Q: For me, the most surprising statement you make is on biodiversity. You say, “Species are going to die, species die all the time, that’s not a problem.” Even though, logically, it makes sense, it still sounds quite shocking because it seemed to run counter to everything that we think we know about conservation. How did you come to this conclusion and do you ever get push back from airing views like this?
A: To start with the end and work back: yes, I do get pushback. I remember one encounter with an ecologist a number of years ago. He said that the role of conservation science was to preserve the maximum number of species in the present. I couldn’t disagree more. First of all, we’d do just as well to lose a number of ‘charismatic megafauna’—the game isn’t worth the candle. This is non-obvious, but it is about resources. An analogy is public health. In the U.S., an ungodly amount of money has gone into getting asbestos out of buildings—even though there really weren’t that many deaths involved; the same money spent on public health would have led to longer, happier lives for a far greater number of people. Focusing in on cuddly pandas because they are cute is really not the point. This has direct consequences for biodiversity policy. Attempting to freeze evolutionary change by creating natural reservations misses the point: we need to maximize the ability to speciate, to grow—by concentrating on conservation we make bad decisions for the long-term health of the planet. And back to my encounter—when pushed, he said that we should maximize species in the present since that’s when ‘we’ were living. This is such a silly and selfish argument: we should accept a slew of losses now and work for a robust future. This is not done through heroic efforts to protect.