• Gary K. Meffe

The events of September 11, 2001 will change our world forever. The devastating attacks on civilization by an unseen force—which just an hour before were unthinkable to nearly everyone—are a signal event that our world has changed in a profound way and that crimes against humanity are limited only by the imaginations of twisted and demonic minds. I write this six days after those attacks and shudder to think what further events may have unfolded by the time you read this. I can only hope that wisdom and a strong sense of humanity guide those in power throughout the world.

In the days immediately following the attack, good and decent people everywhere tried to process surreal scenes, make some sense of them (if that is possible), and sort out their emotions. Such emotions ranged from disbelief and outrage, to fear and horror, to anger and hatred, to sadness and despair, to revenge and retribution. But one powerful feeling transcended and emerged from all of these, and I hope it will serve as the springboard to something good that will emanate from all the destruction we have seen. This feeling is a sense of unity among all good peoples of the world.

I have seen in the United States a spirit of national unity I've not previously witnessed in my lifetime. There is a sense of purpose and oneness that I anticipate will serve us well in the coming months and years. People by the millions have mobilized in the opening days of this tragedy to give blood, volunteer their efforts (sometimes at great personal peril), donate money and goods, and take time to hug strangers and cry together as a national community. I've also seen expressions of a world unity that are new to me. In personal messages from friends and colleagues from around the world, and in a more general global response, the world seems to be uniting across national boundaries in a common concern by decent and civilized people. If any good can emerge from such a heinous act—and it must—then we are seeing it.

Before September 11, there was a feeling here in the United States that we were somehow immune to the danger, strife, and suffering that pervades much of the rest of the world. We felt confident and comfortable, protected by two vast oceans and an unrivaled economic and military power that would stave off all evil. There was an “us” and “them” attitude. “Us” was the powerful country, free from fear, busily going about its business. “Them” was the many countries of the world caught in daily strife, subject to instability, and living in fear of the next storefront explosion. We now face a dawning realization that there is no “them,” only “us”—which serves as the springboard to two points I wish to make about unity in conservation.

First, in my more than 20-year career in this field I have been witness to a disturbing tendency to fight and quarrel among ourselves to the detriment of the species and ecosystems we profess to protect. Michael Soulé has said that when things get tough in our profession we have a terrible habit of circling the wagons and firing inward. Unfortunately, I have witnessed too many instances that support his metaphor.

As Editor of this journal, I have been pulled into numerous struggles between groups, individuals, and factions that exhaust not only the time and resources of this journal but more importantly their own energies, which would be better spent on the causes they profess to advance. I have had to adjudicate several disagreements among various parties over the written word and its effects and have struggled to find fairness amidst sometimes ugly accusations. To head off such conflicts in the future, people must be more willing to engage in direct, open, and honest communications in search of solutions that benefit biological diversity rather than relying on third parties to act as intermediaries and judges to define a winner and loser.

I also have witnessed countless battles throughout my career within and among universities, natural resource agencies, NGOs, and others involved in conservation. These take the form of rivalry and competition, jealousy, territoriality, possessiveness about “their” natural resources, and especially a tendency to lose sight of the real objects of our concern and instead to serve and feed their institutions. I have been aghast since graduate school at how institutional posturing, possessiveness, and personal ambition can set the agendas for so many organizations and individuals and how this sadly works to the detriment of our declining resources. As individuals and institutions fight each other and protect territories, ecosystems degrade and species go extinct. The institutions within which we all work are, of course, vital to the cause, but only to the extent to which they actually accomplish the tangible conservation results they strive to carry out. Our institutions have no inherent value, and their continued existences and growth should be solely a function of their tangible conservation successes on the ground.

As for the human elements in this field, it is sometimes important to be reminded (and humbled) that all who are reading this will be dead within 100 years, most of us within 50, and many of us much sooner. But the resources of our concern, we hope, will continue on ad infinitum. That is the target, that is our legacy, and that is where we must focus all of our energies. Nothing else matters much in the final count—not our institutions, nor our curricula vitae, nor the papers in this journal. Unity of purpose among our people and institutions is not only appropriate at this time but is necessary if we are to make significant headway in the difficult times ahead.

My second point is that some practitioners in the field of conservation biology long have enjoyed a sense of comfort from their isolation from the larger world that lies beyond scientific models of genes and metapopulations, powerful GIS capabilities, estimates of species diversities, debates over edge effects, in short the world beyond the collective scientific wisdom within which we can safely retreat. As this journal and the Society for Conservation Biology have ventured in recent years into newer and less comfortable and familiar realms of policy and management, and even more recently onto the precarious grounds of the largest contexts of conservation, most readers have been excited and energized, but some have warned against stepping out of the traditional scientific shell that protects us. They argue we are a scientific society that should remain purely within the realms of the science that we generate and know so well.

There is no question whatsoever that, at least during my tenure, this journal remains first and foremost a scientific venue whose goal is to publish the best cutting-edge science available, free from bias of any sort and subject to the strongest scientific scrutiny. But as I and others have stated before, if we are to have real influences on protection of biological diversity in a complex world, it is hopelessly naive to think we can do so without also understanding the broadest contexts in which we work. Any lingering doubts about that should have been erased thoroughly by the recent tragic events. Conservation biology, as a field and as a journal, must try to understand and incorporate into our equations the many social and political dimensions that determine how our science is used. We can no longer (and of course never could) expect to do our work in a vacuum. Rather, our scientific work must help build the bonds across boundaries of disciplines, nations, and perspectives that are the best hope for the world. To do so, we must be willing to assess ourselves and our science within the largest global contexts.

Conservation is a powerful global concern that links all peoples across national and cultural boundaries. It is a strong common thread, weaving us into a global community that transcends political, religious, racial, or any other real or imagined barriers that others attempt to erect. More than ever, conservation can be a leading example of the great good that can be achieved when decent people mobilize in peaceful and cooperative ways to address common problems and to seek long-lasting solutions. There are many differences that could serve to define us in this field—national borders, institutional affiliations, language, research focus, personal philosophies, funding competitions, historical animosities, and so forth—but it would be a colossal mistake to allow any of them to dictate our behavior. Rather, I propose that a unifying force greater than all of them must motivate us—our common humanity and our common concern for and commitment to the natural world.

Whenever tragedy strikes and we feel helpless, it is incumbent on us as caring people to find something good that can come of it, some way to turn the evil on its head and shake out something positive. I propose that one way we as conservation biologists can contribute to this process is to forge a renewed sense of purpose in what we do. We must set aside the small differences and pursue the large commonalities that we all know are there. We must be willing to enter zones of discomfort to understand how our scientific knowledge base might be better used, lest we retreat to the cocoon of “pure science,” perhaps never to emerge beyond that developmental stage and transform into something larger.

Even as we mourn for the victims of this monstrous act of hatred, our collective energies must be brought to bear in an increasingly dangerous world to achieve tangible conservation advances. A unity of purpose in conservation is needed as never before, and I challenge all conservation biologists to rise to the occasion, to focus on the real meaning of why we do what we do, and not to let personal or institutional differences exhaust our energies. We already enjoy a global community in this field and have a strong base on which to build. Continuing efforts at internationalization within the Society for Conservation Biology will further fuel these endeavors, and a renewed sense of unity and purpose by all members will carry us to greater heights and accomplishments.