Conservation biology shares the distinction with medicine in that it is a science that is given a moral imperative. Like medicine, conservation biology is an amalgamation of different fields (ecology, genetics, environmental science, etc) brought together for a single purpose.The question now is what exactly is that problem. Conservation biology has historically focused on protecting nature for nature’s sake. There has been pressure in recent years for a more human-based approach: one that focuses on what nature can do for humans through ecosystem services. These are known as the biocentric and anthropocentric approaches, and their proponents are locked in a heated debate. In the June issue of the scientific journal “Conservation Biology,” this debate came into the spotlight.

The two camps

Leading the charge for the biocentric camp is Dr. Michael Soule. Soule is a one of leaders in the field, having authored one of the definitive textbooks on the topic. Soule argues that anthropocentric conservation could lead to a planet of carefully planned gardens with the destruction of what he considers wild habitat. His most pointed charge, however, is that by not focusing on species conservation, humans could risk destroying entire ecosystems that might otherwise be resilient in the face of global climate change. He is particularly concerned with keystone species, which are integral in maintaining ecosystems. Soule has moral reasoning for his focus on species conservation. He personally considers causing the extinction of another species a sin and is in fact writing a book on the topic.

New conservationists argue that practices in the past have not done enough for human well being. Setting aside large tracks of land and not empowering the local populace merely deprives the local populace of resources. This is particularly controversial in areas of extreme poverty. Many of the world’s biodiversity hot spots such as in Central and South America share space with impoverished populations. More than that, anthropocentric conservationists are largely focused on the end impacts of different ecosystems. For example, if a wetland will continue to contribute to a clean water supply, whether a specific endangered species in the wetland goes extinct is not a particularly high priority. New conservationists wish to bring in the considerations of poverty alleviation and humanitarian interest to conservation projects.

Finding a middle ground

To an extent both sides are right. If purely anthropocentric and biocentric points of view are considered along a spectrum, many conservation projects exist largely in the middle. The Community Baboon Sanctuary in Belize was an example of a conservation effort that would likely please both camps. Two hundred landowners agreed to set aside twenty square miles of land to protect rainforest and the endangered howler monkey. The project was an early and largely successful example of ecotourism and has been in place since the early 1980s. This stands in contrast to many other projects that have simply left poverty stricken populations without access to resources.

The growing field of reconciliation ecology also falls into the mid-point of the spectrum. Reconciliation ecology is a subset of conservation biology that is aimed at encouraging biodiversity in human environments. It is closely related with the growing science of urban ecology-study of ecology in urban environments. The urban greening of Berlin contains some elements of reconciliation ecology.

Why does this debate matter?

The Earth is currently faced with its sixth great extinction event. Conservation practitioners are trapped in a race against time to protect as many species as possible. It is estimated that the current rate of extinction is 1000 times faster than normal. Anthropocentric inclined conservationists and environmental economists are concerned by the frightening damage to ecosystem services happening every year. The world economy was valued around 87 trillion American dollars in 2013, in comparison to worldwide ecosystem services at 127 trillion dollars in 2011. It has been estimated that the global loss of ecosystem services due to land use change is between 4.3 to 20.2 trillion per year.

Regardless of whether efforts are focused on species or on ecosystem services, it is clear that now is the time for action by governments, non-profits, and other stakeholders. Ecosystem services and resource extraction industries form the base of the world wide economy. Those who claim to be focused on economic progress ahead of environmental priorities would be wise to keep this in mind.