A Focus On “Intended Consequences” To Drive Conservation Action
A newly published special issue of Conservation Science and Practice makes the case for rebalancing the risk–benefit equation in conservation.
Addressing the biodiversity crisis is at the heart of a new conservation initiative announced in today’s Conservation Science and Practice “Intended Consequences” special issue. This collection of articles written by experts in the fields of conservation biology, biotechnology, social science, and environmental ethics offers a framework for confidently tackling the world’s most urgent conservation problems.
“A singularly cautionary response to new technologies is no longer appropriate in the face of today’s biodiversity crisis. In many cases inaction will lead to more serious harm than action,” says Ryan Phelan, an editor of the new issue and Executive Director at Revive & Restore. The non-profit organization kicked off the Intended Consequences Initiative by convening an international, virtual workshop of the same name last June.
Intended Consequences comes at a time when organizations around the world are calling for action. The United Nations has declared this the “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration” and the theme of Earth Day this year is “Restore Our Earth”. But, as conservationists plan interventions to tackle bold restoration goals, they still hear the reflexive response, “What about the unintended consequences?” This question, while necessary to consider, puts the brakes on new solutions, and fails to address the risks of inaction and the potential benefits of well-planned interventions.
“Intended Consequences,” provides a deliberate counterweight.
“Given the severity of climate change and habitat disruption, bold actions are increasingly needed. This doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind, but we absolutely need to be clear-eyed about the consequences of inaction,” says Michelle Marvier, another editor of the issue and a professor in the Environmental Studies & Sciences department at Santa Clara University.
This new language—and the special issue—is meant to help people understand what new conservation interventions can accomplish if uncertainty is acknowledged and innovation is embraced. “Intended Consequences” advocates for keeping an eye on positive outcomes, the benefits for biodiversity, and working toward a future we want.
Several ideas were conceived for the workshop and then refined through discussion into the articles presented in this special issue. The articles (all listed below) examine this multifaceted issue from a broad range of perspectives and together they anchor the broader Intended Consequences Initiative.
“To make this work—to save critically endangered species using the powerful tools we are crafting—means not just that we make the case for proactive and innovative approaches, but that our approach is inclusive, fair, and ethical. This special issue addresses both imperatives, and creates a hopeful vision for conservation,” says Paul Robbins, an editor of the special issue and Dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which helped sponsor both the workshop and special issue.
The special issue is grounded with a call to action in the “Intended Consequences Statement,” a consensus document authored by 46 Intended Consequences Workshop participants.
Building on multidisciplinary discussions, the authors encourage working responsibly with emerging tools and technologies (from translocations and rewilding to biocontrols and genetic engineering) and they promote a framework that increases inclusivity and integrates lessons learned.
“All of these deeply informed people have come together to outline a responsible path forward,” says Michele Weber, an editor of the special issue and Revive & Restore Director of Conservation Innovation. “The statement is a powerful call to action and action is what we need, now more than ever.
Two case studies describe the efforts required to achieve Intended Consequences despite concerns about unintended consequences. Another article highlights the consistent patterns of successful interventions. A review of over 140 years of conservation history (Novak, et al 2021.) reveals that, unbeknownst to many, conservation interventions are typically successful and rarely result in harmful unintended consequences. The article describes how those familiar horror stories about invasive species that haunt our collective memories—like cane toads in Australia, mongoose in Hawaii, or Asian carp in North America—are not due to conservation interventions, but commercially motivated introductions instead.
Other articles question historical conventions that may be causing inaction, including the precautionary principle, an overreliance on the concept of ecological integrity, and the aversion to hybridization. Experts in sophisticated new modeling tools, social science, and policy contribute recommendations for responsible innovation and governance.
“We need to rethink and re-examine conservation’s precautionary orthodoxy, and realize that sometimes what is presented as judicious risk assessment is no more than a veneer over fear of change, and a desire to maintain the status quo. Given the severity of climate change, there is no status quo anymore,” says Peter Kareiva, an editor of the special issue and President and CEO of Aquarium of the Pacific and formerly Director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
The Intended Consequences special issue is open access, and freely available to the public.
“The field has demonstrated that we can intervene thoughtfully, safely, and successfully in nature to overcome challenges that our planet is facing. And making this information accessible to everyone is integral to building the initiative,” says Weber.
The conservation community, stakeholders, and the public are invited to review and sign the statement in support of Intended Consequences on the Revive & Restore website.
Revive & Restore is the leading conservation organization promoting the use of biotechnologies into conservation practice. Located in Sausalito, California, the non-profit was formed in 2012 with the idea that 21st-century biotechnology can and should be used to increase genetic diversity, build disease resistance, facilitate adaptation, and more.
The mission of Revive & Restore is to enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species. To achieve this, Revive & Restore takes on three distinct roles—convening experts, advancing research, and funding catalytic science. The group’s Catalyst Science Fund, launched in 2018 with a 3-year pledge from the Madison, Wisconsin biotech company Promega, supports transformative early-stage bio-science research and proof-of-concept projects. For more information visit: www.reviverstore.org/intended/special-issue
The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies builds partnerships to synergize and sustain excellence in the interdisciplinary research, teaching, and service that make the University of Wisconsin-Madison a world leader in addressing environmental challenges. We strive to create sustainable communities across complex institutional landscapes for enhancing the quality of life and the environment in Wisconsin and the world. For more information, please visit: https://nelson.wisc.edu/