Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Petrels, Petrol and People

I had a conversation with Darryl (environmental consultant) yesterday which started off with Petrel taxonomy and concluded in an agreement that nothing short of fundamental change is the answer to a lot of major conservation problems.

It went something like this. Desertas Petrel has been split by the sound approach from the similar Fea's and Zino's Petrels. This split is primarily due to vocalisation differences. In essence, the split is justified because various populations of these petrels speak different languages (and have some structural and maybe tonal differences). Well such an argument would not wash if you were to apply it to human populations. I would be split into Homo sapiens cockney-ensis. However, within a population of seabirds, vocalisations could be so hard wired to present such an isolation barrier between populations, to warrant full species recognition. In humans, language is very dynamic and is not an impermeable isolation barrier to significant hybridisation. Well, we concluded that species concepts are incredibly population specific.

There are many factors which could be used to define species limits: plumage, structure, vocalisations, genetic differences and behaviour for instance. Within each one of these major group of factors there a complex criteria. For instance, genetically, McKays Bunting differs very little from Snow Bunting but in terms of plumage, the birds are so different as to warrant full species status. Some species are genetically quite diverse from each other but in terms of plumage are almost identical (if I recall correctly this applies to some American sparrow populations). These genetic differences could warrant full species recognition. Some species look identical, the Fea's, Zino's and Desertas Petrels, but are so different in language (vocalisations) that this could warrant full species recognition. Once you chuck into this mix, the spectrum of differences and where the cut off points are, the inevitable conclusion persists: the continuum of biological diversity cannot be boxed off into discrete groups. Diversity is like a landscape- with valleys, mountains, plains, hills, hummocks, cliffs and craters. The mountains (very distinctive 'species') stand out from the background but are still joined to each other by the other landforms (sister species, races, forms, subspecies etc etc) - there is no real cut off point in this continuum.

Once you throw into this mix, the human element, then things just turn into chaos. A taxonomist may be trying to define species because he/she may have a personal motive e.g the desire for ticks on a list, career advancement, personal vindiction and come to think of it- a motive propelled by any human emotion- constructive or destructive.

Well this leads to a conclusion. Species concepts are unsatisfactory at providing a fundamental basis for the conservation of diversity. It is diversity that should be protected and that means all biological life at the systems level- the big picture. The only way of protecting all life is by management from the top- governments. Conservation is ineffective unless it is hard wired into every discipline and social pursuit- the oil industry, the mining industry, the construction industry, agriculture, transport, forestry, gardening, marketing, banking, advertising, fashion, food etc etc etc.

That means that the protection and conservation of wildlife is a social problem. It is a lack of respect and an appreciation of the value of wildlife which results in destruction of the environment. This is a problem with people. It is a problem in education. Education is a problem of government. The problems of government are philosophical problems- the very nature of elitist capitalism- where only certain types of people are valued (so called successful people) . This idea is based on a philosophical error of the nature of nature. It rests on a simple mis-understanding- the survival of the fittest. In nature, the survival of the fittest are not the groups which claw out each others eyes but it is the groups that co-operate together through healthy competition.

The solution to major conservation problems- has to be down to management- government. All other attempts are piecemeal and temporary ways of trying to preserve pockets of diversity. However as climate change accelerates, the conditions in these pockets may mean these environments are unsuitable to sustain even these small areas. The environment is dynamic and it is impossible to create a 'reserve'- it will soon become a very expensive attempt at trying to preserve a museum. Ecosystems continuously evolve and are dynamic- diversity has to be given this space to do that- it needs the whole of the environment. Conservation can only work at the regional scale. There is no other way.

One small problem. The elite groups in charge of things at the moment would have to abdicate their power and wealth and redistribute it, in the light of a fairer, more democratic system, where the net of value is spread further than their own narrow fields of view. If other people's concepts of value is incorporated than there may be more balance. This abdication is very unlikely to happen. Power and wealth is generally not given away, it is seized by those who have not got it. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

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