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Appealing to the humanistic human (student guest post)

I think that one of the most salient aspects of conservation is its applicability to human life – a fact nicely highlighted by the above episode of NPR’s All Things Considered.  While I personally value the natural environment in and of itself, I understand the necessity to recontextualize environmental protection in terms of human welfare in order to gain wider support.  It is only through understanding that the environment provides human life with its sustenance and survival – even if we are active shapers – that large-scale policy shifts will occur to facilitate environmental protection.

Bugula neritina, a species of Bryozoan ('moss animal') that has been explored as a potential source of pharmaceuticals, for the treatment of both cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Photographer: Lovell and Libby Langstroth. California Academy of Sciences.

One of the most frequently cited reasons for enacting environmental policy is just this: that the environment holds an enormous untapped wealth of resources that could, potentially, be used by humans. The NPR story highlights this; while often times the ocean might be overlooked by the everyday citizen, it does cover over seventy percent of the earth’s surface.  With that large of a footprint, it seems obvious that it potentially contains numerous untapped human resources. For example, the drug Briostatin was originally derived from a type of marine moss animal (a species of Bryozoan, Bugula neritina) and has been tested as an inhibitor of cancer-cell growth, particularly in combination with other drugs.  It is also currently being explored as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.  How many other potential pharmaceuticals lie under the sea?

“It’s another example of how human activities alter the environment in unexpected ways that can often come back and bite us” reads the sign off to the above podcast from Scientific American entitled West Nile Virus and Bird Diversity. Ecological complexity underlies much of the study of biodiversity and conservation. Whether the end goal is land-use policy or pure wilderness preservation, this complexity must be considered when valuing natural ecosystems and the services they provide humans. The above podcast briefly highlights how the citification of previously rural land has reduced bird diversity, and in turn lower bird diversity has been linked to higher numbers of human incidences of West Nile virus. Mechanisms are unclear, but studies suggest that increased diversity within an ecosystem often reduces the proportion of suitable hosts for a disease.  For example, a similar mechanism characterizes Lyme disease occurrence and transmission.  Small (less than about 5 acres) forest fragments contain lower species diversity than larger forest tracts, and also harbor more Lyme-disease carrying white-footed mice.  Smaller forest fragments have been shown to have a greater number of infected ticks – another unexpected consequence of human activities that is (literally) coming back to bite us.

Conservation efforts that seek to repackage issues in terms of human welfare will ultimately, in my opinion, be successful. Though I don’t personally see this as the only reason for protecting the environment, the pragmatic side of me understands its necessity. Whether it is the economic assessment of ecological services, or a more general understanding of the interconnectivity of humans and ecosystems, long-term conservation goals will only be met through appealing to the humanistic human. If not, the environment risks damage, and our own ignorance may again….come back to bite us.


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