Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The new conservation

The generation of scientific conservationists that came of age in the 1970s and the following decades responded to the growing environmental movement by proclaiming a new direction. From now on conservation would be based on ecology, which itself was undergoing a paradigm shift. Whereas for most of the twentieth century ecologists had subscribed to the view that nature, left to its own devices, moved toward equilibrium, as in the succession of forest species moving to a stable, climax forest, the new view posited that change, sometimes disturbing change, rather than equilibrium and stability, was nature's norm. In the face of this uncertainty, management rather than control was the best that could be hoped for.

The new movement was at first called conservation biology. Today it is called both conservation biology and conservation ecology. In trying to characterize their field, they distinguished it from earlier conservation practice. Where endangered, single species had been the focus of earlier conservation policy, now the emphasis would be on managing the ecosystem as a whole. Earlier conservationists had attempted to control nature, but conservation ecologists understood that control was impossible because nature was subject to uncertainty. The fact that some conservation control efforts had fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences and produced results that, while aiding certain species, had harmed others, was taken as a sign that policy needed flexibility in the face of uncertainty and changing conditions. Thus management, rather than control, was the aim, and thus the revolution led away from conservation of targeted endangered species and toward what was termed ecosystem management.

What, then, is ecosystem management? What is management? How does one manage without attempting to control?

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