The Context of Conservation Biology


  • Gary K. Meffe

When the field of conservation biology developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the founders knew they had something different: they were beginning a “science of engagement” in addition to the traditional “science of discovery.” They clearly perceived that although society continues to need good science, it also needs that science to be applied to the large and growing set of problems that confront us, the all-too-familiar litany that includes species and habitat loss, toxification, invasive exotics, soil degradation, overexploitation, and an ever-expanding human population that seeks global equity and fair access to a declining resource base. They knew we could no longer simply follow the traditional academic model—placing bricks in the wall of knowledge and claiming them to be available to whomever wants to use them—and still have much hope of altering the course of world events. They saw that changes in the way the world operates would not come about through passive building of that wall, but rather in taking knowledge and actively seeking out those who most need to use it. Thus, our crisis discipline clearly embraces and encourages application of what we know in a larger context.

This journal (with others) has been a catalyst in the process of changing how science interacts with the world at large. We have helped redefine scientific contribution and productivity to include the application of knowledge to problem solving. Many of our authors are engaged in on-the-ground conservation work, in the creation of policy, in public involvement issues, and in the general application of their science to improving our world. These are positive steps, but we must do better.

In the continuing process of maturity and self-discovery, Conservation Biology has progressed far from the “early days” (a mere 15 years ago!) when it was a new, slim addition to the library shelves and contained relatively few articles. The editors have since added features such as Special Sections, Conservation in Practice, Conservation Forum, and—one of our most popular features—the Conservation Education columns written by David Orr, which started with Volume 3 and have continued ever since. We have even ventured into space with this issue's Special Section collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and their efforts to meld remote sensing and conservation.

In the continuing process of journal maturation, change is not only inevitable but sought out. With this issue we continue along the trajectory of change by making a significant alteration in features, one that should be exciting and even provocative. This involves two steps. First, the very active Education Committee of the Society for Conservation Biology is asserting its presence and making good strides. One of the tangible results is a new Editor for the Conservation Education column, Carol Brewer of the University of Montana. She will create a new focus for this column, which will deal less with the philosophical and sociopolitical issues that are David Orr's forte and more with the practical aspects of conservation education: what needs to be done, what new programs are being developed, available educational resources, how to measure success, proper targets for education, and the like. Our intention is to provide the nuts-and-bolts resources, ideas, and contacts necessary to be a more effective force in conservation literacy and understanding at every level. Carol will be accepting papers for review that represent scholarship in conservation education related to, for example, new research, reviews, and assessment of programs; all manuscripts should be submitted directly to her for consideration. I welcome Carol Brewer to the journal and anticipate exciting, cutting-edge contributions, which will begin with the next issue.

Lest you despair that we have lost David Orr from the line-up, take heart. Not only is he retained, but his new role is an exciting and historic one. This journal is taking yet another leap forward with a new and hard-hitting feature, “Conservation in Context,” to be edited by Orr. In this section, Orr and others will address the larger context in which conservation operates. He has occasionally done this before in his education column; he now he has a mandate to do so.

We cannot live in purist scientific isolation if we want conservation science to be incorporated into the fabric of human life, so we must better understand the working matrix of conservation. We must also reexamine and perhaps redefine the appropriate contextual boundaries of our field and ask how we can best promote our discipline and integrate our knowledge into a complex and increasingly globalized world. This journal has already reached beyond the traditional biological boundaries of the ecological sciences; now we must make another leap into less comfortable realms and ask where and how we fit into the larger picture. This may make some readers uncomfortable at times, but we cannot isolate ourselves from certain issues that impinge upon our ultimate success as scientists working in a political, economic, and moral context.

Conservation in Context will address topics that characteristically have been either unintentionally overlooked or purposely avoided by most scientific journals, but topics that cannot forever be shunned in the interest of protecting some ivory-tower notion of “purity.” Like it or not, conservation science operates in a world increasingly defined by dishonesty, blatant self-interest, blasé acceptance of the loss of nature, increased tolerance for ugliness, global corporate control, growing fascination with an artificial cyberworld, and anti-intellectualism. To shy away from such realities and pretend they do not exist would consign us to irrelevancy. We must face these issues head on and begin new—and perhaps uncomfortable—conversations if this field is to be more than an odd historical curiosity to be cast upon the rubbish heap of indifference in future decades. Consequently, David Orr will address his writings to topics that impinge strongly upon our success in the larger context, topics such as politics, religion, economics, social conditions, and resource and economic inequities.

This will proceed as follows. David will write a column for every other issue, alternating issues with the new Conservation Education column. He and I will then invite two or three respondents to join in the conversation to address that topic, perhaps adding a different perspective, providing new information, or even disagreeing. This conversation is intended to stimulate readers to think about issues they might not have previously considered. We anticipate that letters to the Editor will be generated as a result; I welcome them and hope they are lively. We want a continuing global conversation that helps to define the larger context of conservation.

In his inaugural effort Orr pulls no punches in analyzing the American political scene, an appropriate topic stimulated by the U.S. presidential election of 2000. He quite openly examines the recent political situation relative to conservation and suggests that little that we do scientifically can make much difference when dishonesty and self-interest are the fundamental principles that guide the contemporary political scene of a leading global power. We are fortunate to have as respondents in the discussion the two previous editors of this journal and a preeminent conservation historian. Although this first topical focus is the United States, I assure readers that we will cast the net more broadly in future issues. This subject remains at the forefront of public consciousness in the United States and even globally, and it seems as appropriate to begin here as anywhere. It also has direct implications beyond these political boundaries because the U.S. economic and military machine dominates global activities.

I, along with David Orr, invite readers' participation and suggestions. Feel free to propose topics to Orr, offer your literary services regarding issues that are important to you, and write letters in response to columns. This is to be a collective, global conversation, not a one-way discourse, and it will work best if many voices are heard.

With Carol Brewer leading the way for Conservation Education and David Orr steering us into new territory, there are exciting times ahead. But this excitement is not intended to simply entertain or amuse; it is meant to stimulate new action and place this field into a broader, more effective context of conservation. We must move beyond academic isolation and the innocent naiveté of pure science to confront, understand, and learn to be more effective in the world as we find it.