On purpose in science, conservation and government. The functional integrity of the earth is at issue not biodiversity. Academic Article uri icon


  • The objectives of conservation have been focused ever more intensively for two decades on the preservation of "biodiversity." Emphasis has been on the losses of species through extinction. The cure has been the establishment of parks and reserves to protect "hot spots," especially in the tropics, where the diversity of species is high. The efforts in preservation have often extended to the development of connecting links among reserves to allow movements among them. The approach has been codified in law in the form of the Endangered Species Act in the United States and the Biodiversity Treaty, both of which address the issue species by species and each of which has obvious weaknesses. Such efforts may be appropriate but they are totally inadequate as the sum of activities in conservation in a world of 6 billion people with exploding technologies for exploiting virtually all of the earth for immediate human benefit. The biosphere is decaying rapidly as a habitat for all life, including people, not because of the extinction of species, but because of the progressive impoverishment of natural communities through human-induced chronic disruption that is now global and ubiquitous. The improverishment leads to progressive environmental dysfunction that is cumulative, but only in its later stages leads to extinction of species. Long before extinction becomes important, genetically distinct, local ecotypes are lost and the natural communities in which they were developed become improverished and dysfunctional. The most conspicuous disruption is that of climate, a global change in the environment of every ecosystem. The most elaborate and carefully interlinked array of natural reserves will succumb as climate is moved out from under them... and biodiversity will suffer the very extinctions the parks were established to avoid. But long before that, the human environment will suffer conspicuous and progressive impoverishment. The objective of conservation is the preservation of the integrity of function of landscapes (and waterbodies). Emphasis falls on forests in the normally naturally forested parts of the earth because forests are so large in area globally and have such a large influence on virtually every aspect of environment. Functional integrity requires structural integrity over 85% or more of the naturally forested zone in most areas. It also requires objective measurement and definition by the scientific community. Suddenly, conservation has become, not the preservation of biodiversity, honorable as that may be, but the preservation of the functional integrity of the human environment. That purpose is the central purpose that we assign to the governments that we establish in democracies to define and defend the public interest. It is past time for the scientific and conservation communities to recognize the urgency of this transition, join in defining competent new objectives for conservation, and to convey to the public the urgency of the need for governmental responsibility in protecting the public interest in a habitable biosphere.

publication date

  • August 2002

published in