Conservation Biology

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In the 20th century, biology multiplied into several subfields, among them conservation biology, a discipline that traces its origin to Eastern philosophies. The ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Indians posited a link between humans, plants, and animals. Given this link, harm could not come to the animal world without also harming humanity. Eastern philosophies believed pristine lands to be essential for people who desired a spiritual experience. In the Gospels, both John the Baptist and Jesus went to the wilderness for spiritual cleansing.

In the West, the dominant ideology favored exploitation, rather than conservation, of nature. To the Western mind, nature had no spiritual qualities. In the 19th century, the Transcenden-talists, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, challenged the belief that nature was nothing more than a commodity to be used for economic gain. Emerson and Thoreau affirmed that nature held a spiritual value and that humans could not degrade nature without degrading themselves. By his actions, Thoreau demonstrated that a person could live simply and in harmony with nature. Going beyond the musings of Emerson and Thoreau, conservationist John Muir recognized the value of political activism and formed an alliance with Theodore Roosevelt, who was also sympathetic to the aims of conservation.

As a science, conservation biology coalesced during the 1970s in the aftermath of the oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, an event that underscored the fragility of an economy based on the burning of fossil fuels. The economies of the developed world relied on cheap fossil fuels and a quiescent public. Conservation biologists were anything but quiescent. In 1978, they held the First International Conference on Conservation Biology at the San Diego Zoo, a location that highlighted conservation biologists' commitment to protect Earth's biodiversity. In 1985, a trio of scientists formed the Society for Conservation Biology, and two years later, its members founded Conservation Biology, the society's scholarly journal.

Conservation biology concerned itself with, among other things, the relationship among climate, human activity, and the fate of Earth's biota. Conservation biology tracks changes in climate and the harm they cause organisms and ecosystems. In some cases, the changes in climate have brought organisms to extinction. Conservation biologists, aware that climate change imperils species, called attention to the greenhouse effect and deforestation. The greenhouse effect traps heat in the atmosphere. Human activity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere, which has caused global temperatures to rise.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and so are natural checks against the accumulation of carbon dioxide. Deforestation, however, reduces the number of trees and plants and so weakens the capacity of plants to absorb carbon dioxide. The greenhouse effect and deforestation are, therefore, a mutually reinforcing feedback loop that intensifies global warming. Conservation biologists point to ranchers as contributors to the greenhouse effect. By overgrazing the land, cattle further reduce the number of plants and weaken their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.

Conservation biology tracks changes in the chemistry of rain. Rainfall is an important aspect of climate because it determines the distribution and density of plants and, when rainfall is scant, the distribution and size of deserts. Conservation biologists noted with alarm that rainfall in the eastern United States and parts of Europe is acidic. Factories and power plants discharge sulfur dioxide, which combines with water vapor in the atmosphere to form acids. These acids fall to earth as acid rain, accumulating in streams and lakes.

Half the lakes in the Adirondack Mountains in New York have no fish because they were unable to reproduce in the acidic waters. Conservation biologists have devised a temporary solution to the problem of acidic lakes by adding large amounts of calcium carbonate to them to reduce their acidity. While effective, this solution is costly and only temporary. Acid rain returns lakes to acidic conditions three to six years after treatment with calcium carbonate. The long-term solution to the problem of acid rain requires humans to use renewable sources of energy rather than continue to burn fossil fuels.

Conservation biologists worried that the thinning of the ozone layer would change the climate. The ozone layer makes life possible by blocking out large quantities of ultraviolet light, which is lethal in high doses. As the ozone layer thins, due to the release of chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere, it screens less ultraviolet radiation. Increases in ultraviolet light kill photosynthetic algae in the ocean. Because algae absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, their reduction in numbers weakens their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, contributing to the greenhouse effect. The thinning of the ozone layer thereby contributes to global warming. This thinning, itself a manifestation of climate change, harms Earth's biota. The ultraviolet light that penetrates the ozone layer also damages amphibian DNA, causing fewer amphibians to survive. Consequently, the number of frogs and toads has declined in the western United States.

Conservation biologists warn that the climate is not only changing, but changing rapidly. The speed with which the climate is changing may mark some species for extinction. Some tree species, for example, take 20-30 years to reproduce. By then, the climate may have changed to such a degree that the tree species may die before reaching sexual maturity and will become extinct. Conservation biologists assert that climate change is causing a mass extinction greater than any since the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Era in which the dinosaurs perished.

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