How to save the whole world -- not just its whales

The nature of conservation must change -- from saving the whale to saving the world. This is the view of Robert Allen, senior policy adviser of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. In an interview here, Mr. Allen explained that instead of a few specialists trying to focus the entire effort of conservation on preserving special "pet" species in obscure areas of the world, we all must learn to take care of the living resources that still exist around us.

He pointed to the growing realization that human beings are capable of drastically altering the planet. "No other species can do this with such rapidity or on such a scale. . . . We have no way of knowing if the biosphere can adjust to our changes.

"The rate of extinction," he continued, "is greater than our capacity to stop extinction. Therefore we must identify concentrations of species that are (1) of value to us, (2) that live only in certain areas, and (3) that are unique.

"The problem," Mr. Allen says, "is that we don't know the relationship of species that keep the biosphere working. How many matter? We simply don't know." What we need to do, he says, is to keep and maintain as much variety as possible to ensure that certain species will exist -- if and when they are to play a crucial role in the biosphere.

"There is a remarkable resilience in the biosphere," he says. "It's like an organization with a great range of talent. The more variety you have, the better ability to respond to new opportunities. There may be, for example, an isolated community of animals and plants that may or may not be able to adapt to a change in climate. If that community is wiped out, we are left with one more bit of the planet to manage ourselves."

As Mr. Allen sees it, the difficulty in moving in this new direction is that every conservationist has his own opinion. Many conservationists in North America and Western Europe see development as the enemy. "They tend to act as if each species is a cornerstone of the universe. Move it and it disappears; as if each patch of land is absolutely crucial.

"This is self-defeating," Allen feels, "Developmentm is what people need. The enemy is mismanagedm development. The biosphere is like a self-regenerating cake. It will be there as long as we don't consume certain parts. Well-managed development means we can have our cake -- and eat it."

Stop-development conservationists, he says, are more concerned about wildlife preservation than saving living resources.

But he stresses, "Both conservation and development need each other. There must be a rapprochement between the two. Now the most important task is to find a way to meet human needs without undermining the resource base. We're not killing the goose, but we're maiming it."

The old-style conservationists recognize this but continue to talk about the basics -- overpopulation, pollution, or disappearing forests. These are such broad issues, according to Allen, that it simply takes too long to get any effective action.

He feels there is a definite need for "action that deals with the symptoms, not the causes. There is a whole middle ground where that kind of action, taken through proper planning and management, will make the difference in the long run." Allen questions the advantage of an environmental impact statement, for example, to protect the snail darter, afterm the Tellico Dam was built on the Tennessee River.

"By identifying in advance the sensitive living resources, we can decide where the best places are to build houses or dams."

Allen suggests that every country should have a "national conservation strategy and procedure for evaluating the economy and the capacity of the surrounding area to supply needs over the short and long term.

"Conservationists must assist in this process. It must involve farmers, fishermen, and businessmen -- anyone with a call on the land, sea, or fresh waters.

"It's really a huge experiment, and we're the guinea pigs."

Allen concludes that if "conservation remains a pursuit of a minority as it is now, it's useless." He hopes the conservation movement eventually will become absorbed into society. "Then everyone will be a conservationist."

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