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War and Peace and Conservation Biology

David Ehrenfeld
Conservation Biology
Vol. 14, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 105-112
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2641909
Page Count: 8
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War and Peace and Conservation Biology
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Abstract

Since its inception, conservation biology has been, like medicine, a mission-oriented field, its mission being to preserve the Earth's biodiversity. Unlike medicine, however, conservation biology has no regular, systematically employed mechanisms in place for monitoring the success or failure of its efforts. My appraisal of papers published in the first three issues of volume 13 of Conservation Biology indicates that the majority of research in the discipline yields more descriptions and recommendations than actual conservation achievements. This does not appear to be a problem of motivation or the quality of our science. We have made undeniable advances in our understanding of conservation biology, but this has not produced comparable conservation results, in part because the forces causing the extinction of species and the disruption of ecosystems often have little to do with biology. Have we undertaken a task whose completion lies beyond the power of our science and technology? In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy used the failure of Napoleon's invasion of Russia to examine the idea that science (expertise) and reason simply cannot control the great events of the world, which are inherently too complex to be managed by these methods. The twentieth-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin largely agrees but takes a more moderate position: he explains why it is sometimes possible to apply reason to the vast problems that confront us and achieve the desired results. By analogy, in conservation biology we can achieve conservation objectives, but we must give up the self-serving belief that an increase in our scientific knowledge by itself will always move us toward effective conservation. To help identify the conservation strategies that work, conservation biology must close critical feedback loops by emulating medicine and regularly monitoring the effectiveness of its research and recommendations and by understanding the place of its work in the life of the community.

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