Destroying species is like tearing pages out of an unread book, written in a language humans hardly know how to read, about the place where they live.

--Holmes Rolston III

Extinction is a natural process that occurs when the last of a species dies. Natural extinction occurs when an environment changes and existing species find themselves at a comparative disadvantage. The change can be caused by climate change, major geological events or natural disasters. Frequently, the extinct species are replaced by other species better suited to the new conditions. Natural extinction occurs constantly, but at a very slow pace, occasionally punctuated by periods of massive and rapid extinctions. Scientists are aware of five such periods of rapid extinction in the Earth's history, with the last occurring before the evolution of humans. Today, we are experiencing the sixth such wave of rapid extinctions, but this one is not from natural causes--it is man-made, or anthropogenic, in origin.
The Role of Economics in Wildlife Conservation

Many environmentalists believe that the discipline of economics is an enemy to the environment. After all, they often argue, isn't that what got us into this mess in the first place? Aren't economists the ones who keep telling us to be efficient at all costs?

Well, it's certainly true that western developed economies consume more than any other societies in history. Our growing populations and increased lifespans do put a significant burden on our environment. Continuing economic growth and increasing incomes are things we all desire, but we pay a price to achieve them. Most of us make choices every day about how we trade off consumption of goods against the environmental impacts that all consumption entails. You don't make those choices because an economist told you to; you make those choices because it is your natural behavior.

That is a key point in understanding the role of economics in any environmental issue. Economics is a study of human behavior; it is not the cause of it.

The Global Biodiversity Problem

One of the challenges that makes wildlife conservation policy so difficult is the global nature of the problem. Virtually all of the most significant sites for wildlife conservation are located in countries with the lowest per capita incomes in the world. Survival is often the thing most on the minds of people living in and near many of the most sensitive and important wilderness areas and it's easy to understand how the survival of species would receive less attention than human survival under these circumstances.

It's no coincidence, then, that the principle threat to the world's remaining species is the rapid rate of population and development change throughout the developing world. In contrast, the vast majority of people who strongly value the continuing existence of wildlife are lo-cated in the relatively wealthy industrialized nations.

It is disingenuous to blame people living in these countries for the loss of biodiversity. We must never forget that the major reason their wilderness is so important to conserving the world's biodiversity is that we in the developed countries have largely destroyed our own wilderness areas. Now we look to these countries to bear the costs of biodiversity conservation so that we may all enjoy the essential benefits and continuing survival that arises from these areas.

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Last Modified: 7/8/2015