The Threatened World of Nature

Raymond F. Dasmann

Given at Berkeley, California, April 29, 1976

What are we talking about when we speak of a threat to the world of nature? We could go into a long polemic about what is natural and what is not, and whether humanity is or is not a part of nature. I am talking, however, about three types of entities: first, wild species of animals or plants, second, wild communities or ecosystems, meaning those that are essentially self-sustaining and not much modified by human activity, and, finally, those human societies that have developed with and live in a dynamic balance with wild species and communities.

Status of Wild Species and Communities

What is meant by threatened, or endangered? For certain species this may easily be comprehended. The California condor, with a population ranging from 30 to 60 individuals, is clearly endangered. Without complete protection we would expect the species to disappear in a relatively few years. Even with protection it is not secure since small changes in climate or other processes affecting its habitat could obliterate it. Endangerment is less obvious with those species that are relatively abundant, such as some of the great whales. However, we say that they are endangered because with existing rates of exploitation their numbers and rates of increase are insufficient to maintain populations at a level where they are secure. The), probably would not be endangered if the rate of exploitation were drastically reduced. When we say that tropical rain forests are on the way to becoming endangered, we are saying essentially that relatively undisturbed primary rain forests are undergoing severe alterations and that, if this continues, we will be unable to find any large areas containing the full combination of plant and animal species arranged in patterns characteristic of primary rain forests.

Such information does not mean that tropical forests of one kind or another are necessarily in danger of disappearance, although this may be true in some areas. It does mean that the old primary forests are on their way out under the kinds of pressures to which they are now being subjected, since once they are severely altered their rates of recovery are slow, and they may in fact be considered as nonrenewable resources under the conditions that mankind has been creating. Among human societies the threat is to the fragility of most ecosystem-dependent, traditionally directed human cultures when faced with the overwhelming impact of the prevailing global cultures. When habitat, religious beliefs, or social patterns are shattered by outside impact, the society falls apart even though some of the people may survive.

I could spend much time going over the extent to which the natural world is threatened. It is a task of IUCN to maintain some surveillance over the status of wild species and communities. We usually find that results of field surveys show the situation to be worse than we expected. To give a few examples, we maintain the United Nations List of National Parks and Equivalent Reserves. There are approximately 1200 protected areas that meet the standards of that list, and some of them, such as the Greenland National Park of 80 million hectares, are very large areas. However, this year as a result of various surveys we are finding it necessary to remove more areas, which we had previously thought to be well protected, from the list, than we are adding to the list in the form of new areas where protection has improved. Lack of protection, new development plans, and the continuing pressures of population lead to a steady attrition of national park systems in many parts of the world. Secondly, we maintain the world Red Data Book of threatened species, but we find that the status of few species is ever improved enough for them to be removed from the book whereas each year a number of species must be added. We also know that our lists are incomplete and likely to grow at a more rapid rate as more information becomes available. The situation is particularly severe in many, if not most, of the Third World countries - so much so that we tend to treat North America and Europe as relatively secure. But as you know nature conservation is not assured - not even in California.

Perhaps equally disturbing is the decline in wildlife abundance. We are rapidly losing the great wildlife masses that once were taken for granted - the great game herds of Africa or Asia are examples. We are also losing the sight of seemingly endless vistas of undisturbed forest or grassy plains inhabited by their full complement of native fauna and flora. The species may not be endangered, but the feeling of wilderness has gone, and with it the teeming vitality that once in past centuries made the world of nature seem secure against human intervention. Where I am living in Switzerland this seems particularly relevant, for with the exception of high mountain rocky areas, there is nothing resembling wilderness. I can drive out into the managed forests and recreation areas in the Jura Mountains, less than 30 minutes from the towns that ring Lake Geneva, and soon be walking among roe deer, foxes, and a great variety of smaller animal life. Yet the feeling of wildness has mostly disappeared; there are none of the massive mossy forests of the past and most of the larger and more spectacular animals (wolves, lynxes, bear, red deer, ibex, chamois) are either not there or uncommon. Those species that have survived are secure; conservation is effective, but too much has been lost for a person from western America to feel at home.

Characteristics of Endangered Species

What are some of the characteristics of species that cause them to end up on the endangered list? First of all seems to be the characteristic of endemism and isolation. Certainly the largest number of endangered species, as well as extinct species, are common to oceanic islands or those isolated islands on land such as high mountains. Secondly, we find that among animals, and to some degree also among plants, those species that congregate in large numbers are more vulnerable. Good examples are the pack or herd animals, and the colonial-nesting birds. Species that live in small groups or occur as isolated individuals are more secure. The presence of large numbers of anything in any one place causes people to consider ways of exploiting such an accessible potential resource. Thirdly, with the larger animals at least, the inhabitation of open areas in which the species are highly visible is especially detrimental. Species of the deserts, grasslands, or open mountain environments occupy a much longer space in the endangered lists than those of forests or scrublands. This situation has developed particularly since mechanized transportation has become generally available. A fourth characteristic is certainly a genetic rigidity in relation to either habitat tolerance or behavioral pattern. If a lion could just forget that he is the "king of the beasts" and behave like the cougar, the species would have a more secure future. A fifth is the inhabitation of specialized but relatively well-known and accessible habitats, among them rivers, lakes and marshes. My list is hardly exhaustive, but certainly the final and most fatal characteristic for a species or biotic community is to exist in an area of rapid human population growth, or one in which a rapid rate of conventional economic growth is a social goal.

Species that inhabited Europe, North America, Australia, and similar areas of the so-called developed world, went through a high period of vulnerability during the period of European settlement and expansion of human populations and economy. Many became extinct. Now a species can be considered unfortunate if it lives in those Third World countries where the pressure of human population is great, or where the governments are committed to a European-American pattern of rapid economic growth and are falling for the promises of quick financial returns.

Are we w inning or losing the nature conservation game? To me the evidence is overwhelming that we are losing it. Not only are we losing it, but the rate at which we are losing is accelerating. It is not that we are not trying to win. We spend money in large quantities to create national parks, provide wardens or equipment to protect species, or capture and transplant them to new and hopefully more secure areas, to train professionals in the field of wild land or wildlife conservation, and to influence policy concerning conservation. Yet we all feel we are losing ground. Why are we losing? We all know the conventional answers: the rate of human population growth 4 billion people increasing at 2 percent a year - is putting a growing strain on all of the earth's resources. Simply providing food, clothing, housing, and energy for these numbers is an overwhelming job which leaves little time or space for worrying about nature conservation. While there is truth in this, it is what I consider a globalist answer to the problem. A globalist is a person who looks at the world as though he lived somewhere else - in outer space pet haps. He reaches down and takes samples, gathers statistics, analyzes them, and then diagnoses what is wrong with the planet from this evidence. I think, however, we should get a little more involved.

Conservation and Tradition

Part of the problem is that those who are concerned with nature have tended to follow a traditional conservation approach. The traditional conservationist narrows his vision down to those wild species or areas that are of interest or concern to him. Whether he is a professional expert or an enthusiastic amateur, his visual scope is limited. He may find plenty to do in studying the nesting habits of ducks or the behavior of deer without any confrontation with people who are determined to drain duck marshes. He probably likes to be respectable and acceptable to governments and to the Establishment, and welcome in good society. He does not like to raise embarrassing issues, since he feels dependent upon the support of rich people or the government. He certainly does not question the System - the political/social/economic basis on which his country operates. He may get along quite well as a fellow professional or club member with those who are destroying most of the natural world, since his demands are limited, and of course he recognizes "economic necessity," the needs of the "real world."

This separation of conservation from so-called real life may be associated with a feeling of detachment from the conservation issues themselves. The tradi-tional conservation professional often puts in his 8 hours a day, gathers his information, prepares his reports, turns them over to the appropriate agency, usually the state or national government, and expects them to act. When he goes home in the evening he becomes just like his neighbors - consuming excessive amounts of energy, wasting raw materials, living the conventional life of his society. The traditional conservation amateur may spend some spare time in the field and join in the pressure on government to do something about the issues which concern him. The rest of the time may be spent perhaps in the world of business, doing things contrary to his avocational interests, and cer-tainly his life style is not likely to be markedly different from that of his neighbors. The idea that conservation is a total way of life has usually not occurred to the traditional conservationist. Conservation is considered the responsibility of the powers that be - the city, county, state, or national government.

Admittedly the traditional approach to conservation has produced results. It works well enough when there is space enough and time, and when areas can be set aside, or worthwhile laws enacted, which do not really threaten any major vested interest. When space and resources become more scarce and the pressure to exploit grows more intense, the nice guy, fellow professional becomes less effective. Admittedly it is easier for a conservationist to put on the protective coloring of the society so that he can mingle more easily with those whose attitudes or policies he is trying to affect. It is difficult, in our society, to wean oneself from the prevailing ways of doing things: eating junk food from the supermarket, wasting energy, wasting raw materials, consuming unnecessary trivia that the market is pushing at us daily. I am a gasoline junky still, although I know it is not right that I should be burning up the highways going from here to there, but it is hard to kick the habit. Besides, if you try to live the kind of life that all must some day live if humanity is to survive, you are soon labeled an ecofreak, and respectable people surely do not pay attention to such creatures.

Ecosystems and People

To dig a little deeper, we could look back to a period when conservation was really effective. This was long before the word conservation came into use and at a time when the thought that nature might become endangered never entered a human head. In Africa, the South Seas, most of Latin America, and Southeast Asia - throughout what we now call the Third World - just two centuries ago most people were what I call ecosystem people, that is they lived in communities that were dependent upon and in harmony with their local ecosystems. Indeed, even in North America two centuries ago most areas were inhabited by ecosystem people. Ways of life had been developed that were sustained over thousands of years without serious destruction of nature. These ways of life were reinforced by religious belief and sustained by social practice. People did not consider themselves apart from nature. The species with which they were associated were viewed with reverence or respect; they were not regarded as resources or things. The result was that when people in these areas were "discovered" by European civilization they were living in the equivalent of what we now would call national parks. The impact of European civilization upon these traditional cultures was totally destructive. Millions of the indigenous people died. Thousands of societies and cultures were totally shattered. At the same time the attack on the natural world began and has continued to accelerate.

To compensate in part for this destructive cycle, the modern conservation movement has come into existence in recent years. This activity usually has its beginnings at the national governmental level, and may or may not filter down to the people. It involves the setting aside of protected areas, the passage of laws to protect species, and the establishment of agencies, based usually in the capital. People who once did a reasonable job of protecting nature on their own are driven from the areas that are set aside for nature protection, and naturally enough often take to poaching on the lands that they once considered their own. It is usually a fairly brutal, insensitive approach to conservation that take little account of the needs or wishes of those people who ultimately will be responsible for deciding whether the system will continue.

One wonders where we got off the track. Europeans were once ecosystem people too. They were a part of their natural world. Writers such as George Leonard and Lewis Mumford have traced the trouble back to the rise of those types of civilization, in Egypt and the Middle East, in which people and other living beings were for the first time treated as things to be exploited. Attitudes changed from an I/thou relationship to an I/it basis. These civilizations became means for the material enrichment of a few in one area at the expense of people and resources in other areas. They were not dependent on a single ecosystem, since through political, military, or economic pressure they could harness the people and resources of many ecosystems to add to the material wealth of the exploiting power. In such civilizations, you may recall, conservation of wildlife was a prerogative of the king, who maintained his hunting preserves, and no an activity of the many. This way of life has obviously continued and spread, in one form or another, up to the present day. Now the dominant cultures, far from being dependent on the resources of a single ecosystem, can draw on the resources of the entire biosphere. They are able to centralize wealth in a few places through exploitation of people and resources throughout the world.

At the present time there is certainly reason to question whether conservation can ever be anything except a trivial sideline in political/economic systems which are geared to continued economic expansion and to a growing consumption of material and energy resources, and have as a central concern the enrichment of those who are in favorable circumstances within it. The further irony is that these kinds of biosphere-exploiting systems, and there are capitalist and socialist varieties, apparently are following a course that cannot be sustained and must be modified, since the continuation of present trends would lead to exhaustion of energy and material resources, both living and non-living. Yet, unless this modification comes relatively soon, it will be too late for many species and perhaps for restoring man) natural communities upon which the continuation of many possible human ways of life would depend.

What are the ways out of this dilemma?

Ecological Responsibility and Involvement

To begin with, I believe that we must restore the sense of individual responsibility and involvement, and get away from the idea that conservation is the responsibility of somebody else - the federal government, the state, the corporations, the rich. We must each face up to the need of developing an ecologically sustainable way of life; we need to look at our patterns of consumption and behavior and shed those practices that contribute to the continuing destruction of nature. This is easy to say but incredibly difficult to do in a society which is oriented toward consumption, ever-growing material enrichment, and waste. I certainly have not succeeded in abandoning all my bad habits, but it is more difficult for people who have grown up in my generation since our bad habits are mote deeply ingrained. But without that total involvement, words become meaningless. The rain forests of Indonesia are not being cut down because the Indonesians have an incredible appetite for wood. The wood and other forest products are being sold to us, to Japan, to countries in Europe and to other developed nations. If we stop buying, the Indonesians will stop cutting, or at least greatly reduce the rate of destruction, and start thinking of other ways to use that land. We are not facing a petroleum shortage because petroleum is evaporating. Stop burning it up so fast over here and the resource may last a very long time. How much rain forest would we save if we stopped eating bananas?

Part of the individual change that is essential is the need to stop thinking of living beings as things to be manipulated or exploited and recognize that they are partners in a community of fellow beings. We must start trying to develop that "reverence for life" that Albert Schweitzer called for long ago. When dealing with nature we need to lose some of our much-vaunted objectivity (which is useful only for certain purposes) and develop a greater subjectivity, empathy, feeling. This does not mean we stop using plants or animals for food, but it does change the approach that we have to the process and begins to prevent gross excesses.

A third step for those who are in a position to do it, and not everybody is, is to find like-minded people and start developing ecologically sustainable communities, communities that can gradually become unhooked from the waste-and-pollution-producing systems that prevail in the society at large. In such communities one must use the tools and technology that are now available to develop alternative technologies offering greater promise for survival.

These are only beginnings, but they are essential beginnings. While they are going on, other things must be happening also. Obviously the government, the corporations, industries, and the consumer society are still there. They have to be influenced and changed so that the whole system begins to be turned around in ecologically sustainable directions. Throughout the nation what is needed is an increasing degree of local and regional self-sufficiency leading to self-sufficiency for the nation as a whole. I am using the term self-sufficiency in a relative sense. Total self-sufficiency would probably be pointless. There is no need to give up trade and commerce, or to cease consumption of things that are produced elsewhere, but there is a need to get out of a state of dependence on the exploitation of other people, places, and living communities.


It has been said repeatedly by the Third World countries that conservation can only be accepted if it is part of economic development. Conservationists have tended to agree, but we must qualify the statement by saying that conservation is part and parcel of ecologically sustainable development (ecodevelopment) and that is the only kind of development worth pursuing. For the industrial world this means redevelopment - in a sense, the redevelopment and resettlement of America. For countries that have not yet gone too far along the European- American path, the opportunity is available to follow a different one. They can start now with locally based, decentralized, people-oriented, ecologically sustainable development, which can enrich life for all and lead to a new dynamic balance between humanity and the natural world.

What I have been trying to say is this: conservation of nature cannot succeed unless we change the system and restructure society. Conservation of nature is an integral part of ecologically sustainable development, and from here on we must pursue ecodevelopment or redevelopment directions as quickly as possible. None of this will happen, however, unless there is first of all a change in the hearts and minds of individuals - you and me. The government is not suddenly going to become inspired to change the direction of society. We change first, and then we can begin to influence governments.

You may say that the job is too difficult and cannot succeed, that people are too resistant to change and unwilling to give up their present ways of doing things. However, the ways we have been following will not succeed, so we had just as well get started on ways that have some hope of success. None of us can speak for other people; we can only speak for ourselves. It may be that we cannot prevent catastrophes from happening to people and the natural world, but we can begin to set up survival centers so that at least those areas, people, and other living creatures over which we can have some influence and control have a chance of pulling through.

Finally, I must apologize to you. It has taken me a lifetime to learn some of the things I have been saying to you. Some of the people in this room who are 20 to 30 years younger than I learned all of this 10 years ago. I am obviously a slow learner, but I promise to keep trying. If I sound like a 1960's re-run, it is because that is what I am. Everything I have recommended here is already being done by some people, and their numbers are growing. Some of them are in this room tonight. This is what makes it so worthwhile to return to California.

Dasmann, Raymond F.

1975. The Conservation Alternative. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
1976. Environmental Conservation. 4th edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Leonard, George

1972. The Transformation. New York: Delacorte.

Mumford, Lewis

1970. The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Rozak, Theodore

1972. Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post- Industrial Society. New York: Doubleday.

Schumacher, E.F.

1972. Small Is Beautiful. New York: Harper.

Introducing: Raymond F. Dasmann

Those conservationists whose contributions are wide-ranging but incisive and constructive, invariably become world travelers and observers nowadays. The problems they deal with have assumed global significance.

Raymond Dasmann is such an ecological ambassador. Research and field studies have taken him to most of the areas of major ecological concern around the world. Dr. Dasmann is not merely a traveler in behalf of environmental affairs, however. He has done much in his modest and self-effacing way to pioneer and chart the course of present-day studies.

Dr. Dasmann is a native San Franciscan who enjoys returning to his point of origin as often as his duties permit. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Zoology from the University of California at Berkeley.

After completion of his college studies, he served with distinction in a number of academic posts, notably as Professor and Chairman of the Division of Natural Resources, Humboldt State College at Arcata, California (1964-1966). During these early years he was selected as a Fulbright research scholar for ecological studies at the Southern Rhodesia National Museum, and laid the groundwork for one of his outstanding specialties, the status and management of African wildlife.

In recognition of the breadth of his experience and knowledge of ecological matters, he was appointed Director of Environmental Studies and International Programs of The Conservation Foundation in Washington, D.C. and served there from 1966 to 1970. He is now Senior Ecologist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and National Resources (IUCN) with headquarters in Morges, Switzerland. He has also served as President of the Wildlife Society.

Dr. Dasmann has published several books and more than 100 articles on wildlife management, conservation of the environment, human ecology, and the economic value of African wildlife. His books include African Game Ranching (1963), Planet in Peril (1972), Ecological Principles for Economic Development (1973), and The Conservation Alternative (1975). His Environmental Conservation, now in its fourth edition, is an important and widely used text in the field.