Citizen Science

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

May 17, 2013

Peter Kareiva. Image credit: poptech/Flickr via a Creative Commons license.

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.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. Dr. Kareiva announcing that his view is heretical! Ho hum. Has he ever opened his mouth with claiming to have a new! revolutionary! heretical! idea? Has he ever not presented his idea as aggressively correcting everyone else who is wrong, wrong, wrong? The conservationists are wrong. The scientists are wrong. The corporations are wrong. (Whoops, actually Peter never says the corporations are wrong, apparently they are the only entities on the right track).

    Kareiva’s endless, ego-driven pronouncements are tiresome and divisive. They are not winning TNC many friends in the conservation and science world.

    They are also not factually substantiated. Has “counting species” really replaced research on ecological functioning? You wouldn’t guess that looking at articles published in the last twelve months in Science, Nature, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, or even Bioscience. Like virtually all of the self-congratulatory attacks Peter has launched at conservationists in the past few years, the argument is based on hyperbole.

    Karieva says he was very impressed by business leaders’ lack of interest in biodiversity. He proudly talks about the role of business leaders on TNC’s staff and board. Then he happily declares: “My prediction is that in 2030, we will not be talking about biodiversity anywhere near as much as we do now—instead we will be asking how nature can make humans more resilient to climate disruptions, and what are the limits we should avoid crossing if we want to maintain a reliable supply of food and water.”

    My questions are these: Haven’t the world’s top business leaders always expressed exactly what Peter proposes- that nature be primarily managed as a resource and benefit for humans? Isn’t that view exactly what lead us to destroy too much habitat, kill too many animals and leave too much pollution? I’m not sure there is much to celebrate in Kareiva’s prediction that 30 years from now conservation biologists will also join the dominant paradigm.

  2. I live in Brookhaven long island new york. we are at the end of a road called Burnett lane. I would like to call your attention to the fact that during Sandy, water came up farther than ever before but aside from a ground water problem which we have whenever it rains a lot, the flood for us never happened. If you look at our coast line in Bellport Bay, part of the Great South Bay, it is still protected by a marsh and we are right next to carmen’s river. Hope this is some use to you in your effort to restore the marsh of our coast. We are directly across from the new/old inlet that opened on Fire Island during Sandy. Thanks in advance for your work. Julia fahey and Ben Rice (Member since 1993).