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‘Let’s Get Back to Ecology’: A New Interview with Peter Kareiva

Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva recently gave an interview to Biodiverse Perspectives, a blog written by more than 100 graduate students in biodiversity science around the world. It’s an excellent Q&A, with one of the best distillations yet of Kareiva’s thinking on conservation’s focus on biodiversity versus the benefits of a broader focus on ecology.

Read the full interview here. But here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

“I have what some think is a heretical view of biodiversity.  Look – I do want to prevent extinctions.  But I think what should be a reasonable concern for biodiversity has turned into a numerological and narrow counting of species, and has led to an over-emphasis on research aimed at rationalizing why biodiversity should matter to the general public.  Ecology matters to the general public because ecology is about water, pests and pestilence, recreation, food, resilience and so forth. Perturbations to ecosystems in the form of massive pollution, land conversion, harvest, species loss can all distort ecology.  But focusing so narrowly on producing graphs that on the horizontal axis display number of species and on the vertical axis report some dependent ecological function (that is distantly related to human well-being) strikes me as not worth so much research.  Let’s get back to ecology – understanding how systems work, what controls dynamics, the role of particular species as opposed to the number of species, to what extent do ecosystems compensate for species losses, what factors contribute to resilience, whether there really are thresholds – all those are terrific research questions.  Counting species, and trying to produce what is, as far as I can tell, usually very weak evidence for the relationship between biodiversity per se and ecological function is off-track.

“Early on in my job at TNC I presented to business leaders some of the empirical data plots from classic biodiversity and ecological function studies. These are studies we all interpret as strong evidence for the importance of biodiversity. I can tell you unequivocally when they saw the actual data they were totally unimpressed and unconvinced. It caused me to look more objectively at the data.”

As always, let us know what you think in the comments.

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