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Rediscovering Biology: Molecular to Global Perspectives

Biodiversity Expert Interview Transcript: Eleanor Sterling, PhD

Eleanor Sterling, PhD

Director, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
Sterling has over fifteen years of field experience studying biodiversity from Madagascar to Vietnam. She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where she now serves as the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology.

Interview Transcript

Sterling has over fifteen years of field experience studying biodiversity from Madagascar to Vietnam. She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where she now serves as the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology.

How would you define biodiversity?

I use one of the more complicated definitions of biodiversity. The simplest definition of biodiversity is ‘all life on earth’. I prefer to modify that by talking about the levels of biodiversity from genes through populations, species, communities, all the way up to landscapes, and thinking about the processes that help to sustain biodiversity as well, the interactions between the different levels, between species, and within communities.

Could you describe your activities and research a bit?

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History was formed about ten years ago; actually, we’re having our tenth year reunion.

The Museum’s scientists are particularly specialists in studying the diversity of life on earth and the patterns of species diversity across the face of the earth. In order to bring the strengths of the Museum’s science to bear on conservation issues, one of the things that we try to do is to increase the quality of science that people who are decision makers have available to them when they’re making decisions about conservation. And we do that by working with the scientists to increase the kind of data that they collect that could be useful to the conservation community. And we also try to let the community know about the kinds of data that we already have at the Museum.

Ins what ways is data collected?

It’s collected in many different kinds of ways. To give you an example, in Vietnam where we work, the government is very interested in doubling the size of its system of protected areas of reserves and parks.

And what we’re working with the government to do is to decide where to put new parks, and so our scientists go to an area that the government has identified as a possible new park or reserve, and we study what’s in that area, and then we compare the results of that study to what’s happening in other areas, and what’s found in other areas in Vietnam, to see whether we think it’s appropriate to include it in the system.

We also look at the effect that a reserve might have on the local human population by doing ethnographic studies, studying the population: how they use resources in the proposed park areas, and how they will be affected if those resources were no longer available, or finding ways to create a reserve, but to include the possibility of still having that resource use continue.

So we compare the results of this study to information we have about other existing and potential protected areas in Vietnam, to be able to make an effective decision on which would be the best area to include. So we also do ethnographic studies of the people who live in the region around the reserve, or the potential reserve, so we can identify what resources they’re using, and in what way we might be able to incorporate that resource use into a new park system, or how it might effect them if they can no longer use those resources.

What are some examples of the data collection techniques?

There are lots and lots of ways of sampling for species in a particular area. You can do what are called “point counts” for birds in particular where you stand at the site for a particular period of time, and you try to record every bird that you hear or see. And you have a fixed distance along a particular line that we call a “transect,” and you stop at that fixed distance each time and that’s your point where you take your count.

I personally work on primates, so what I do is walk a straight line through a forested area, and I try to identify all of the primates on either side of the line, and then I try to get a sense for what the maximum width of the line is. In other words, how far away the farthest primate is from that line.

And by knowing the distance that I walked, and the width of this transect, I can calculate an area, and I find how many animals I saw within that area, and then I have an estimate of density for the animals in that region. That is called a “sampling technique.” And everything we do in trying to understand biodiversity in an area is through sampling a subset of the biodiversity of that area.

And it’s actually fairly complicated when you go to an area, choosing what subset you want to study, because you can’t study it all, and so you’re choosing parts of biodiversity to serve as surrogates, or as representatives, of the rest of biodiversity in that area. So those are some of the techniques we use.

We also set up nets to catch birds. We set up traps for invertebrates and for small mammals, so there are lots of different techniques that we use to try to identify what’s in an area.

So the scientists also study plants and minerals as well as animals?

We collaborate with partners who work on botanical issues, because we actually don’t study plants anymore at the American Museum of Natural History. We used to a hundred years, ago but then the Museum split and the botanical resources went to the New York Botanical Garden. And we work with scientists from the Missouri Botanical Garden in Vietnam, and with Vietnamese counterparts who are botanists there, excellent botanists, who work alongside us taking data at the same time as we do.

In terms of the abiotic environment, we actually don’t at this point in time do much to study that in a place like Vietnam where there’s so much discovery of the living environment going on. There’s less of an emphasis on identifying resources in the abiotic environment.

Has there recently been a change in the study of biodiversity?

There’s been actually an incredible change in the resources that are available to people who are studying biodiversity and are working to maintain biodiversity. And also a change in our understanding of the science that’s necessary to effectively manage biodiversity. So there are a couple of major changes that have happened I would say in the last 50 years.

The first is that, in the initial stages of thinking about biodiversity, people are really concerned about small populations, such as an endangered species, and how do you maintain those small populations-in particular, what are the genetic problems that you run into with small populations, like lack of gene flow and loss of diversity when your population gets to be too small.

And what some folks came along and said was, “Wait a minute. Why are we putting all of our effort at this level where it’s this intense crisis situation? What if we looked at the populations as they were declining, and thought about what is causing that decline and what we can do to stop the populations from getting to be so small that it’s almost, ah, impossible to recover?”

And so we have two different group of people, people interested in the small population paradigm, and the people interested in the declining population paradigm. Both of them are very important for conservation, but there’s more of an emphasis now on trying to solve the problem earlier in the crisis.

What is meant by the term ‘metapopulation’?

Originally, we were focused on one population or a small group of organisms, because that was feasible, and I think that over time, people have realized that such a concentrated effort on one population often doesn’t work, because that population is connected up to its environment and to other populations of the same species. So people have begun to realize that many groups of populations together form what is called a “metapopulation,” and that in managing a species, a lot of times you’re looking at managing several different populations that are dispersed across the face of an area, and that those populations connect up with each other through dispersal. An organism will leave one population, move to another population, and they’re actually managed as a big unit. They should be managed as one big unit.

Some of the population serve as what are called “sources,” where, at particular times, some individuals may leave that “source” population and move into another area. And some other populations serve as “sinks,” where individuals will move in, and then they die in that area. And so understanding the dynamics of this metapopulation, and knowing whether you’re working with a “source” or a “sink” population, is critical to managing biodiversity.

How has technology recently changed the techniques used to measure biodiversity?

Technology actually has made an incredible difference to us particularly over the last 20 to 25 years. In thinking about conservation, there are a few things that are absolutely fundamental to understanding behavior. Radio telemetry, being able to track an animal that you never would have been able to follow before to understand its relationship with its environment, how it uses resources, particularly with endangered species, being able to understand those is critical to being able to conserve them effectively.

I also think that e-mail has made an incredible difference. It’s connected up researchers who weren’t able to share ideas, information or techniques before.

And we really don’t think about that much, but I think e-mail and the Internet has been a phenomenal resource for those of us who are interested in conservation. And in particular it has connected up people in tropical countries who otherwise have not been able to communicate with others about these issues. People in tropical countries of course live in countries where the majority of the world’s biodiversity exists.

Another tool that’s been phenomenally useful for us in biodiversity conservation is the resource that we get from satellite images. We call them “remotely sensed data,” either from satellites or from airplanes, where you can actually start to look at a huge expanse instead of focusing in on one population or one area. Now you can look at how that area fits into a context, and the context is so important for conservation. You can conserve a small island, but if it’s surrounded by human habitation, cut off from species being able to move in, you have to think about that. In conservation the bigger picture image is so critical for us.

And another thing that’s very helpful with remotely sensed data is you can actually learn about an area that you can’t get to otherwise-areas that are very remote, or areas like in Vietnam that still contain landmines, and it’s not actually possible to send people into at this point in time.

And the images that you get from remotely sensed data can be incorporated into something called the “geographical information system,” and that’s where you can pull in data like species population size, human population size, you can pull in data on rivers and streams, you can pull in data on soils, on temperature and rainfall, and put them all together into one package and overlay them to be able to look at what the whole picture looks like for an area.

And what is the bigger picture of conservation?

One thing that we need to consider when we’re conserving biodiversity is, what do we want to conserve? There’s no way that we’re going to be able to conserve everything, and when you’re developing a plan for conservation in a region, you actually have to choose what it is you want to focus on. And by focusing on one thing, you’re excluding something else, and that’s something that’s very hard for all of us to do, and also to do effectively.

And one of the things that we have to do is to focus in on surrogates, as I mentioned before. You focus in on areas that are high in species richness that have many, many different kinds of species in the area, or you put your value on species that are found nowhere else in the world. We call that “endemism,” and endemic areas are often a focus for conservation efforts.

You can focus on species or areas that are unique from an evolutionary perspective, for example on a species that is the only remaining member of its family, or you can focus on species that are quite rare. And finally, people decide to focus often on species that are threatened, or on areas that have many species that are highly threatened.

And every time you make a decision to choose one of those over the other you’re actually choosing not to conserve those other things, and it’s something I try to tell my students and try to work with professionals on saying, “Think broadly as you’re making these choices, so that you recognize what you are conserving and what you’re not conserving, and we often forget about things like the invertebrates who are drivers of whole ecosystems when we focus on the large fuzzy animals that it’s easy to think about conserving.

One of the areas of the world that we focus on regularly is the tropics, and that’s because more species are found in the tropics than anywhere else in the world. As you get closer to the equator, you have warmer conditions. We actually don’t know why there are more species in the tropics. There are lots of theories about it, but it’s a fact that as you get closer to the equator there are more species in those regions.

And so a lot of our conservation efforts have focused on those areas, and is focused on what some people call “hot spots” of diversity, and those may be hot spots of high species richness or they may be hot spots of threats to biodiversity in those regions.

How is an area designated as a hot spot?

I think more and more, we’re recognizing that just saving large numbers of species isn’t necessarily the best way to conserve biodiversity; that trying to find out about interactions and learning about processes, the processes that maintain ecosystems over time, are actually critical as well, so some people are trying to look at ecosystem regional-based decision making, and landscaped-based decision making, and so those are different paradigms on how to conserve biodiversity.

Is there a particular emphasis on one approach?

I think we’re still trying to figure out what the best method of conservation is, and I like the fact that there are different groups using different methods, and using those different methods, we can start to collect more data on what’s working and what’s not, and use that to help us in the future to more effectively make decisions.

How does genetic diversity fit into conservation?

I think as our technical abilities to understand genomes and to understand the genetic diversity of population have increased, we’ve been able to incorporate that kind of information into our decision making process. And what we’ve known all along but now have been able to actually track is the fact that genetic diversity is the essence of evolution. A population can adapt to changes in its environment if it has the genetic diversity to allow for that change. And so we’re trying now to maximize conditions under which we can maintain genetic diversity in populations.

Do we have estimates of current extinction rates?

Well, one of the problems with estimating extinction rates is that we don’t even know how many species we have on earth today. We’ve named somewhere around 1.5 million species, and we don’t know how many more there are out in the world. And if you don’t even know how many you have, how can you be estimating the extinction rate?

But we do know that extinctions are happening much, much faster than they have happened in the past, and that we’re approaching the rates that we’ve seen in the fossil record that we’ve called “mass extinctions,” and that has led some people to call this period that we’ve living through right now the “sixth mass extinction.”

Now the difference between this extinction and previous extinctions is that it’s human-driven, and that we have the opportunity actually to stop it, because we’re driving the extinction by the things that we’ve doing.

What are some examples of those things that we’re doing?

The major direct threats to biodiversity include habitat loss and fragmentation, over-harvesting resources, exotic species-moving species from one place to another and then an invasive species further taking over a whole ecosystem-pollution, and global climate change.

What is the rate and scale of these occurrences?

One of the things about the current extinction is that we believe that extinctions are happening at a rate and a scale that’s unprecedent, at least in recent time.

So we now have an unprecedented extinction rate?

Well previously when, for instance, a natural disaster happened in an area-you would have a hurricane come through and flatten a forest, for instance, or a volcano erupted and completely destroyed the biodiversity that was living in a region. You actually had other areas that served as sources for seeds or individual animals that would move back into this area. Previously the scale of disaster was generally small enough. And what we’re doing now is increasing the scale of the disturbance such that there is no source for replenishment of some of these areas.

How can habitat destruction be a major cause of biodiversity?

Scientists do at this point believe that the leading cause of loss of biodiversity is habitat destruction, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and all of those unfortunately are driven by human use of resources, and humans dominating an ecosystem to the exclusion of most of biodiversity.

What specifically are some causes of that destruction?

As you watch the movement of humans across the face of the earth, we get better and better at technology, at being able to move from one place to the other faster, and what we don’t think about is the fact that we bring a lot of organisms with us from one environment to the other. And one of the fundamental drivers of evolution is separation of populations into two different areas, either by geographical barriers or ecological barriers. And as those barriers separate the populations over time, two populations may become distinct and become new species.

And what we’re doing, as we’re jumping over those barriers with one individual from a population or several individuals from a population into another, is we’re breaking down existing barriers, and we’re breaking down the possibility of speciation happening. But we’re also introducing species into an environment where a predator, for instance, faces naive prey-prey that don’t know that predator, and they don’t know to avoid that predator-and therefore they can have a huge impact on an environment very quickly by decimating the prey population. Similarly, often the normal predators for that animal don’t recognize it as prey, and therefore the population can increase much more than it would in its natural environment because there’s nothing checking the population increase.

What’s a specific example of such a case?

In some areas, an invasive species can take over the whole ecosystem, and that’s true of purple loose strife. Basically the purple loose strife moves into an area, and dominates in biomass and competes with the native species to the point where it’s basically all that’s left in that ecosystem.

Another example is in the San Francisco Bay. You find that green crabs for instance have been introduced from other parts of the world. They’re very good competitors. They’re very voracious eaters, and they take over large parts of the system. In fact, I’ve read that 90% of the biomass found in the San Francisco Bay is in fact from exotic species including the crabs. The crabs aren’t the only part of that but that’s a pretty dominating factor in an environment.

So what conclusion can you offer to this problem?

I think we need to be very cautious about how we’ve moving organisms from one area to the other. Some classic examples are organisms that are moved in the ballasts of ships. The ships take in water in one area, and then expel it in another and the organisms move through the system with these ships and we should maybe think about ways to stem this phenomenon.

How can we do that?

You know an interesting fact is that many, many species are introduced to an area, and not all of them become invasive. Some of them settle in and actually are helpful to the environment; some of them settle in and are neutral.

And what we want to do is try to identify which ones of them will become invasive, become harmful. We are trying more and more to collect the kind of information we can use to predict which ones will become invasive. At this point, we still can’t do that. But ideally we want to minimize transfer of individuals via humans from one area to another, and then do a better job of predicting if an animal gets in or an organism gets in which ones will become invasive.

And how has over-harvesting become a major threat?

You know, one of the things about over-harvesting that I’ve been learning about recently is the fact that we tend to look at populations currently, and in fact the best we do is to look in the last 50 years when ecological studies really became popular, and more people were involved in those kinds of careers, particularly in the United States. And we think about the system and how to fix what’s wrong in the system based on a very short time period.

But recent studies by individuals like Jeremy Jackson have been looking at longer time periods and trying to ask, “What was in this system a hundred years ago? What was in this system a thousand years ago? How has it been affected by human activity, and how can we predict what the effects of our current actions will be? And how can we model what’s going on in this system to understand not just the current stresses on the system but previous stresses?”

As an example, the over-fishing in a lot of the areas around the borders of the United States we’re recognizing now that we’ve cleaned out a lot of the bigger fish, and we keep moving down to smaller and smaller fish. As we fish out the biggest fish, we move down to the next biggest fish in the area, and slowly we are working our way through the system. And what we forget about is the fact that there used to be enormous fish in these areas that we fished out before people really started paying attention to conservation, and those fish had an incredible effect on the environment. A lot of them were herbaceous; they were feeding on algae, on coral reefs, they were feeding on sea grass and organisms that we don’t even think about their effect nowadays.

And what happens when you’re studying a community of organisms is that often you remove a species from the system, and the system doesn’t react, and it doesn’t react for several reasons. First, it may not react because there are other species that move in and take on the role that that species had in the system, and you don’t notice those changes over a long period of time. So often there may be a time lag between when you’ve removed the species or a group of species from the system and when you actually see the system collapse.

And what we’re seeing now is more and more systems collapsing because we’ve been doing all of this removing through time, and we’re taking that final last pin out of the system and the systems coming crumbling down.

What are some examples of that situation?

In terms of over-harvesting, one classic example is the example of sea otters in the Pacific. In the northern Pacific, sea otters were harvested in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we subsequently found the otters to be a keystone species, a species that plays an inordinate role in the functioning of the ecosystem. As they harvested the sea otters, the sea urchins that are normally eaten by sea otters–suddenly these populations exploded. And when the population exploded, it then caused a problem for the system, because they ate all of the kelp that is their main food source. The kelp is also the mainstay of the entire ecosystem, so with its disappearance you see the collapse of the system. And so they created what are called “urchin barrens,” where there’s basically nothing left on the sea floor because the whole community has been destroyed by these large populations of sea urchins that were formerly held in check by the otters. Moving the otter from the system meant the entire collapse of the system.

Now if you look further south in California, you had similar systems with the otters and other organisms, and the sea otters were in fact removed from the system, but you did not see an immediate collapse because there were other organisms that maintained the same role as the sea otter. When we removed those organisms as well, we in fact had a loss of the system. So that’s what we call “redundancy” in studies of community ecology. We look for the roles that each organism plays, and in fact there’s redundancy among those roles within some systems.

Now what we talk about as an analogy is in an airplane; you have lots of rivets in the wing of an airplane. If you lose one of those rivets, that plane can still fly. But if you start to lose lots of those rivets, I personally wouldn’t want to get on that airplane.

So how does the rivet analogy relate to the sea otters and urchin scenario?

In the northern population, the last rivet was the sea otter, and in fact the removal of the sea otter from the system caused the entire collapse of the ecosystem. In the southern population, you had other predators and competitors who maintained the system, even when the sea otter was removed from the system. They were the remaining rivets, but when their populations declined because, again, of over-harvesting, the system collapsed. When they were able to reintroduce otters to the system, the system actually started to recover.

We actually have no idea at this point what are the final rivets and what are the redundant rivets in a system, and it’s very complicated to study communities and to identify the role of any species, and we really don’t know, when we are part and parcel of the process of removing a species from the system, what effect that’s going to have on the system.

We do know at this point that we’ve removed a lot of organisms in many systems, and that we’re towards the edge of collapse in a number of them.

And one of the things that scientists are doing is trying to study the stability of systems through time, and trying to understand what is the most important set of criteria for maintaining systems through time. Is it stability? Is it important to have high productivity, is it important to have a large number of species in a system to be able to maintain it through time? We don’t know, and in fact many different people are working on this, and at the moment sometimes we get contradictory information from them.

How can this data help to predict the way an ecosystem functions?

I think many people are able to identify in a particular system a species that’s a keystone species, one that is so important that if you remove that species, the whole system will collapse. Those are actually easier to identify than the last member of group of organisms that are doing the same thing. In tropical areas, the fig is often the keystone species in the environment where, during dry parts of the season when nothing else is flowering or fruiting, it’s the only thing that’s available to a lot of fruit-eating species. We know that we need to maintain populations of these figs in these forests or we’ll lose all the other organisms that depend on it for survival.

What other terms in biological diversity are important to define?

I think that we have to be very careful when we’re using terms, particularly when we’re teaching about biodiversity, to make sure that we define what the terms is that we’re using.

The term “habitat,” for instance, is used very differently in different venues. Some people define habitat just in relation to a single species or an organism and the resources that that organism or species uses. Other people use habitat more generally like “habitat destruction” or “habitat fragmentation” to mean something more like an ecological community.

And we need to be very, very careful to articulate what it is that we’re defining when we’re using these terms and to be clear that our definitions relate to one another, all the way from “niche” up to “landscape.”

One thing to remember of course is that biodiversity is so complex, and everything’s interconnected by definition, so that by trying to come up with terms that compartmentalize diversity into this area or this level, it’s very difficult. When does a community end and an ecosystem begin? There is no line there, and so our terms are evolving as we learn more about these systems, and they’re never going to be perfect because of the nature of biodiversity.

How about the term ‘biocomplexity’?

I think it’s really important to be looking broadly at biodiversity and to be thinking about biocomplexity, about not just one system or one organism or one community, but what the context is for that community, and what the human role is in potentially affecting the system and potentially helping to maintain the system.

For instance, we have a project actually in the Bahamas now that’s a biocomplexity project funded by the National Science Foundation. What we’re trying to do is to look at marine areas. How do you protect organisms in such a fluid environment, where you have the young dispersing from one area through the water to another area? If you put boundaries around a protected area, it’s not like you can tell larva to stick within that area because that will help their survival.

What you need to do is think broadly about the whole system, and so we’re trying to work with the government of the Bahamas to say, “What if we look at a whole network of protected areas?” They’re very interested in piecing together different areas to look at the whole system.

And what we’re trying to do is to say, “Okay, if you put this protected area here, here are the social implications for the local population, here are the economic implications for the local human populations, here’s the biological implications for the community of organisms that live in that area,” and we put it all together so that decision makers actually have at their disposal a better sense for a broad spectrum of issues in terms of making decisions and that’s critical in conservation.

I think in a lot of systems, particularly systems with less diversity, you end up having a threshold effect. You can remove individual species from the system with no reaction, with a lag time before there’s a reaction, and suddenly there is a reaction, as in the case of the otter. It’s a threshold beyond which the system collapses.

And how about global climate change as a major threat?

Well, one of the major threats to biodiversity that we’re working on is global climate change, and it’s a very complex topic. It’s very, very difficult to say, “This species went extinct because of global climate change.” What we can say is, as the earth warms, ecosystems move, and the species are not necessarily able to move with those ecosystems.

One of the effects of global climate change is on ecosystems at marginal areas, for instance in mountain areas. If you have an ecosystem that’s adapted to cold and wet climates, as the earth warms and warmer temperatures rise up the mountain, that ecosystem changes, and the species move further and further up the mountain. Well, when you get to the top of the mountain, there’s not much else that those species can do or that community can do, and you basically lose that system.

Other examples are tropical areas in the reefs. Tropical coral reefs really have a finite set limited temperature within which they survive and as those temperatures change, the structure of the coral is not able to move.

Some people argue that species can just move to the climate that they’re best adapted to as global climate change happens. The problem with that is as in the mountain example when a species gets to the top of the mountain, there’s nowhere to go. Another problem with that idea is that humans are creeping into area across the face of the earth and causing the opportunities for species to move.

The other problem is that humans are cutting off the opportunities for a species to move as the climate changes by creating barriers to dispersal, by creating cities that are human-dominated communities that an animal cannot move through.

One technique for conservation in a particular area is a biosphere reserve. Putting in a biosphere reserve often involves having a nuclear area, where humans are not allowed to disturb the nature of the biodiversity that’s there, and then having a buffer zone around that region where humans are able to use resources to help sustain their livelihoods, and then around that having areas that are much more human dominated, so you have this “nut” in the center that’s the area that you want to protect that’s buffered by an area around it. That seems to work in some areas.

How can we mix conservation and cultural sensitivity?

One of the things you have to think about in everything you do in conservation is the human element. That there are humans everywhere in the world, and we affect every part of the world’s environment whether we know it or not. And that needs to be considered when you’re working on conservation issues. In local conservation issues in any country, you need to consider the stakeholders, the local community stakeholders, what their role is in conservation, and what the impact of conservation might be on their livelihoods.

So incorporating the local community from the beginning of a project, no matter where you are in the world-in a developed country or in a developing country-is critical to the success of conservation.

Again, biodiversity is so complex in understanding the interactions between humans and the environment, and what you need to do to effectively maintain the livelihood of humans as well as biodiversity is complex, and there’s no right answer and there’s no formula that works in one area that you can then pick up and take to another area.

As an example, we work in Bolivia in the Andes and we worked with communities that have lived in these high mountain areas for a long, long time, and we were asked by the government to work with them to think about some of these enormous protected areas and how do you zone within these protected areas. What areas could be used for tourism? What areas should be conserved in the same way as a biosphere reserve with little or no human impact? And what areas can we have a regular amount of human activity that can be sustained through time?

And before starting our work we went to speak with the local community members and asked them what are the issues that they’re facing in their daily lives and how are they using resources from the community.

So one of the things we identified with the local community was their interest in putting together an interpretive center, a place where people who are walking along a nearby Inca trail could stop and learn about the community, learn about the biodiversity of the community, and bring some resources to the community through that. And so we helped them to build a small interpretive center using resources from the region, using what was in their yard or their house to show people how they live.

And that’s been very helpful I think in helping community members understand why the park is important and how they continue to use resources but in a sustainable way.

What is the significance of the term ‘biophilia’?

Well, particularly in the United States, more and more you see how people miss the environment. If you look at advertisements–and I do this with my students in the first day of class. I put up advertisements that include nature or biodiversity to sell something, and I say, what does this product have to do with the environment? And a lot of times it has nothing to do with the environment, and the advertisers know that people really enjoy the concept of the wilds of the frontier, of nature out there that somebody could visit if they had the time or the chance.

And so I think that advertisers spend a lot of money trying to figure out what it is that people want or are interested in, and the fact that they use nature to sell their product helps us to think about the fact that we really have an internal longing for nature, an internal desire to have nature exist.

I teach classes in conservation, and my students, at the beginning of the semester, they think they know that they’re conservationists and that they’re interested in the environment, but it’s really interesting to watch their progression of awareness of their value of biodiversity and of the environment and the disconnect between what they think is really important and then their actions.

I have them take home a self-audit that says, what are you using every day that relates to biodiversity and how are you affecting biodiversity as an environmentally conscious individual? And they note that there are a lot of things that they do that they don’t need to do, that they don’t particularly cherish or value, that are having a negative effect on biodiversity.

And I think all of us need to think deeply about what we do on a daily basis and whether we do or buy something because we want to do it, or because somebody’s expecting us to do it or own it, and consider whether we really need it. And so each student at the end of the semester has thought through this and has in fact changed their behavior substantially based on thinking more about their actions and how they support the innate interest in nature and the conservation of nature.

So you think that one person’s actions can make a difference?

I tell all of my students that they shouldn’t wait for governments or corporations to conserve biodiversity. That each and every one of us has a role in conserving biodiversity and thinking about our day-to-day decisions and saying, do I really need this thing that potentially has a negative effect on the environment? And my students are actually pleasantly surprised by how little the overall effect on their lives is of making these changes.

What are some examples of these changes?

Just as one very simple example just turning the water off when you’re brushing your teeth. It’s not that hard to reach your hand out, turn the knob off, brush your teeth, and turn the knob back on. But so many people keep the water running because they don’t think about the effect of using up that clean water has on the environment.

And another example is coffee-thinking about shade-grown coffee and buying coffee that’s grown and sold in conditions that are good for both biodiversity and the people that are harvesting the coffee and selling the coffee is very important. And you can have a role as a consumer in causing companies to rethink their systems.

It also helps to think about buying clothing that’s organically grown or grown under conditions that are a little bit better for the environment. Your t-shirt, for example. Check out where a T-shirt comes from. Does it come from the United States? Does it come from a place where we know that resources are harvested sustainably? Those are really important things and not that hard to do.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Over the past 50 years, we’ve thought a lot more about equilibrium systems. Formerly, conservationists and ecologists used to talk about a closed system, an equilibrial system, where if you put boundaries around an area like a reserve you can conserve it in perpetuity.

And now we understand that actually systems are not in equilibrium; we understand that they’re dynamic. And incorporating that dynamism into conservation is incredibly hard, but very, very important in thinking about the fact that there are processes, fire for instance, that maintain a system, and if you try and keep fire out for a long time you see the consequences as in the western United States.

But how do you maintain enough fire to keep the system going? And those are the kinds of things that you really need to do a better job of incorporating into long-term management of systems? So we’re not thinking about the world as imbalanced, but thinking of the world in fact as non-equilibrial and dynamic. And what do you do for that?

The other thing that we are learning so much more about is the fact that you can never predict. We can do our best to predict about reactions to the system, for example, but we’re learning that conservation is all about uncertainty and making decisions in the face of that uncertainty, and not being paralyzed by the fact that we don’t have the answers, we don’t know how many species there are on Earth. And yet we need to conserve what’s here.

In making decisions about conservation and thinking in the long term, we need to start incorporating large scale, long-term processes, hundred year storms, hurricanes-things that aren’t happening on this scale, that we’ve certainly been focusing on to study biodiversity. If we’ve been looking mostly over the last 50 years, and something happens every hundred years, we need to incorporate that into our planning.

People are focusing now on large scale patterns in modeling, and are thinking about how to look at the bigger picture, and that’s one of the ways that remote sensing and GIS tools are really important.

What big unanswered questions do you have in biodiversity?

Well, one of the major problems I face as an individual is thinking about how to decide fast enough what the problem is, what the right solution is, and implement that in order to be effective in my job. It keeps me up at night. We have to make decisions in the face of a great uncertainty, and you really don’t have the right answer. There is no right answer often. You’re choosing amongst the best of many not-so-great options in many instances, and there are many compromised options. And how do you really figure out a way of deciding what’s the best of those decisions? That’s a problem.

Is there any hope for biodiversity?

My greatest hope is that students and individuals who are aware about biodiversity will understand that they have a role, and that they can make a difference. And it’s actually been single individuals that have changed the course of history in conservation, who have really taken on an issue and raised public awareness about it and changed how we manage biodiversity because of their actions. Each of us has a role, and some of us can really play a huge role.

Who are some examples of those individuals?

Teddy Roosevelt as the President of the United States was instrumental in helping the United States embrace conservation and take it on as a governmental issue.

Rachel Carson took on the whole issue of pollution and single handedly changed the way that we think about pollution and the way that we regulate pollution just by writing a book that was lyrical and interesting and engaged people in the issue.

Series Directory

Rediscovering Biology: Molecular to Global Perspectives


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-733-9