A new book by ecologist Rebecca Nesbit argues that it’s time to stop being romantic about nature and make some rational decisions about what to save
9 February 2022
Tickets for the Ark
IMAGINE you are the last person on Earth. On your dying day, you cut down the only remaining oak tree, just because you can. Are you morally in the wrong?
Rebecca Nesbit would argue that you aren’t. A science writer and ecologist, she has form in tackling subjects where scientific rationalism and general intuition don’t necessarily line up. Her first book, Is That Fish in Your Tomato?, explored the pros and cons of genetically modified foods. In Tickets for the Ark, she turns her spotlight to the moral complexities of conservation.
She points out that, given we can’t save every species, we have some difficult decisions to make. For example, if push came to shove and their extinctions were imminent, should we choose to preserve bison or the Siberian larch; yellowhammers or Scottish crossbills; salmon or seals? And what criteria should we use to decide? Charisma, perhaps, or their edibility? Are native species more important than invasive ones? And is it morally acceptable to kill some animals to make room for others?
Working through these gnarly issues, Nesbit shows how complex and problematic conservation can be. In particular, she questions the way that efforts tend to focus on the preservation of species. This, she points out, is really us deciding to save what we can easily see. If our aim was to preserve the planet’s biodiversity, we could as easily focus on genes, individual strings of DNA or the general health of whole ecosystems, she argues.
At times, Tickets for the Ark reads as a catalogue of errors on the part of well-meaning conservationists. Many conservation projects are attempts to reverse human interference in nature – clearly an impossible task, considering we have been shaping the biosphere for at least 10,000 years.
Far from being a counsel of despair, though, Tickets for the Ark reveals the intellectual vistas that such blunders have opened up. Even supposing it ever existed, we know now that we can’t return Earth to some prelapsarian Eden. All we can do is learn how natural systems change – sometimes under human influence, sometimes not – and use this information to shape the future world according to our values and priorities.
In a sense, of course, we have always done this. What is agriculture, if not a way of moulding the land to our requirements? But now that we have learned to feed ourselves, perhaps it is time to think a little more broadly.
“If we accept that conservation is about the future not the past, the most troubling conundrums fall away”
To do that, we need to accept two things: one, that “nature” is a social construct, and two, that conservation is about the future, not the past. Then the most troubling conundrums in conservation fall away, writes Nesbit. The death of the last oak, at the hands of the last human, becomes merely the loss of a category (oak tree) that was defined and valued by humans – a loss that was inevitable at some point anyway. It is a conclusion that is counter-intuitive and feels uncomfortable, but Nesbit says that it should be liberating because it leaves us “free to discuss logically what we should save and why, and not just fight an anti-extinction battle that is doomed to failure”.
With this in mind, we can consider what conservation efforts will achieve for entire ecosystems and biodiversity as a whole without wasting our time agonising over whether, say, British white-clawed crayfish are natives, or if dingoes are a separate species from other wild dogs, or whether we are morally entitled to introduce bison to clear the steppe of Siberian larch. Larch is a native species, but it is also covering and warming ancient carbon-sequestering permafrost. In an era of potentially catastrophic climate change, Nesbit argues that we should keep our eyes on the bigger picture.
This is an ambitious and entertaining book, which foresees a dynamic and creative role for conservation in the future. Having freed ourselves of the idea that species belong in their original ranges, we may decide that it makes more sense to shepherd the most vulnerable species into new habitats where they have a better chance of survival. A brave proposal – but, as Nesbit points out, for some species, such drastic measures may be the only option.
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