Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jesus, Zombies, and Other Deep Questions for Conservation

Gerald Singh and Ally Thompson

The May 21st reckoning has been zealously touted by some, and ridiculed by others. We prefer to think that relevance can be found wherever you look.


He must be pointing at a true believer (

We Hope You’re Ready.

Today is the rapture. While true believers are rejoicing their ascendency to heaven and nonbelievers are either recoiling in horror, indifferent, finding business opportunities, or making fun of the whole story (who would do such a thing?), we – as environmental and conservation scientists – have conflicting thoughts on the matter.

Jesus comes back today after a two thousand year absence. A series of earthquakes will open graves of those who died in the past (zombies? If true then things may go completely differently then outlined below). True believers (about 200 million) will be taken to heaven and the rest cast down in shame to remain on a doomed planet. Undoubtedly the whole ordeal will lead to civil and industrial strife for those left behind. And – here’s the kicker – everyone else dies and is cast down to hell on October 21.

This is serious (

On the one hand, this is an unprecedented opportunity for nature conservation. Depending on what happens to the wretches left behind on earth, the entire biosphere will have varying (though in any case lower) levels of human impact. All other organisms not being made in the image of God will be spared the messiness of heaven and hell. With remaining humans dealing with issues of basic survival and infrastructure nonexistent, pressure on wildlife through pollution, introduction of exotic species and diseases and habitat degradation will probably go down (though hunting may increase with less certain food supplies). The entire ocean will effectively be put under one big Marine Protected Area. No more illegal trade for endangered animal parts. No more industrial carbon emissions. No more housing and industrial development leading to edge effects. All three components of Paul Ehrlich’s equation for human impact on the environment (Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology) will go down. With less dependency on technology and more so directly on the natural environment, will the value of ecosystem services increase?

Now that's a protected area (

On the other hand, what happens after the five month period of a Godless World (something that isn’t clear to us) raises some problematic metaphysical and metaethical concerns. If existence itself is destroyed, nature – by definition – is also destroyed. However, if just people get cast down to hell and the world remains, that raises the truly interesting questions. If nature goes back to a pristine state but there is no one left to appreciate it, does it matter? Can you have value without a valuer? Because “pristine” necessitates the absence of humans, is this truly a desirable goal for conservation? Besides these fundamental concerns about the existence of intrinsic values, the other issue is that the world will lose those interactions between people and nature that are worth conserving. The ties to nature and deep sense of place that local fishers, farmers, and others that derive their well-being and livelihoods will be gone. Humans have helped shape the world that we admire, and human loss will lead to a very different place: it will be a return from a socio-ecological system to an ecological system.

Wait. We'll lose this?!?!

A Short (Serious) Digression on Prediction

The human attraction to eschatological stories is an interesting one. For one, it affects the religious and non-religious alike. Stories of biblical Armageddon are widespread, but works by scientists like James Lovelock and Paul and Anne Ehrlich also discuss “end-times” situations. Both sides may not have their most extreme predictions come through, but the scientists in this case have some evidence and insights worth considering (such as overpopulations contributing to increased starvation). The problem is that the evidence-lacking, religious “authorities” get more press, more followers, and more impact. There are countless stories to be found covering the “rapture” predictions, and people seriously believe it. These stories do affect people’s views and actions, and this has important implications for conservation. Why should any care or concern be put to environmental concerns when the world is ending soon anyway? Can this kind of mindset be successfully challenged and changed? Conservation is a real world problem with diverse issues to face. Many of the most pressing issues relate to human behavior. What can conservationists learn from doomsayers?

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