Imagine that you and a small group of conservationists must decide which lifeforms are most important to save from the brink of extinction. It’s a horrible task to be given; the extinction of any living thing is a tragedy and could cause immense damage. The web of biodiversity that connects ecosystems with their inhabitants, and predators with their prey, means that any single small alteration to the food chain or change in an environment could cause a ripple effect that might destroy that ecosystem entirely. Thankfully for students at a recent Berkeley Connect ESPM meeting, the stakes were purely hypothetical. Nevertheless, mentor Allie Byrne wanted students to take a swing at making the kind of tough decisions that conservationists face every day.
Each student picked a lifeform then joined a group of eight to decide the relative importance of each one. The exercise required students to assume that every creature was on the brink of extinction. Students picked a wide array of animals and plants ranging from grizzly bears and African elephants to eucalyptus trees and coral reefs.
The first rankings were based on how each group viewed the importance of their selections with no specific guidelines. Students discussed a variety of angles, with some highlighting the importance of oxygen production while others focused on preserving biodiversity. Ultimately, students tended to prioritize animals over plants in their final rankings, with one group ranking the preservation of polychaete worms as the highest priority due to their importance on the food chain for marine life, followed by grizzly bears and African elephants for the ecological role each plays in its habitat. The bottom of their ranking contained magnolia trees, roses, and avocados due to their comparative lack of importance to any particular biosphere. The second group of students prioritized coral reefs, gray wolves, and bats as the most important. UC Berkeley students may be dismayed to find out that squirrels ranked second to last in this group’s rankings!
After justifying their choices, students were assigned a new criterion: Economic importance. This changed many of the rankings significantly, with roses and avocados now topping the first group’s rankings. Japanese cherry blossoms shifted from least important to second most important in the other group, though coral reefs remained the most highly prioritized due to tourism and ocean sustainability.
The final criterion was just for fun: Ranking each set of lifeforms by their cuteness. This time, squirrels finally topped the rankings for one group while roses remained high on the list of the other group. Sadly for the polychaete worms, they came in dead last.
Despite being a thought experiment rather than a real conservation effort, this exercise did a great job of demonstrating how drastically different prioritization of a plant or animal can be depending on what framework is used. These conflicting angles make it all the more difficult to make the sorts of momentous decisions that are required of conservationists, governments, and NGOs. This “conservationist for a day” activity is a great one to do by yourself or with others, as it offers a starting point for important dialogues around environmentalism and conservation.