously to influence our political process. While corporate interests may differ on issues as exemplified by the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to controlling carbon emissions and the insurance industry’s desire to limit their release, the outcome often depends on the relative economic and political power of the two opposing interests rather than the ecological merits of the issue.

Environmental interests, limited economically and politically, often target achievable goals such as preserving natural areas. If they do not, the loss occurs today rather than in the future. There is also a sense of satisfaction that accrues to those involved in such endeavors, even if future threats remain. Yet, Woodwell is correct in calling for a broader approach to environmental reforms.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Jan. 12-18, 2011 issue

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