State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Michelle Nijhuis Wants to Bring Biodiversity Loss to Your Doorstep

In her upcoming book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, journalist and biologist Michelle Nijhuis charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species — foreign and domestic, ugly and cuddly, plant and yes, even human.

beloved beasts book cover
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction comes out March 9.

In the last 500 years, 755 animal species and 123 plant species have disappeared due to human activities, according to Nijhuis. The unknown species that have gone extinct are likely to number in the thousands.

A world with abundant diversity of life is a world where humans thrive. Without biodiversity, nature’s ability to provide the ecosystem services that enable every aspect of our existence, including breathable air and fertile soils, is severely compromised. Yet communicating the ominous threat of the declining variety of species, and the actions we can take to reverse it, has proven an arduous task. Conventional efforts have unintentionally positioned the conservation movement as something done elsewhere and by others.

I had the opportunity to discuss the hard sell of biodiversity loss with Michelle Nijhuis, as well as the other challenges facing life on Earth. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your book Beloved Beasts, you state “love of other species often begins with childhood experience of plenty.” Does that stem from personal experience?

That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say it was plenty, but it was a childhood experience of just everyday wildlife. I grew up in a semi-rural area in New York. I wasn’t an especially super-outdoorsy kid — those interests came later — but animals were always around. And I grew up with them as a big part of my experience.

When did you become outdoorsy? When did your passion for animals really take off?

I always liked animals. I always liked wild animals… We camped a lot when I was a kid. I went through a strange phase in my childhood when I was really obsessed with frogs! But it wasn’t until I moved to the West Coast — I went to college in Oregon — and started being outdoors in a more serious way, for longer periods of time, getting to go further into the outdoors, that I became interested in wildlife in a broader way, in a deeper way. 

The world is becoming increasingly urbanized. Human interactions with a variety of species is now a foreign concept to most. What hope is there for their preservation? How do we get the message about biodiversity loss across when the trend is humans becoming less outdoorsy?

The endangered mountain yellow-legged frog may not be cute or charismatic, but it is still deserving of conservatoin. Photo: Isaac Chellman/NPS

I think about that a lot. One of the problems I see is that the conservation movement, for very understandable reasons, has tried to simplify its message by using flagship species; Conservation is about saving the bald eagle — a famous historical example — or the northern white rhino. And that’s understandable, given that “saving biodiversity” is a more complicated message. We know as communicators that simple messages have more staying power. But I think one of the costs of that has been that there is a widespread impression among the general public that, if they know about conservation at all, they think about it as saving individual species and in particular saving individual species that are extremely endangered and don’t live anywhere near them. To them, conservation is about saving the last northern white rhino, rather than protecting species in abundance and protecting all kinds of species, not necessarily exotic or charismatic species.

Sounds like you’re talking about safeguarding ecosystems…

Exactly, it’s really about protecting relationships.

Many people that know about conservation think it’s done by other people and happens far away from them. What I would love to see more of is conservation groups emphasizing that conservation is something that needs to be done by everybody and it needs to happen everywhere. There are great wildlife habitats in the middle of cities! Central Park has amazing bird diversity, and is a very important migration stop for many species. I think if conservation groups could get that message across more strongly, they could dare to make their message slightly more complex and talk more about the need to protect species while they’re still common, to protect relationships among species, and to protect relationships between humans and other species. I think that might help broaden the constituency for conservation.

Let’s talk about that relationship between humans and other species. The vast majority of conservation funds go toward protecting species that are morphologically closer to humans, such as other mammals. Yet when looking at the big picture, we see that animals play a limited role in ecosystems — they constitute only 0.4% of all biomass on Earth. By comparison, plants make up 82.5%. In Beloved Beasts, you allude to a systemic inability to appreciate our interconnectedness and interdependence with the natural world as a whole — the “universal symbiosis” — that leads us on a path of destruction and, by default, self-destruction. You describe us as “chronically shortsighted,” no more than a “clever cousin of the mushroom.”

You do see conservation groups putting up a message that every species is important, that every species plays a part in the web of life. But, again, people tend to default to familiar grounds that conservation is about saving individual species. Conservation groups could do a lot more to emphasize the importance of protecting relationships among species while they are abundant and protecting relationships between people and other species. I think that helps get at the idea that what we are talking about conserving is not just the species we like, species that we feel an instant instinctive connection to. It’s also species that we might feel grossed out by, or that might seem dangerous, or off-putting at first, but are part of an assemblage of life. We don’t have to love them all. We don’t have to have an individual relationship with all of them.

I think conservationists and ecologists can find a way to communicate their love of the abundance and diversity of life. A lot of them will say “I have a favorite kind of animal,” but I also get a lot of joy from being in places where I know there is a lot of life and a lot of different kinds of life.

plant with purple flowers growing in sandy area
The Coachella Valley milk vetch, an endangered plant in California. Plants make up more than 82% of the planet’s biomass and are integral parts of the ecosystem, yet they are rarely the targets of conservation funding. Photo: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

Do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic will help deliver this message? Plenty of evidence seemingly confirms that zoonotic diseases are rapidly emerging as a consequence of humans encroaching into areas we shouldn’t be in, as our populations grow, our cities expand, and we need more and more resources, thus placing us in direct contact with wildlife. Or, are we going to remain as the shortsighted mushrooms?

Yes, we are shortsighted, but the flipside of that — something which is underrecognized by conservationists — is that humans can do a lot of good for conservation. Conservation isn’t just about protecting other species from humans. Humans can have a constructive role in conservation.

The pandemic is a dramatic illustration that what affects other species ultimately affects us too. They don’t have to be charismatic for their fate to be intertwined with ours. I do think it’s a concrete communication opportunity in that it’s making those connections much more visible to people. That the ways in which we can protect ourselves from future pandemics are also ways in which we can protect other species; we can do multiple things at the same time. I hope that our concern about our own health, which is naturally front and center right now, will have the side benefit of our recognizing that one way to protect it is to protect other species.

As individuals, what can be an effective call to action to preserve biodiversity? What one thing comes to mind that people can do?

My friend Jenny Price has a good book coming out called Stop Saving the Planet. The title is tongue-in-cheek, but if my book is a critique of conservation, hers is maybe a critique of environmentalism. One thing she says is that the environmental movement overemphasizes the importance of individual actions and, by doing so, blinds us to these really systemic problems.

Individual actions are important — it’s important not to go out and start shooting too many animals or building a giant house in a fragile natural habitat; those individual actions are important to refrain from — but I think we shouldn’t ask what can I do before we figure out what should be done.

I would love for people who are concerned about these issues to just spend some time really expanding their sense of what conservation is and what it could be — I think we have far too narrow of an idea of what it is — and then decide how they individually can play a role in some sort of larger change. Change isn’t going to come about through our individual consumer choices. Certainly, it’s not going to come about through our actions in isolation. It is only going to come about through concerted action.

The most important thing that each of us can do is to think hard about what needs to be done and then think about how we can play a role in that larger change.

giraffe, ostrich, and other animals in Namibia
Nijhuis asserts that conservationists should focus on protecting assemblages of life — biodiversity — rather than emphasizing single species. Photo: Andrea Schieber 

Corporate actors also play a limited role when considering the five main drivers of biodiversity loss — habitat loss, natural resource use and exploitation, invasive species, pollution, and climate change. A lot of harm is caused by the effects of human population growth and certain informal economic activities. How much emphasis should be placed on governments to implement solutions?

Indeed, some of these other causes of biodiversity destruction can be just as harmful as corporate actions. But government isn’t the only solution. Community-based conservation efforts have shown that people are capable of figuring out their own systems of sharing resources and have done so for many, many years. Conservation doesn’t always have to be achieved through top-down solutions; it can come from grassroots movements, too.

But governments can, for instance, grant protection to Indigenous communities, right? They control up to 80% of global biodiversity.

A big thing governments can do is allow space for these community-based systems to persist, or be brought back into practice, by securing Indigenous land rights, and giving people some sense of security about the future. That’s a huge motivation for people to preserve what they have if they know it’s going to be theirs in the future. So yes, there are things governments can do, but governments don’t always have to play a prohibitive role. They can play a constructive role in opening up opportunities for people to devote their own means of conservation. 

Aldo Defilippi is a graduate student in Columbia University’s Master of Public Administration program, with an energy and environment concentration. He wrote this piece as part of his coursework for the class, “Writing About Global Science for the International Media.”

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