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Tool Chests, Toolboxes, and Tool Belts

On Monday, June 18, 1883, “Darwin’s bulldog” made a big mistake. Famous for his pugilistic defense of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Thomas Henry Huxley played a prominent role in English society—and on this particular day he was delivering the inaugural address to the assembled representatives at London’s “great International Fisheries Exhibition.” Over twenty governmental entities, some as far flung as China and Tasmania, displayed their wares at the Exhibition, so this was no small honor for the great English scientist. Huxley’s mistake was to characterize ocean fisheries as “inexhaustible.” He has ever since been widely derided for that characterization—and rightly so, for the most part. But Huxley’s error casts a long shadow over something else, something altogether more hopeful, that he identified in the very same speech: the conservation toolbox. Huxley did not label it as such, and if he had, his terminology would likely have been something along the lines of “the conservator’s tool chest.” But when during his address he came to the topic of protecting salmon fisheries, he articulated the following conservation tools:

• construction of fish passes;

• an annual “close” time;

• predator control;

• artificial stocking;

• removal of pollution;

• prohibition of taking parr and smolts;

• restrictions on the character and on the size of meshes of nets; and

• license duties on nets and rods.

That’s quite a list, one that should be familiar to human fishers at both geographic ends of a salmon’s life cycle. The list does not, certainly, contain all of the tools available to today’s salmon devotees (watershed management being one that should jump out to contemporary conservationists). Nonetheless, what Huxley has come up with here is a conservation toolbox that contains many of the very same shopworn hammers and screwdrivers we’re using today. Seventeen years later, Europe would present the world—or at least, a part of the world that Europe considered its property—with another conservator’s tool chest. But instead of the plain wood box dragged up from the musty laboratory of a prominent scientist, this gold-and-silver treasure chest was paraded out of the grand hallways of European royalty. Specifically, in 1900, the English “Queen, the German Emperor, the King of Spain, the King of the Belgians (for the Congo State), the French President, the King of Italy, and the King of Portugal” had agreed to a treaty for the “preservation of wild animals in Africa.” In this treaty, they proposed the following tools:

• Prohibition of hunting

• Prohibition of hunting & destruction of young animals

• Prohibition of hunting & destruction of females

• Establishment of reserves

• Establishment of close seasons

• Hunting licenses

• Restriction of nets & pitfalls (hunting methods)

• Prohibition on hunting with explosives or poison

• Export duties

• Prevention of the transmission of contagious diseases

• Special measures (for elephants & ostriches)

• “Schedules” (appendices)

And there you have it: a terrestrial tool chest to stack on top of Huxley’s aquatic one. If it sounds too good to be true…well it was, inasmuch as the treaty never received enough ratifications to enter into force. But much more importantly, this document has PANIC written all over it—PANIC being a cute heuristic for patronizing arrogant neocolonial ignorant condescension. To oversimplify only a tad excessively, this early conservation treaty was intended to protect the animals for the benefit of the aristocrats. To give credit where due, the royals weren’t just trying to beat down the black African natives; they were also targeting their own lower class colonials—the folk who left Europe to make their way by whatever means possible, and who were far too self-absorbed to understand the importance of protecting high-class hunting opportunities. Although today’s conservationists decry this unfortunate legacy, its aura unfortunately and unfairly clings tenaciously to the very act of conservation (and supplies fodder to those who rely on labels of “enviro-elitistism”). But that’s a big story for another day. Suffice it to say that despite the 1900 Treaty’s human beneficiaries being decidedly point-one-percenters, the treaty nonetheless constituted a conservation toolbox whose tools remain readily familiar today. Here’s a critical question for our contemporary conservation community: To what degree do these tools assist today’s conservation community respond to the threat of climate change? This brings to mind a question that a prominent scientist recently asked one of my co-editors: “With so much of your recent book, Climate and Conservation, focusing on the dramatic changes that climate change will bring, why is there nothing new in the section of the book covering conservation actions or recommendations?” One might rephrase his question as: If the problem of climate change is as bad as you say it is, why are you looking into an old toolbox for solutions? It is a good question, one that most of us working on the broad topic of “climate change & biodiversity” grapple with incessantly. The first answer is that there is a new tool that biodiversity conservationists can and ought to wield against the threat of climate change: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, this “tool” fits into our traditional conservation toolbox in the way an industrial backhoe fits into a household toolbox. For those of us trying to conserve penguins, pikas, and polar bears, restructuring the global economy so as to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions…well, that’s a bit out of our league. We’re good with a hand shovel or bow saw, but we’re all just a bit too impractical, too wonkish, too geeky, or just plain too inept to have what it takes to jump in a bulldozer’s cab and start pulling levers. For better or worse, perhaps one exception to this is the conservation community’s focus on REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). Yet with all due respect to those working diligently and sincerely to make REDD work for the larger cause of reducing global GHG emissions…I can’t block out the image of fun-loving teenagers slipping into a construction yard to see if they can jumpstart the heavy machinery. Our critic’s point still stands: why did we write so much about the effects of climate change, and then pull out all the shopworn tools? Here’s the answer, as succinctly as I can put it. What we were arguing in our book—which, importantly, had the subtitle of Landscape and Seascape Science, Planning and Action—was that the most effective way of responding to climate change for biodiversity conservation is to confront and challenge our biological and normative assumptions about where that biodiversity is situated at the current moment. For if we ultimately cannot escape the juggernaut of higher and more extreme temperatures at regional and localized levels, then we should be thinking not about where species are now, but where and how they will (and will not) move across the landscape or seascape. It is our job as conservationists to use the tools at our disposal, but in a world with climate change we are going to have to use those tools in different ways—and, very likely, in unexpected places. We are going to have to reexamine why we are using particular tools in particular places, how much of those tools are needed, and how urgent it is that we rethink when and where we use any particular tool. But most importantly, what we need to do is reconceive the toolbox itself. Given how clunky toolboxes can be, maybe it’s time we stopped referring to a “conservation toolbox” and reconceived it as a “conservation toolbelt,” one that will immediately move around with us as we respond to the threat of climate change to protect biodiversity worldwide.