For decades environmentalists have been guided in their work by what became known as the “precautionary principle.” This decision-making guide was first put forward in environmental terms by pioneering naturalist and biologist Aldo Leopold in his landmark essay “Round River.”
His focus was the complexity of the environment.
“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” Leopold wrote.
This is the major logic behind the Endangered Species Act, the strongest environmental law ever written. For the United States to allow a species to go extinct it must go through an exhaustive process that is politically perilous.
Protecting all the parts was a daunting task before. But in the face of climate change that could dramatically transform or destroy ecosystems across the globe, it has become impossible.
With biologists predicting as many as 20 to 40 percent of all species could be lost in this century due to human-caused climate change, holding on to “every cog and wheel” may undercut efforts to preserve many ecosystems and their inhabitants that can survive the coming ecological bottleneck.
Making such choices isn’t easy nor should it be.Photo of melting arctic ice taken over Greenland last month from jetliner.(Rocky Barker)
I have reported scientists and other scholars saying we must be prepared to take risks to preserve the ecological treasures we value. This means balancing the need to reduce greenhouse gases with the need to protect biodiversity and other values.
Slowly a new principle is taking hold among a new generation of environmental thinkers. Leopold himself laid out the guide in his book “A Sand County Almanac” that I call the Resiliency Principle.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” he wrote. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
This resiliency principle was for Leopold the foundation for conservation choices. It could be the primary guide for the future.