Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Tuesday, 15 July 2008 14:37 UK

Wildlife: A luxury we can live without?

Jean-Christophe Vie (Photo: Didier Pruvot/Flammarion)
Jean-Christophe Vie

Despite our ever-increasing knowledge of the natural world, too many people still see it as just another means to make money, says Jean-Christophe Vie. In this week's Green Room, he sets out his argument why the planet's rich diversity of life needs to be preserved in its entirety.

Panda (Getty Images)
We spend enormous energy and lose precious time by trying to demonstrate the obvious: wildlife in its integrity is vital for us
In the world of economics, what nature provides for us is often seen in terms of immediate returns.

Forests, for example, are valued for their timber. When a country needs money, the forests can be cut down and the capital immediately released.

This may contribute to the nation's Gross Domestic Product, but in reality, the country has lost resources and becomes poorer.

The rationale for preserving wildlife is based on a variety of societal values including aesthetic, moral and spiritual ones, as well as more practical ones, such as contributing to the economy and human livelihoods.

It is also based on a precautionary approach and, in my view, common sense. If a species is there, I am firmly convinced that it has a good reason to be.

Nature has developed over millions of years to produce the most favourable environment for us to live in. Before attempting to disturb the subtle balance on which we all depend, with unknown consequences, we should look carefully at what we have and know.

In fact, we still know very little of the diversity of life on our planet, but we know enough to get a global view of what is happening.

Almost a century ago, some "visionaries" sounded the first alarm bells. They have long been called "alarmists" but their predictions have slowly become reality.

Even today, when you tell the truth about the environment, many will deny the facts and try to block action; this will inevitably result in a bigger problem in the future.

Out of focus

We spend enormous energy and lose precious time by trying to demonstrate the obvious: wildlife in its integrity is vital for us.

Traffic congestion (AP)
Considering the competition between wild species and humans on a very crowded planet, one can ask if there is there room for both of us?

Instead, those who do not believe that, or think human ingenuity will solve all our problems, should be asked to demonstrate that they can live without nature.

For a very long time, conservationists have been portrayed as misanthropists, caring more for animals than other human beings. But human rights and preservation of the environment are complementary.

The environment should always be a key pillar of development aid. Humans and nature go hand in hand.

Nowadays, when the spectrum of an economic recession is looming in various part of the world, the fact that nature can sustain humankind freely is not the least of its benefits, especially for the world's poor.

There is increasing recognition of the services nature provides to us, such as clean water and healthy soils for growing crops. But considering the competition between wild species and humans on a very crowded planet, one can ask if there is there room for both of us?

There is no doubt that nature can survive without humans - and has done so, for the most part, since time began.

Humans surviving without nature is certainly not true so we have no choice but to find enough space for nature.

Despite the very limited knowledge of life on Earth, some people do not hesitate to claim that some species have no interest to humans, that we should sort them out and get rid of "redundant" species and eliminate "pests".

So should nature be preserved in its entirety, meaning all species? I say yes, without any hesitation.

Not a luxury

Almost all countries agreed at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, or through the Convention on Biological Diversity, that we should significantly reduce biodiversity loss as a means to fight poverty.

Nigerian market (Image: Daniele Perrot-Maitre/IUCN)
Farmers in Africa need healthy ecosystems to survive climatic shifts
Every day there is a stronger consensus that, without preserving nature, the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate hunger and poverty, provide education, or combat diseases, cannot be achieved.

This is, for me, a clear response. Nature is not a luxury; it should be preserved at all costs. However, we are still losing species, as shown by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

While many are not extinct yet, the Red List shows that many are slipping slowly towards extinction. We are witnessing a collective failure to meet these agreed goals.

In parallel, the good news is that we are documenting more and more conservation successes. It shows that a clear understanding of the problems and taking appropriate collective actions, nature can be preserved.

Increasingly, human overpopulation is recognised as the biggest challenge. The need to feed this growing population is increasing the pressure on nature.

Decisions will continue to be taken in a context of emergency and without appropriate thinking or incorporation of environmental considerations, as has been the case with the uncontrolled development of biofuels.

Our ability to live with nature can also be questioned. We hear that there are too many whales depleting fish stocks, too many elephants destroying farmers' plantations, too many tigers or sharks killing people, too many wolves eating sheep, too many mosquitoes transmitting diseases, too many frogs making noises, too many trees spreading leaves in our gardens; the list could go on forever.

Quantity and quality

The positive side of this is that we still have species to fight against. Once gone, will there be anyone else other than our neighbours to fight with?

Food being prepared
In 2050 the human population will stand at more than nine billion, with an increased demand for goods, so what does sustainable development really mean?

Species abundance is also important. We need large quantities of fish if we want to feed the world. We need enough pollinators and soil invertebrates to maintain food production.

We need a healthy population of prey to maintain predator populations. We need a large numbers of wildebeests in the Serengeti to attract tourists and ensure the fertilisation of the savannah.

The same applies to salmon, whose spawning migration is the basis of an entire food chain. Massive animal migrations or congregations of spectacular animals are the guarantee that tourists will see what they have paid to come and watch.

We need enough predators to control herbivore populations; Olive Ridley turtles ensure reproductive success by swarming beaches in mass to lay their eggs.

Wildlife is not just a question of diversity but also of quantity. The collapse of cod stocks in the northern Atlantic is the perfect illustration; cod can still be found but, for unknown reasons, the stock was never able to recover and can no longer sustain an economy.

In 2050 the human population will stand at more than nine billion, with an increased demand for goods, so what does sustainable development really mean?

Can it be achieved without drastic changes? Do we want nature to be confined in zoos and botanic gardens or isolated pockets where rich tourists could go and watch what once covered most of our planet?

Global changes and new emerging threats will not allow us to maintain this static model. Climate change, invasive species and diseases do not stop at the borders of national parks. The risk cannot continue to be evaluated by our decision-makers in terms of success at the next election.

Fortunately, it seems that showing a real commitment to the preservation of our planet is starting to pay off in political terms.

A return to more spiritual values and the findings of a study on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity might bring the key additional elements needed for a real push in favour of the preservation of the diversity of life and, more broadly, all forms of diversity on our generous planet.

Jean-Christophe Vie is deputy head of the IUCN Species Programme, and author of the book Le Jour ou L'Abeille Disparaitra..., published by Arthaud

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Jean-Christophe Vie? Do we still see the natural world as a way to make money? Is the world still failing to strike the right balance human needs against our dependence on the essential services the environment provides? Or is the idea of nature being preserved in its entirety little more than a pipe dream?

I am impressed by the logic and coherence of the arguments in the article. I do wonder though whether we can realistically revere the whole of the natural world equally regardless of species. Typically people love furry animals but hate spiders. I also ponder the question as to how we adjust to the idea that when a lion viciously (albeit necessarily) attacks a lovely deer it should be recognised as essential to the balance of nature, and yet abhore suffering in animals generally. I recognise what Mr Vie is saying but I feel that some of the consequences may not be easy to live with.
Philip S Hall, Northampton England

A recent seizure of Ivory in Kenya - albeit a small amount. Countries like China must do more to prevent demand for animal products - their people are stealing environmental resources from other nations, and ultimately from all of us.
JK, Nairobi Kenya

Humanity needs to focus on culture and good quality of life rather than breeding to fill gaps in economies. It is difficult to get ahead in a money driven game without compromising good morals.
Nick, Wellington NZ

There is a matrix of life on the planet not to be confused with something that evolved into place to be favorable to people. People evolved just enough with the trappings of modern life and simple machines so they could adapt in almost anywhere by taking advantage of resources as they found them and altering the environment as they saw fit. Now it's nature's turn to turn us out if we persist in letting what took so long to evolve disappear overnight in the scale of things one by one, ten by ten and so on until it's done. Not too scientific I know but the end of a life and of a species is a very personal thing between all that came before and all that could have been. People should not make promises they can not keep and some species are sure to fall but there is time to change, not much but there is time to change none the less. Technology will catch up one day but it will never be able to put back what we so freely destroy. The sin will be complete when man takes credit for a world built up from what little is left of the natural world of God's creation.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

-- "If a species is there, I am firmly convinced that it has a good reason to be... Should nature be preserved in its entirety, meaning all species? I say yes, without any hesitation." -- Too bad this was not agreed before we humans appeared, eh? It amuses me the number of "evolutionists" who are so against evolution.
Tim, San Francisco, USA

When I read this article, Chief Seattle's letter to Government concerning the purchase of Native American's land comes to mind, a partial quotation of his letter is : " ... This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival." We are heading in the direction that Chief Seattle predicted, the end of living and the beginning of survival. Our population explosion is making a host of species extinct and quickly changing the climate and environment. Perhaps mankind can survive in spite of all the environmental destruction that we are inflicting on our planet, however is this the type of world we wish to give to our children and grandchildren. How short sighted is man where we value short term economic benefits higher than we value the long term environmental factors of our planet ? Generations from now when the wonderful animal species we have come to love are extinct and our descendants inherit a wasteland of a planet we will be remembered as the most selfish,and wasteful generation to walk the earth.
Joseph Kilmer, Upstate New York, United States

I literally weep over all the death humans inflict on the animal life of this planet. Everything wild is going to be killed, directly as a resource (eg whales), or indirectly through habitat loss. Or perhaps, too, as in the case of the Congolese mountain gorillas, through sheer, perverse murder. I have no hope.
Noah, Pittsburgh, PA (USA)

Everything in this world is interlinked. Your life would be very slightly different if the tree across the road was cut down. Society sees nature as being a seperate entity we dont need, I hope they learn before its too late. I wonder how many people who agree with this story try to do anything about it? It has become a bit of a hobby of mine to grow trees and plant them around my area in an attempt to slightly increase any wildlife enviroments.
Kenny, Dublin, Ireland

We are failing to preserve the environment because we keep electing the wrong government who don't stand the Human Right to live well, who don't stand for preserving the Environment, who don't stand for animal right. In the article it is mentioned "In 2050 the human population will stand at more than nine billion, with an increased demand for goods, so what does sustainable development really mean?". My question is who the majority are in this nine billion. Are they Spanish, Black, or White. .either one???.. We need to educate our society/people not to have so many kids who can't afford to care for them. Be more responsible toward their family and toward their society. Therefore if everyone take the initiative to educate their young from the time of their youth to care for environment, to be responsible toward their actions, to have less kids, to be productive, and proactive, then the next generation may be saved. . .for us. . .there is no hope.
Bella Badegarshomali, Orlando/ Florida/ USA

We must not discuss the problem beyond of its mistake but we must take action and solve the situation at hand. Taking action will work itself out as long everyone cooperates to save the mother nature. Businesses and Politics strive for more money and more land, but the others can still stop this nonsense and stand up for what is right.
mario torres, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (United States)

"is the idea of nature being preserved in its entirety little more than a pipe dream?" Of course it is; it's a contradiction in terms. Even nature doesn't preserve, it lets chaos reign, which results in constant changes of balance. As for all the misanthropes here who predict unending disaster through overpopulation, I suggest they look more carefully at what happens when people are brought out of poverty, given an education and allowed to flourish. The birth rates go down - often to negative levels (witness much of Europe). The planet can support many billions more yet, provided we employ technology rather than religion to solve our problems.
Jon Anderson, Farnham UK

These are difficult times. The winds of change seem to be creeping into every facet human life (our politics, our communities, our personal lives, etc.) Everything seems to be hanging in by a thread and between the wars, the fear, and the stubborn greed, things appear so dire to those who pay attention and feel with their hearts and not their pocketbooks. I wonder if every generation has felt times like this. Emminent doom creeping around every corner, hordes of nay-sayers and revelations and profecies comming to the fore. While I feel sustainable communal living and proper respect for our environment is paramount to our survival and wholeness as individuals. I also realize that such things mean great sacrifice in peoples personal lives and the loss of many of the conveniences prior generations have worked so hard to gain. There are too many people who are absolutely unwilling to compromise even the slightest possesion or convenience for which they feel they have had to work so hard to gain for simply possably saving a species or two or preserving resources. These people will fight for they think they have. And as a global community, no country is willing to risk "falling behind" in the apparent race for supremacy and control, in the name of returning to the Earth and simple, sustainable living. Those of us who feel the call to preservation must lead by example and start taking control of our lives and finding ways to make our technologies and ingenuity work for the Earth AND humanity as a whole, not against it. There is a movement, a change, and it appears to be global. Those who feel, and those who can not. In my humble opinion, we have enough work that needs to be done, war only serves to set us back.
Richard Green, Phildelphia, PA, USA

I find it very encouraging that virtually all of the comments are highly supportive of wildlife conservation. So why are governments still failing to do anything serious about it? Because they still see conservation as low on their scale of political priorities. We need to make biodiversity a top priority when we vote, when we go shopping, and during all the other choices we make each day, all of which have knock-on effects on the biosphere. Otherwise there won't be much left for our children and grandchildren.
Ben, Cambridge, UK

Nature should be preserved and protected in its entirety for sure. Today's trouble is that genuine nature conservation is mired in confusion by clever words - often concocted by people who sold their sciences (PhDs) and conscience to economic paymasters. Here in Singapore (particularly at our Sentosa Island of recent) a new euphemism is borne out of the destruction of a coral reef - 'compensation measures'. It is word to accompany 'coral relocation' to make the resort-developers look like they are conservation-angels when they are not. I synthesized my feelings in this recent prose of mine here: I invite you to read it and make your own conclusion about the sad state of nature conservation. Thank you.
Joseph Lai, Singapore

Thank heavens - after waiting 14 years; wondering if anyone would ever think it through; finally a whole web page of smart people - not quite the other 6 billion people understanding it yet - but a start These people must be fellow dog walkers; there is nothing quite like ambling along following a swishing dog tail; to look under rocks, and hedge rows, and see all this life, in all it's diversity and wonder "how on earth did it learn to do that ?" We need all of it; every little creeping slimey little scrap of it; and we need all of it healthy, and thriving. We have lost the plot to life itself. So, page of smart people; how can we get the other 6 billion to take the dog for a walk, and look, and see, and wonder "how on earth did it learn to do that ?" We need all of it; because we are part of it. We must tell them; show them; explain to them how to figure out what it means; or we will tumble and die. Thank you Steven
Steven Walker, Penzance

A recent example is the talk of destruction of even more forests to grow "fuel crops" - yet another example of destroying habitat, which in turn means the loss of amazing creatures, which humans will then "heroically step in to retreive from extinction". Humans have to learn to leave the planet alone, it is not our 'toy' to destroy.
rachel, oxford

"We have grown in number to the point where our presence is perceptibly disabling the planet like a disease." No longer is it clear that technology, so often cited as means of maintaining growth, isn't ecologically counterproductive and fostering a population bubble that must sooner or later burst. The charm and the curse of the population debate is that one must inevitably return to the subject of fruit flies. When a female finds a pile of rotting bananas, she lays her eggs and the population explodes. When the bananas are used up, the population crashes. Some females find another pile of fruit, and the process starts over. "Our problem is we only have one pile of bananas," Ehrlich says. At the centre of all environmental problems lies the fact that there are TOO MANY humans on the doesn't matter what there lifestyle is.........because you cannot have exponential population growth using limited resources. You don't have to be a scientist to understand that. So why is it an issue that no-one will address practically. We have taken ourselves outside of nature's immediate controls, but we have only one planet that can sustain human life. Spend your space and military budgets on making sure it can still do that. Population will come down whether we plan it or we collapse because of it.........surely it is more sensible to plan it.
J Robinson, Cumbria, UK

When the rivers dry and the animals die, we will realise that money cannot be eaten.
Alex, London

I'm getting to be an old man, and a grumpy old man at that. Do we agree that freedoms are no good without responsibilities? Let's say yes. So let's put an end to this "Go forth and multiply" nonsense somehow before we end up in a fecund cesspit of our own making. A world full of pullulating human beings and nothing else, fauna-wise? Unthinkable.
Edward Freeman, Nairobi, Kenya

Clearly, Variola, the smallpox virus and Yersinia pestis, the plague virus had good reason to be there. If you doubt this, stand up and look around.
D. Kinslow, Phoenix, AZ, USA

In my opinion this is the time suiting aspect and really the wildlife conservation is the most suffering aspect of the current time.So, this type of awarness providing notes ovbiously keep higher importance in relation to the promotion of the wild life .Wildlife destruction is the major problem which is coming forward in the current years.The wildlives, if not rehabilated in time it is certain that world will undergo a serious problem which may lead to the nature destruction and the exploitation of we humans too.The irregularities in this nature that we are facing time and agian is the root factor of the wildlife destruction.So,in conclusion i would love to give a example here,The chain which we wear in our neck losts if a single part of it breaks,isn't it?And here same is the case with our nature too,all the natural aspects in our nature are also bounded like a chain in our neck if a single aspect get disturbed or affected the overall nature and the natural aspects also get affected and finally whole ecosystem will be vanished including we humans too.Meanwhile there is the extreme need of the wild life conservation in the persent regard. Here we people are enjoing the natural sources continously but we are not focousing on the fact that, What is the source of our enjoyment?,Up to where we will be getting these sources?What will happen if these sources end?And so on.So,the wildlife problem will end only we people understand these questions.Each and every people must be rational in relation to the consumption of the natural aspects ...........
Leeladhar Joshi, Dhangadhi,Kailali,Nepal

Jean-Christophe Vie is correct when he states that many people believe the relationship between humans and nature is one sided, while it is in fact highly interactive. All around the world there is evidence of our relationship with nature. The destruction of the world's forests, the over fishing of all the world's seas and oceans, and the constant use of destructive pesticides are only a few of the environmental atrocities we commit for cash. Across the planet there are people who believe that nature's whole existence is to serve human wants and needs. It is because of these arrogant people that the natural occurrence of climate change is being accelerated today.
William Chase, Dacula, Georgia, the United States of America

Yes, I agree with everything. And I wish there was something I could do.. or that his words, and other people that want to protect our earth's words could be headlined in the news...That The media should focus on informing this society on what is going on, and what we need to do. And that we have to keep reminding people. THIS should be headlined, NOT paris hiltons new perfume line. I dont think people will ever listen.. untill we are starving, flooded, and diseased.. maybe thats when they will.
Sarah, Hamilton, On

Nature should be preserved in its entirety. It is the matrix that makes life possible. People do not fill a niche in the role of nature any more. We make it suit our needs but casually alter it with out thought to what that change does to everything it connects to. People do not pollenate, they do not fertilize, they do not prune. Where do the behaviors of driving cars or making movies or cultivating vast monoflora crops impact the process of nature positively? Overpopulation is the key problem and no one wants to talk about it because they are all afraid that if we start setting standards on who can live in a limited population that they or someone they know will be on the wrong end of the scale. Humans are the only species on the planet that keep their failures alive. That which is alive has a chance to reproduce. How much failure can humans afford to reproduce as we use more and more resources. Smallpox killed people who were both capable and incapable. It was indiscriminate and frightening but it kept human population in check. What keeps humans in check now? Not much if there are 3 billion people on the planet.
Bryan, United States

As we human beings, we must realize we to are animals, and part of a greater ecological picture. It is our responsibility as "intelligent beings" to make decisions that will benefit all life on earth together, as opposed to only human interests. Our anthropocentric view of Earth is incorrect. This is not exclusively our planet, and in fact, we are the only organism that most ecosystems would do better without. The world without its many creatures would be a lonely and desolate one, and though the lineup is long for extinction, we as humans do have a place in it. Once the foundations are gone, we to will fall.
Evan Sztricsko, Canada

Agagooga from Singapore is raising a good question about the right to eradicate the Smallpox virus. It appears already less simple than let's save all the creatures of the creation like Noe before the deluge. Well let's make it even more complicated, is a piece of DNA or RNA really a living organism ? Even if we consider it is, I heard they contributed to our and other's genome evolution. Because that's right, things evolve... Let's not forget that the last great massive extinction, among which the dinosaurs, let our mammalian group develop and human spices appear. It seems the best we can hope now the latest great spices exstinction has been initiated, is to be like sharks or crocodiles. Because they were swimming around the dinosaurs and are still here today biting human flesh, probably finding it of bad taste and very recently full of trans fat. Let's forget dogma and have a really close look at nature history.

Hofstetter, Boudry, Switzerland

Even pests have their place in the environment. As I see it, they act as population control by becoming more of a threat as a population expands. Greed has been a problem when evaluating the environment. If it won't make money, people often don't care about it. The recent advances in sustainability have largely come about due to the marketability of new technologies. I hope humans can one day embrace nature and take care of it, but it's a bleak prospect at this point.
Sanjay, Winston Salem, US

Jean-Christophe Vie is correct that if a species is there it is has a good reason - it is a link in the network of dependencies of which we are a part. The human species is sat on top of a "house of cards" of interdependent species, and we're gradually knocking out cards one by one at an alarming rate. Let nobody be surprised when we come crashing down. 9 Billion people in 2050... perhaps none in 2150?

Leyton Williams-Davies, Pontypool, Wales

I believe humans seek for happiness using the wrong models, we believe to be seperate from nature and we have lost the ability to understand our connection to our environnement. Yesterday's cycles of seasons and the concept of been human on earth have shifted to been a consumer/worker in cities, nature been just a ressources for food or leisure. We do not need to go back to old models, but design together the new ways to be here on earth. It's all about what we will propose to kids as the model...
Pascal, Switzerland

"If a species is there, I am firmly convinced that it has a good reason to be... Should nature be preserved in its entirety, meaning all species? I say yes, without any hesitation." He was probably against the eradication of the Smallpox virus
Agagooga, Singapore

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific