Rebecca Nesbit, Tickets for the Ark: From Wasps to Whales – How do we Choose What to Save? (Profile Books 2022).
Thanks to SLBI Member, Craig Swick, for this book review. If you would like to review a botanical book for our blog, please just get in touch.
This book presents many important ideas on the complexity of conservation issues and was enjoyable to read. I recommend it to all who are interested in conservation because of its unique approach. The most important message in the book is that resolving conservation issues must come from a mixture of social, economic and scientific viewpoints.
However, this book has a huge number of shortcomings. It is a popular science book so the author relies on personal or general observations about situations rather than presenting conclusions of studies. She fails to state a clear thesis of what she is trying to tell us in the book and does not explain how what she is telling us relates to the points she is trying to make. Many of the chapters present fascinating information but it is not clear how it relates to the book as a whole.
The title of the book made me expect that it would be about how to decide which species are more important to save than others. It does not. It also does not address what to do when there is not enough money, enough people or enough time to save all species. The book instead talks about how different groups resolved different conservation problems. Her focus is not on finding a scientific solution but on reaching a compromise acceptable to the groups involved.
I will discuss a few of the points she makes. She tells us that conservation is looking towards the future and it is distinct from the nature of the past. She tries to apply this to the various rewilding projects that are trying to recreate a wildness of the past before human interference and concludes there is a need for humans to alter the natural course at rewilding sites because the community will not accept the starving animals and other drawbacks that come with those projects. The author would say that the goal of conservation is to create a new landscape where humans and other organisms can live together.
One of the main problems she tries to address is how to manage non-native species. The different solutions depend on the population and the economic situation. Her main example is the tilapia fish which has been introduced in two different settings. In New Guinea it has displaced crayfish and native fish species that were important food sources. But the government allows it to spread because it is easy for the unskilled to catch and is an important source of survival protein for the very poor. In Australia tilapia is considered a pest and the country is trying to remove it with help from the invasive species laws. Australia is of course a much wealthier country with other sources of protein.
A related issue is the cost of removing unwanted invasive species. Rats, the most notorious species that has been introduced by humans all over the world, are often a threat to other species. They are very costly and time-consuming to remove and require the use of poisons. Some areas have looked for different solutions such as Mauritius which gave up on eliminating all the rats and moved its endangered tortoises to nearby islands that were rat-free.
Another situation where non-native invasive species appear are the trees planted in urban settings which can survive the stressful polluted atmosphere. They give residents the benefit of nearby nature and allow other wildlife to live there but care has to be taken so they do not spread over too much of the area.
An important fundamental issue that the author raises, and does not successfully deal with, is whether each species has intrinsic value and should be saved for that reason. The alternative is to determine which plants and animals have value to humans in their settings and save those. The question becomes whether saving the species is worth the cost to us. Seedbanks, which is one important example, are a statement that plants are important to us and it is worth the cost to ensure their survival against environmental catastrophe. While the cost of building the bank may be high there is not much cost to adding more species. We do not know which grains will do well in a new environment so we try to save all the varieties.
Unexpectedly, this issue of intrinsic value has arisen in rewilding projects, Marine Protected Areas and in trophy hunting. The community outrage at the starving animals visible in rewilding project in the Netherlands led to a policy of allowing only a certain number of animals and a harvesting the rest. With trophy hunting and marine protected areas some governments have decided it is more important to have the income from hunting and fishing than to save the animals. The income allows the government to provide food and to help the economy so social programs can be started.
This brings us to what the author sees as the most important issue, the need to balance conservation goals with the food and economic needs of the people. She talks about a mediation program in Scotland where the fishermen were able to reach agreements with those trying to preserve salmon. She notes that no scientific studies were relied upon to reach this agreement. This is not really surprising because the way a group interprets evidence usually depends on what their viewpoint was to begin with. As a part of this she notes that those with the most economic security may devote more attention to conservation but lead more ecologically damaging lives than those “closer to the ground.”
People also derive more pleasure and satisfaction from the nature around them. Conservations focus on endangered rare birds in far away places but most people are never going to see them. They are much more likely to enjoy the birds around their neighborhood. There is a need for small scale conservation with local birds and window boxes as well as global programs.
The author believes the only approach that will work for resolving conservation problems is for all the interested parties to get together and present their viewpoints. When there is understanding, solutions are easier to reach. I welcome this mediation approach which has been successful in other contentious areas such as divorce and labour disputes.
While I like the book, and would recommend it for its different perspectives, it has many problems. These could have been fixed by a more severe editor who insisted on a clear thesis and that the chapters developed points related to it. The book will not give answers but will give the reader much to think about.