Burning Fires

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Sat Aug 24 11:55:25 CDT 2002

Thanks for the thoughtful response!

> I still believe
> preserving natural ecosystems is the highest of all.

Yes, and I agree with that as well -- as I imagine most biologists would.
No amount of collected material can match the richness and diversity
(genetic and otherwise) of a natural ecosystem.  To whatever extent we think
we can win the battle to save the environment in its natural state, by all
means we should prioritize on that quest.

> I would like to believe that it is not either-or

Yes, I agree.  And for the most part, I really don't think that it is
either-or. Certainly we should not be thinking of it in those terms, because
in reality, it's all about the same thing -- ensuring the long-term
preservation of biodiversity.  The two approaches certainly complement each
other, and as already stated, I think its clear which of the two deserves
top priority.

The last thing I wanted to do was suggest an "us" vs. "them" attitude,
leading to more unnecessary internal bickering among those who share the
goal of preserving biodiversity.  We certainly don't need any more
factioning.  Rather, my main objective is to cast the idea on inventory in a
somewhat different light in terms of its relevance to conservation.  In
particular, I'm not sure it's a wise approach to regard inventory as a mere
"luxury", to be instigated only after the fire is extinguished.  When most
people think of the value of inventory for conservation, it's almost always
in direct, real-time terms (i.e., how knowledge gained from an inventory can
directly feed back into habitat preservation effectiveness).  Of course this
is important, and true, and real -- and we should not ignore this angle by
any means.  My intention in formulating the burning library analogy was an
attempt to step back a bit, and look at the idea of conservation from a
broader, more long-term perspective.

> Still, I would go with preserving as much of the library (in situ
> conservation) as possible as the highest priority.  The two main reasons
> would be (1) we will never capture all of the genetic diversity within
> species to put in the vaults even as starters for future genetic analysis
> or manipulation, and (2) maybe even more importantly, a specimen
> in a vault
> or herbarium represents not only its genotype but also whatever external
> environmental (biotic and abiotic) influences resulted in the "finished
> product" we examine.  Until ecology gets a whole lot more data
> than I think
> are available at present, I doubt we would be able to come even remotely
> close to capturing or creating those external influences in or
> extrapolating from a vault.

Yes, I agree with everything you say above.

> Anyway, how many biologists and how long would it take to do enough
> transects to get as much of the earth's present biodiversity
> sampled as has
> been done in the past in the countries where the most is presently
> known?  I don't know, but am pessimistic that we will come close unless
> there is a program or entity organized for this specific purpose only. (I
> apologize if there is such an organization(s) and I am unaware of it/them;
> I would be interested to learn of any).

Well, this was a large part of the idea behind the All Species Foundation
(www.all-species.org).  I think we all agree that at historical and present
rates, the inventory process is much too slow to meaningfully out-pace the
fire.  There would need to be some dramatic shifts in the way that inventory
is done; with particular attention to megadiverse, poorly known groups
(nematodes, mites, prokaryotes, etc....).  The hope is that information (and
other) technology will speed the process.  Whether or not it can bump up the
pace by two orders of magnitude is an open question, but I think we can
dramatically improve upon our current rate of progress.

> It is better than nothing to
> accompany timber company representatives in the field, as I have done, to
> collect as specimens some of the plants they are cutting down before they
> replace them with something else, or to get help from existing
> agricultural, forestry, or conservation organizations, but the problem is
> that none of those that I know of have sampling the biodiversity as their
> primary focus or priority, so we always know we are getting only bits and
> pieces from those organizations.

Yes, exactly.  My goal (as stated above) is not to foster "competition"
between alternate approaches to biodiversity conservation; but rather, to
raise the level of consciousness (both within academia, and in the public
perception as well) about what it is we are really doing when we are
collecting specimens and preserving them in Museums.  With a slight shift in
our general mindset and our approach to inventory, I think we can improve
the effectiveness of our existing efforts, if not expand their scale.
Thinking about it this way has certainly changed my own perspective of how I
do inventories (whereas my focus until now has been simply to find new
species of fishes on deep reefs; my future efforts will more broadly target
the overall biodiversity of these depths, and I will modify my specimen
curation practices to ensure that preserving DNA-sequencable tissue samples
becomes part of the standard protocol).

> I am getting dangerously close to retirement age and wondering if
> that type
> of inventorying would be a good retirement activity.  But it took almost a
> year for me to get a little over 2,000 specimens collected, pressed, and
> sent as I wandered around Cameroon in a not very organized way when I was
> younger, and that was not usually traveling very many kilometers from the
> nearest town.  Seems like it will take more than 100 fire
> fighters and some
> prior organizational planning as to which hot spots they will be sent to
> within the library!

Yes, and I think that is representative of (by far) the biggest threat to
biodiversity conservation initiatives:  a sense of futility.  The current
issue of Time magazine (August 26, 2002) has a 62-page "Special Report" on
the Environment (Cover story: "How to Save The Earth").  I've only read
through about half of it so far, but I think its optimistic approach to the
issue is exactly what we biologists, and the public at large, really need to
hear right now.  In the Editor's section, Adi Ignatius writes: "Yes, our
planet is under siege from the combined pressures of air and water
pollution, global warming and overpopulation. But new technologies,
innovative, market-based incentives and a growing mainstream acceptance of
green concerns offer hope hat real progress is within reach."  Personally, I
like this sort of optimism; and contrary to what it may seem from my burning
library analogy (which is predicated on a pessimistic outlook for the future
of natural habitat conservation), I consider myself to be an enthusiastic
optimist.  But at the same time, I am also a pragmatist; and the pragmatist
in me is imagining what society one or two hundred years hence will think of
our generation's foresight in long-term biodiversity survival.  Just because
I'm an optimist, doesn't mean I don't think we should "hedge our bets" by
filling the vault up while we still can.  We may very well find that it was
an unnecessary effort, if near-term technology and "mainstream acceptance of
green concerns" really can get the fire under control before too many more
species join the ranks of the "forever lost".  But think about our legacy if
we can't beat the fire.  Will future society lament the (in)actions of their
predecessors in preserving for them only 10-20% of the genetic diversity
that once was, when they had an opportunity to do so much more?

Again, my intent is not to establish an "either-or" approach to the issue.
I'm just trying to think of the issue from a broader, more long-term


Richard L. Pyle
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
"The opinions expressed are those of the sender, and not necessarily those
of Bishop Museum."

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