Peter Raven, noted botanist, environmentalist and president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, gave the keynote speech at this year’s ESRI International User Conference. Raven’s talk centered on the need for biodiversity and species preservation, and he praised the GIS toolset for contributing greatly in these causes. V1 Editor Matt Ball spoke with Raven following his talk on subjects ranging from population pressures, to species extinction, to the role of GIS to speed our understanding of nature.
Peter Raven, noted botanist, environmentalist and president of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, gave the keynote speech at this year’s ESRI International User Conference. Raven’s talk centered on the need for biodiversity and species preservation, and he praised the GIS toolset for contributing greatly in these causes. V1 Editor Matt Ball spoke with Raven following his talk on subjects from population pressures, to species extinction, to the role of GIS to speed our understanding of nature.
V1: In your presentation yesterday, you talked about your research, but also how conservation became a driving force for you. Can you talk a little bit about your personal transition as a conservationist?
Raven: Well, I was at Stanford University in the 1960s teaching, and Paul Ehrlich was a very close colleague of mine in the next office. Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, so we were already worried about pesticides. And during the course of the 60s, it became very obvious that the growth in human population was increasing.
One British physicist did a calculation in the New Scientist in the mid-1960s in which he calculated what year it was that the mass of human bodies would be speeding away from the surface of the earth if the current rate of growth kept up. So that made it obvious that population growth couldn’t keep up.
Population growth reached a maximum in percentages in 1971, and of course Paul wrote the Population Bomb with his wife, Ann, in 1969. As we thought about all of that, it also became obvious that those pressures were driving species to extinction at a more rapid rate.
Before that, it seemed that there was an unlimited reservoir of species, and it was simply a matter of going and seeing them. It seemed natural, in a 19th century point of view, that the world would be divided into cultivated natural places, a feeling that cities and natural areas would always be there. But as we went into the 1970s, it became obvious that wasn’t the case.
I traveled all over the country of Colombia in 1959 for two months on a student exchange. And then in the late sixties, I had a couple of very nice trips to Costa Rica. When I was in Colombia, I was reading it in the same way I was just describing, some parts were cultivated and some weren’t. By the time I got to Costa Rica, I was worried about this balance, although it still seemed much as if areas that were rain forest would stay rain forest and cloud forest would stay cloud forest.
The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, I would say, was the place where it first became clear that the world was all tied together and that people doing different things and living in different ways, and using various kinds of technology were reducing our natural areas rapidly to less interesting and less diverse areas, exterminating lots of species in the process.
V1: You’ve long been an advocate of biodiversity. How has our understanding of species types progressed over the years?
Raven: From the late sixties onward, I’ve been worried about the extinction of species. In the early 1970s, I worked on a report for the National Science Foundation on the future direction of systematic and evolutionary biology. One of our conclusions in that report was that systematic biology needed better laboratories in order to be able to do molecular work, which was then becoming an important adjunct to all other kinds of efforts. But the other thing that was really obvious was that people needed to work more in the tropics because they were far less known than the temperate regions of the world and they were going so fast.
A few years later, the National Science Foundation challenged me to prioritize the type of work that we should do in the tropics. So I chaired another committee, which was called Research Priorities and Tropical Biology. The report pointed out that tropical rainforest was going fast. And then we asked, “If it’s going fast, how many species are there?”
At that point, I calculated that about two-thirds of the species were found in the tropics and only one-third in temperate regions, but with about 1.4 million described species at that time, only about four hundred thousand were from the tropics. So, doing a back-of-the-envelope kind of calculation, I thought there might be one and half million in temperate regions and if there were twice that many in the tropics, then there would be something like four to five million overall. But, up until that point conventional wisdom that with 1.4 million known, there might be a total of two million or less.
So that put the problem completely out of hand, in a way, and it meant that the way we were describing species we would never get there. Species naming was based on a patient series of descriptions and catalogs that had been elaborated since probably the late 17th century, which is when the age of encyclopedias really began. At the rate species were being described, we can never know them all, and furthermore, it meant that for the tropics only one in six were described, or one in eight.
Subsequently, a man named, Terry Erwin, at the Smithsonian devised a method of fogging insecticide up into the canopy of tropical trees, to get a comprehensive sample of everything that was there instead of just an odd sample. On the basis of his samples, he calculated there might be 30 or 40 million species of beetles in the canopies of tropical trees in the new world tropics alone. So the number was even way beyond our estimates.
Before I take another attack on this, I have to add that even for those that have been described, we know practically nothing about the great majority of them. Because we have one individual, which might be in the bottom of a bottle of formaldehyde in the Smithsonian collection of some vaguely recorded locality in Brazil in 1880. So even if you got another and identified it as being the same as that one, you wouldn’t really be learning much, see what I mean?
So, that lack of biodiversity knowledge is a very serious problem, because habitats are being destroyed so rapidly that by the end of the century, presumably, no more than about five percent of tropical moist forest will still exist and tropical moist forest probably has half of all species on Earth. With increased fragmentation and limitation will come a whole lot of extinction.
V1: What pressures do climate change place on species?
Raven: Global warming is changing the world rapidly and eliminating habitats. If they do a projection, for example, for the next fifty years in South Africa, a lot of South Africa will be occupied by new habitats that don’t exist there at all now. A lot of the habitats that do exist will be reduced to tiny patches. So you lose a lot of species that way. Then you lose a lot of species by invasive aliens, by weeds, zebra muscles, invasive plants, rats, mice, you name it and diseases like avian malaria, which killed off all the birds and Hawaii or some node disease in California or what have you.
So species are ruined fast. If you look at it conservatively you could imagine as few as a quarter of all the species on Earth disappearing during this century, but if you look at it more aggressively, you could imagine three-quarters of them all disappearing. Nobody knows the real answer, but the real answer will depend on what we do. For a group like birds, where people go to huge efforts to conserve individual species and their habitats, the rate of extinction should be relatively low.
But one important thing that we concluded in the report in 1969 was, therefore, you couldn’t use the traditional approach, which you may characterize as enumerating everything and then beginning to find out about it’s characteristics and it’s relationships. If you wanted to know how tropical forests operated, maintained themselves and regulated the cycling of minerals and the flow of energy, you had to take that on directly.
You couldn’t build it up by getting all the species because we weren’t doing anything to get them fast enough. So we recommended, for example, establishing individual sites and doing the whole interconnected mass of species studies. If we wanted to know in a group of tropical trees whether their breeding systems and inter-relationships of species were the same as they were for temperate trees like oaks, or eucalyptus; you study to that directly. Again, you couldn’t just wait and assume they were going to be around and you could do it later, but also, of course, that the livelihood and the majority of people on Earth depended on those forests and those vegetations and those relationships between them.
V1: How can we better catalog the species?
Raven: I began thinking about this seriously in the fifties when we were working on folk taxonomy, which means the way people who don’t have written languages talk about kinds of organisms. We found that in a non-written language where people have to store an active knowledge of all the species that they want to communicate about in their brains, people usually recognize four to six hundred kinds of species and they don’t group them into hierarchical families or anything. You either know what it is or you don’t know what it is.
Then written language and particularly movable type took it to the next level where you could catalog, and deal with things encyclopedically. The mid-eighteenth century Swedish scientist who invented the system we use for naming plants and animals as genus and species, probably wouldn’t have tried to name them all if he knew how many there were, because it’s alarming. He, of course, was exploring them because of their economic importance partly and he devised a system for naming them where the name would stay constant. Before that, people use to make up new names every time they talked about them, which is pretty difficult.
When you could have encyclopedic knowledge, you could imply more information about the individuals units and you could condense information. So that went along and then, of course, starting in 1859 with Darwin’s theory of evolution then there began a reason why hierarchical system of classification, if it reflected evolution, would also be a summary of the characteristics of the organisms involved.
The problem with all of those, and the problem with language, in general, is that all the observations that you use for constructing the categories disappear when you construct the categories. The categories become reified, and that’s what you have. If I say, that fig is different from that fig, though they were different, I would have made relatively few observations, but once I said they were in different species, then all the background would be forgotten. Many of the characteristics would be forgotten and you put the whole emphasis on the fact that you got a different thing.
And of course you can extrapolate into language generally, which is to say the word, “friend” or the word “enemy” and what do they mean, or the word, whatever? They’re all relative and they’re all based on some extrapolation from some observations into a class and, of course, notoriously in human affairs, some of those generalizations are rather dangerous.
The next point begins to apply GIS in that once you can store your information in a database or in a multi-layer system of any kind, then you don’t need to lose the information. You can make whatever generalization you want whenever you want to make them, but you can also know precisely why you made them the way you did. So, if you skim through a tropical forest taking nothing but DNA sequences of individual organisms, it becomes kind of, relatively speaking, unimportant how you classify them, because you can deal with the data directly.
That really is a revolution greater than the printed word, because the printed word is an extension of a human mind, but the use of databases is a very complex extension of the human mind, which takes it to a new level. GIS is a practical spatially-oriented system that allows you to extrapolate to those levels, to keep all the information and to form generalities and to make predictions based on far more than your mind can comprehend or hold.
In a world where everything is going away so rapidly, this becomes very important as a way of deciding what to do, exploring what to do, and using it and applying it, rather immediately for various purposes rather than needing to crystallize it, over classify it, and then work with very clumsy generalities. That’s why GIS is so interesting and that, of course, is what we do at the garden.
I also want to mention a program called the Encyclopedia of Life. We’re one of the founding members of it and its aim is to put up a web page on every species that’s named, so it would expedite this whole process. The basic information is there on the first web page written in a popular way and then it goes back to deeper and deeper levels depending on what’s known.
V1: Are you working to georeference collections to know where individual specimens originated?
Raven: We have over three and half billion specimens in our database that have been referenced, but the biggest effort like that in the world is CONAVIO, which is the National bio-diversity institute in Mexico. They not only put in all the information from collections in Mexico, but they sent out teams out to all the museums in the world that have Mexican specimens, put them on the map and took images of them.
As a result of that effort and the information that they have, about ten years ago forest fires were burning all over Mexico, something like 300 active forest fires. They could immediately identify the three or four places where the most unique bio-diversity was being threatened and then people could go out and put out those fires first, preferentially. That’s just a very beginning image of what’s going to be possible in the future.
V1: There’s a growing interest in the idea of assisted migration, where some conservationists are suggesting that we may need to move species to other places in order to preserve them.
Raven: Botanical gardens, zoos and seed banks, in a way, may be the bridges that take things from one place to another. You can imagine with climate change that natural habitats might be completely eliminated, because obviously human beings are so thickly infesting the Earth that they even block pathways from migrations.
There’s an interesting model of that in the migration of elephant herds in Africa, the group at the University of Pretoria is radio-tracking elephants all over Africa and, of course, they follow big migration routes, they don’t just sit in one little national park. So, when you understand their movement around in Africa, then you can understand where you would want to build the villages or not build villages and things like that, so that you don’t build right in the path of the elephants.
There are about 300,000 named species of land plants, and there may be another 100,000 to go. Incidentally, the ones that we hadn’t yet detected and named are very often, by definition, rare and limited in distribution, so they’re very apt to be in danger of extinction without our ever seeing them. Probably seven out of ten of the organisms in the tropics are destroyed when an area of tropical forest is burned, and they will never have been seen or never given a name, which is kind of bad when you think about all human benefits possible. It’s very unwise, to say the least, to just kiss them off.
V1: It’s impressive that your work includes the preservation of species diversity for their benefits. Your species classification work is tied with a research arm that aims to find medicinal benefits from plants.
Raven: That area of our research focuses on the relationships of people with plants around the world, like how do rural and indigenous people use plants. Because that is not only extremely interesting and valuable, in it’s own right, but it presumably will convey a lot of clues as to how they might be used in a lighter framework.
V1: You were involved in the idea of a National Biological Survey back in the early 1990s.
Raven: The Secretary of the Interior at the time was Bruce Babbitt, and he asked that we do a study of how a national biological survey would be conducted. I chaired a committee that studied the issue very carefully. Interestingly the main political problem then was that the individual departments of natural resources in each state were afraid that if there were a natural biological survey, their funding might be cut off.
We were able to work through that. Then the different branches of the federal government like the National Park Service, didn’t want their money to be swept into a common pot. I thought we had that solved by making it clear that no database, which would be GIS layers of information really, could never answer the specific questions that were needed for specific areas. So every area in Yellowstone, for instance, would need its own detailed further information. We tried to maintain that there would be staffing and funding in those other units.
We proposed a dispersed, national database with nodes and different places with information, and regional information or information about different kinds of organisms. That actually came into being, and it’s now called the National Biological Information Infrastructure, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey.
The western congressmen didn’t like the idea of having a national database, so although Bruce Babbitt went ahead and put a lot of the funds that were in the Department of Interior together to try to launch that, congress broke that down and they ended up with low funding for the accumulative effort than there had been in the first place.
We’re very afraid of injuring property rights in the United States. It’s very ironic that Bruce Babbitt in a democratic administration proposed that private property rights be taken into account in the administration of the endangered species act and that people be able to get some guarantees when they were acting in good faith. And then the conservation organization shot that down.
When you think of the fact that a place like Texas has six percent public lands, any preservation of nature is entirely dependent on private interest. Babbitt’s suggestion was both wise and necessary if you really wanted to be able to preserve organisms and it’s a pity that people couldn’t see that. It’s like so many things in life, you can’t really get it done by brute force or central funding. There can never be enough central funding to do a lot of the things that we consider desirable.
V1: How optimistic can we be?
Raven: I’m very optimistic, but I’m optimistic because I think people can do a lot about it. If this group of people here that are involved in GIS, or the people involved in IT development, can surge on with such exciting and wonderful advances. And if the system, as a whole, can be so flexible as to re-combine and enhance our knowledge in such incredible ways, then I don’t see why we can’t apply that spirit to solving the worlds’ problems.
You have to understand where to push and where to pull in order to do. And how else could you learn better? I think the world is filled with exciting and interesting people, who when they understand the situation, will want to advance things. People by and large that use GIS technology don’t do it because they think the world is coming to an end. They do it because it’s interesting and useful and exciting and gives them a lot of answers about things.
The world population when I was born in 1936 was about 2.2 billion, now it’s 6.7 billion, and if you add to that the increased consumption that goes on, you realize what real trouble we’re in. But how do you back out of it, except by individuals. There’s no comparison between 2.2 billion people and 6.7 billion people so those who say, “We’re going to figure this one out and get through it, just like we always have in the past,” in my opinion, are nuts. The situation now is nothing like it’s been in the past. Somehow we’ve got to make the transition into a steady state.
We need leadership that can really seize on some of these new directions and bring them to the attention of the American public. We’ve got to find ways to do things that are necessary, and if we find ways, I’m sure we’ll be able to exhibit the will to make them come true.
In a number of ways, our grandchildren probably cannot enjoy a world as diverse and as interesting and rich and filled with opportunities as our world, but I’m perfectly willing to believe that it’ll be filled with other kinds of opportunities. And if we’re smart enough to keep a large part of what we have now — not just let it go down the drain because we weren’t clever to see alternatives or agile enough to see alternatives — then the world won’t be so bad.