Conservation Biology at Twenty


“Conservation Biology is now a discipline, a recognizable and coherent body of facts, theories, and technologies. This new journal is intended to demonstrate this claim, to be a voice for the emerging discipline, and to aid its development.” So began the first editorial of the first issue of Conservation Biology in May 1987. We are now 20 years old, and this is the 101st issue of the journal. We have published well over 24,000 pages, and the average single issue today is about as large as the entire first year of the journal. In 20 years we have grown steadily in volume and, more significant, in breadth and stature within the community of scholarly literature.

Growth for the sake of growth is not our objective, of course. As we have grown, the quality of articles has been maintained and their scientific impact has increased. But impact measured by influence on the state of the Earth's biota or the values of the world population is clearly what we aspire to. Alas, our impact is instead measured by scholarly standards, driven by citations in the scientific literature. What we need to establish is a connection between scholarly impact and world impact. Nevertheless, it is comforting that circulation has grown and that regional sections and chapters of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) have arisen. Other excellent journals publishing articles on the same general topics have appeared around the world, partly inspired by our pioneering example. We have participated in the genesis of a scientific discipline and have assisted in the development of new fields or subdisciplines, including conservation genetics, ecological economics, landscape ecology, conservation medicine, restoration ecology, and conservation planning. By most measures this experiment called Conservation Biology has been an enormous success.

Yet, nature is still losing badly. Despite our accomplishments as a scientific society and a journal, we have had only occasional positive impacts on a world seemingly bent on self-destruction. Our collective influence on global conditions, policies, and quality of life for humans and nonhumans has been minimal as the world marches on, largely oblivious to our science and to the bedrock value of respect for life that underlies it.

Nevertheless, there are signs of awakening: desertification has been checked in some locales; solar power generation is proliferating in both developing and industrial nations; our techniques for managing endangered populations and ecosystems have improved and are being implemented, at least in some cases; our ability to restore aquatic and terrestrial habitats is improving, with examples now on many continents; and although population is still growing rapidly—especially in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa and South America—36 countries, including Japan, Iran, and most of Europe, have relatively stable or declining populations. Long-standing arguments over how to accomplish conservation have not been resolved entirely, but many of the most bitter have dissipated as we conservation biologists have learned to accept pluralism in our methods. Now we have the scientific and technical means to achieve great things and a resolve within the profession to get moving. But is this enough?

We have positioned ourselves well to influence the world as it begins to shake off its environmental blindness and come to terms with reality. We must continue to meet the challenges that a still-growing human population and steadily declining biota pose for us in the coming years. As conservation biologists, we have a fundamental ethical responsibility to do all we can to save the many species to which our civilization gives no voice and little respect. Every extinction prevented, every river cleaned, every marine habitat protected, every forest or grassland restored is a measure of our commitment and the real value of our discipline in a troubled world. Yes, things will unquestionably get worse in the near term, but they will not be as bad as if we had not existed. Continuing losses of biodiversity are inevitable given the still-expanding human population, growing competition for resources, and the allure of perpetual economic growth in a finite system. Our job is to minimize the losses and maximize the gains until wiser heads prevail. We refuse to merely document the decline of nature.

Fortunately, nature is quite resilient. Stop polluting a river or lake and it will recover. Stop clearcutting a forest and it will probably regrow. Cease pouring pollutants into the air or soil and the pollutants will eventually be degraded. Ecological repair has its limits, of course—in each case, some of the original components of the ecosystem may have been lost. And of course, any particular lineage, once lost, will never be recovered. The key is to keep as many as possible of the pieces needed for recovery, as Aldo Leopold admonished us decades ago.

To fulfill our essential mission we suggest two practical efforts now. (1) Readers: continue to do your good work, in the laboratory, field, classroom (primary school through graduate school), and community. Educate, innovate, protect what you can. Train students to achieve more than we ever could. Actively promote the translation of conservation science to conservation on the ground. Involve the public through outreach education and the exciting new efforts of citizen science. Lead by example. (2) SCB: new initiatives are needed to address the science-policy interface. As a professional society, we have been slow and weak in responding to policy challenges. We welcome and support a policy director for SCB who encourages the conversion of scientific knowledge that we and others generate into thoughtful and informed public policy and public action.

Other initiatives—as yet not conceived—undoubtedly will need to follow. But we are, after all, only a society of conservation professionals; we can do just so much. Ultimately, the success of our mission relies on a global change in worldview—a sudden realization by a significant fraction of the world's population that the diversity of life on Earth is something that matters profoundly, something that affects us all so deeply that we are willing to sacrifice some portion of personal gain to preserve it. Is this wishful thinking? Perhaps, especially for people so close to the edge of existence that sacrifice is impossible. But as conservation biologists, we are obligated to work relentlessly toward such a state of collective awareness of biodiversity and its value, even while focusing much of our energy on immediate crises surrounding species and habitat loss and other threats.

The special section in this issue recounts our history, follows our progress, and speculates on our future. The most repetitive message coming out of those papers is the great need for interdisciplinarity and inclusion of the various social sciences. This is an obvious imperative; we have to learn how to transform our scientific knowledge into practice. We are facing a fundamental problem relative to human behavior, and the solution ultimately will need to take human behavior into account. This is the great challenge that confronts us in the next decades. Those who still think that biology and ecology alone are sufficient for our task—that good science by itself will save the day—are as much in denial as those who say there is no environmental crisis.

Twenty years ago a group of visionary leaders conceived a new field and a new way of thinking about and approaching our world. We think the promise of the first words of the first editorial have been fulfilled, and more. Twenty years later we stand on the shoulders of our founders as we celebrate our successes and see how remarkably far we have come. Yet if this is where we remain, we will have failed them. We now must do their jobs all over again. We must get out of our collective comfort zones, break down intellectual and disciplinary barriers, and invent new ways to address the most vexing and serious problem ever to face humanity: survival of a planet increasingly vulnerable to a massive buildup of one species—ours. It has been a wonderful 20 years for the journal and SCB, but we have more work to do. We will not get another chance.