Silver Buckshot on the Orient Express: A 21st Century Solution for Conservation

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Bruce Rinker

Back a few years ago, I was invited to participate in two national conferences: a speaker at a conference hosted by George Mason University outside Washington, DC entitled “Gaia Theory: Model and Metaphor for the 21st Century” and a panelist at the annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at the convention center in Tampa, FL.

At the “Gaia Theory” conference, I spoke about the ecological links between the green and brown food webs in forest systems, especially about the crucial connections between canopy herbivores and ground decomposers needed for healthy forests.  “Gaia Theory” posits that the organic and inorganic components of the Earth evolved – and are evolving – together as a single, living, self-sustaining system.  It is a newly emerged science that has inspired leaders around the world.  Consequently, present at the conference were scientists, educators, philosophers, inventors, politicians, lawyers, policymakers, and numerous others.  “Gaia Theory” brings all stakeholders to the proverbial table to look at issues such as climate change and species extinctions.

At the Tampa meeting, I served as a panelist with colleagues established in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology, addressing the concerns and questions of minority graduate students about their careers.  More than 2000 attendees participated in the weekend-long conference with about 100 individuals present for our closing panel discussion.  The students’ recurring question to us panelists: “How can I make a difference?”  Our unequivocal response, corroborated by representatives from universities, the National Science Foundation, and other organizations, was our counsel to network, partner, and identify common goals.  Let me add, parenthetically, that this cooperative spirit is apparent now in scientific publications where multiple co-authors from sometimes disparate organizations have focused on a common hypothesis.  Gone (or going) are the days of single-author papers, veiled data, professional sabotage, and the dark competitiveness of yesteryear.

How does all this relate to us living and working in the Roanoke Valley?  I’d like to offer a few “take home” messages from these two conferences that seem appropriate for all of us Virginians.

First, no matter our home communities, we are a microcosm of the big picture.  Across the planet, we’re looking at an increasingly fragmented, human-dominated landscape.  Though the overall population growth rate in the Roanoke region has slowed compared to the rest of the state, we are still members of one of Virginia’s large metropolitan areas with all its incumbent needs for renewable and nonrenewable natural resources.  As a microcosm, can we residents in the Roanoke region set an example for other Virginians to follow to live sustainably in our environment?

Second, all natural systems on Earth have entered – or are about to enter – a genre of positive feedback.  What does this mean?  Most complex living systems, such as oak-maple forests, include some form of feedback.  This is the tendency of the system to use its own output to make adjustments in its inputs and processes.  Feedback may be negative, which tends to reduce output, or positive, which tends to increase output.  Think of a thermostat’s regulation of temperature in a room that’s too hot or too cold.  Positive feedback amplifies a system’s outputs, and negative feedback reduces them.  Positive feedback may be OK for hospitality services and bank accounts, but it’s horrible for global climate change and biodiversity declines.  Every thread pulled from the tapestry of life makes the loss of all subsequent threads even easier, a kind of cascading effect throughout the system.

A third “take home” message from my two conferences is the essential nature of cooperation even in the midst of disagreement or conflict.  As stewards of the natural world, we must transcend our little “battles” of good against good to win the long war for conservation.  (Richmond and Washington, are you listening?)

The list of global ecological woes – climate change, ozone depletion, water pollution, species and ecosystem losses – haunts us daily even here in Virginia.  Given the Commonwealth’s 3375 miles of tidal shoreline, mathematical models for long-term global warming do not bode well for the state’s low-lying areas.  The Virginia Institute of Marine Science predicts sea levels along our coastline to rise 1 foot by 2050 – and even higher as a consequence of storm surges.  Imagine that effect on Alexandria and the Hampton Roads areas, especially during a hurricane!

This brings me to my fourth “take home” message from my two conferences in 2006: no “silver bullet” exists to solve our ecological problems.  Instead we must seek what colleague and friend Thomas E. Lovejoy (tropical ecologist and creator of PBS’s “Nature” series) calls a “silver buckshot” solution.  We need a multitude of approaches to the multitude of environmental issues with all the ingenuity and resolve we can muster in our partnerships.

Who’s guilty?  Who’s at fault for our global mess?  Who among us is a perfect conservationist with an ecological footprint of absolute zero?  Since most of us drive cars and fly in airplanes, operate computers and mobile telephones, turn on house lights and flush toilets, swat at mosquitoes, throw away trash, water our house plants and lawns, and wash our vehicles, the question of course is a rhetorical one.  Who’s guilty?  The answer: most of us are guilty … as were all but one of the suspects in the film classic, Murder on the Orient Express.  Does the answer of shared guilt free us individually from accountability?  Certainly not!  We’re all part of the problem, but – importantly – we’re all part of the solution.  All of us: our nearly 7.8 million citizens in the State of Virginia, including those who do and those who do not wish to drill offshore for oil, those who do and those who do not support hunting and fishing, those who do and those who do not give credence to climate change models, those who do and do not support legislation to control mountaintop mining.  All 7.8 million taxpayers with roles in that messy, glorious process of deliberation called democracy.  If we’re going to solve our ecological conundrums, then we must all sit at the proverbial table as neighbors intent on a common purpose – the conservation of the State’s remaining natural resources.  One of my favorite mantras is “the price of conservation is eternal vigilance.”  (I adapted this from a similar motto carved on the exterior of the National Archives: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”)  Another favorite aphorism is its corollary attributed to British statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”  As fellow citizens and conservationists, we are obliged to remain vigilant and active … and work together.

As partners in conservation, what should we bring to the table?  Like polished silverware and crisp napkins, crystal wine glasses and floral centerpieces, a table well-set allows for a pleasurable and productive dining experience, no matter the company.  I don’t want to carry the metaphor too far, but what does our “table” require?  Common cause, good manners, and mutual respect, of course, along with ample civility, applicable laws, ordinances, state and federal regulations, and other defining documents.  Good science, however, provides the meat for our table.  As most people recognize, good science is not dogmatic.  It is exacting, to be sure, but it is never rigid or doctrinaire.  For this discussion, it includes garnishes such as biological inventories, mathematical models, ever-evolving definitions, technical equipment and field gear, networks, peer-reviewed publications, and an all-too-fallible human nature.  In the decades ahead, we will need to come to the table repeatedly to solve our local environmental issues and ponder how we might make the world a better place for generations to come – or at least to the 7th generation, as advocated in Iroquois culture.

No universal cure exists for cancers.  Similarly, no “silver bullet” can protect us from our plethora of self-imposed ecological woes.  Instead we need to employ all the “silver buckshot” at hand: all our cleverness, all our science and technology, all our educational and ethical pedagogy, all our resolve and spirit of cooperation.

I learned many lessons from my two recent conferences: the “Gaia Theory” conference in Washington and the annual meeting of the “Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science” in Tampa.  One of my most important lessons is that the “silver buckshot” is abundantly available … now!  And that kind of silver is worth its weight in gold.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Science Department Chairman,
North Cross School
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer