Conservation Biology: On being close, but seeing far

While working on my master thesis, I sometimes have to do a small detour to see what is to find beside the  main road. My most recent detour was a philosophical one: Why and how do we want to «conserve» parts of nature? And how does the work we do every day actually relate to this objective? There is a saying in German, warning the listener:

«You can’t see the forest from all the trees».

I get a similar feeling sometimes working within conservation biology, but in fact: wondering about a small, descriptive detail (does this spider prefer this plant or that plant?) and using elaborate, complicated and computation-intense techniques to search for answers. And while being fascinated and concentrated, it is easily possible to get lost in details.


Now, as the «construction work» of my thesis starts, there opens this deep hollow again, which I have been facing before. What I was doing is pretty clear and straightforward. But why am I doing this? Besides finishing a degree and satisfying my curiosity?                 To people «outside» of ecology it does not seem always clear, more often rather fantastic or abstruse what we are doing here, when chasing spiders on behalf of conservation.

When browsing literature, the most common way out of that dilemma seems to be: Because…. «Biodiversity is important / crucial / of intrinsic value».

I find this seemingly last answer to (almost) any question somehow true, but mainly insufficient. I want to go back to the start. The start of conservation biology was not detailed and absolute descriptive. It was broad, philosophical and normative. But still, it is possible to anchor even a small and detailed work and to build a bridge between those antitheses, if one dares to be humble.

Beside curiosity, I believe that moral considerations, the wish to protect and conserve, are reasons for people to study ecology. The philosophical component might not come natural to everyone, even if it was the signpost to arrive here. But sometimes one might also ignore those questions, either to avoid a crisis of meaning, or because it is declared as boring, dusty, or already dealt with.


If you face this moment of crisis: It is not too bad. Go back to a bookshelf, probably you can find some help there. And the outcome of this crisis is usually priceless: If you are clear about your reasoning, why you are doing what you are doing, by walking a few steps back, it will be of great simplicity and beauty, to explain the «why». Even, if it is less glorious, but it will be more solid and transparent.

My first-aids are: 

  • Richard B. Primack’s «Essentials of Conservation Biology», which covers the whole topic of conservation biology.
  • Martin Gorke’s «The Death of our Planet’s Species», which leads the reader in a comprehensive way into environmental ethics and shows pitfalls, but also hopes and solutions.

Take a step out and enjoy the whole picture (and all those trees at once). 🙂







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