Musings on triage and morality from my very comfortable armchair

I’m an armchair scientist. Literally. I’m sitting in an armchair right now, writing about science. But don’t discount me because of my choice of seating just yet. Wouldn’t you prefer me to be comfortable? Where else should I be sitting? On the ground outside in the harsh Canberra elements? Probably wouldn’t be very conducive to productive thought.

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Down to the serious non-squishy business: conservation triage. Triage in medicine is the system of prioritising patients based on injury severity and likelihood of survival. Applied to biodiversity conservation, triage is a hotly contested issue amongst conservation specialists – notably because it explicitly preferences some species over others. Conservation triage is criticised as being:

To me, it’s a debate between being morally upstanding and being pragmatic. To argue for conservation of all species – regardless of the costs, benefits, and likelihood of success – is to adhere to the moral principle that all living things have an equal intrinsic right to life. To argue for triage is to disregard this moral foundation, recognise the resource constraints on conservation, and make decisions accordingly.

I have an important bone to pick with triage naysayers. While this view of conservation isn’t particularly morally noble, should conservation be a matter of morality? If it is a matter of morality, management becomes problematic. Whose morals matter the most? We’d need triage of a different variety: moral triage. To manage species on the basis of what is morally salient runs the risk of prioritising societal and cultural opinions that are the loudest. As Clive Palmer has taught us, the loudest opinions aren’t always the most sensible ones.

But the bone still needs more picking. Aside from the intractability of using moral standpoints to decide on conservation management, overlooking triage as a conservation strategy has another problem. With limited resources, species are effectively prioritised over others anyway, whether this is an explicit decision or not (http://tinyurl.com/oxycydr). Without a transparent and objective prioritisation system, this kind of management can be subject to political expediency, a risk for species perceived to be non-charismatic.

There are notable arguments against triage. John Woinarski thinks that the analogy of triage is inappropriate because it was used to make quick decisions on battlefields, but biodiversity conservation is a long-term problem that requires a long-term approach (http://tinyurl.com/pcqdbf8). When I was thinking about this argument, I also considered the possibility for triage to make conservation very species-oriented at the expense of analysing natural systems holistically.

Triage done wrong could be devastating. But triage not done at all would be worse, wouldn’t it? It’s not contested that biodiversity conservation doesn’t have buckets of funding. Protecting every threatened species with limited financial resources would mean stretching ourselves thin to the point of futility.

We still need to talk about how we should triage, how we can make species prioritisation flexible according to evolving contexts, and how we can triage in a scientifically responsible way. But according to this armchair scientist, we should be using our limited resources to their best possible use to prevent further biodiversity decline, and that necessitates species prioritisation.

 

Bec DeCourcy

 

References used

Bottrill, Madeline C., Liana N. Joseph, Josie Cardwardine, Michael Bode, Carly Cook, Edward T. Game, Hedley Grantham, Salit Kark, Simon Linke, Eve McDonald-Madden, Robert L. Pressey, Susan Walker, Kerrie A. Wilson, Hugh P. Possingham, 2008. ‘Is conservation triage just smart decision making?’, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23, no. 12, pp 649-654. http://www.sciencedirect.com.virtual.anu.edu.au/science/article/pii/S0169534708002814

Marris, Emma, 2007. ‘Conservation priorities: What to let go’, Nature, 450, pp 152-155. http://www.nature.com/news/2007/071107/full/450152a.html.

Noss, Reid F., 1996. ‘Conservation or Convenience?’, Conservation Biology, 10, no.4, pp 921–922. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1523-1739.1996.10040921.x/abstract

Woinarski, John, 2014. ‘To save Australia’s mammals we need a change of heart’, The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/to-save-australias-mammals-we-need-a-change-of-heart-27423.

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About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to Musings on triage and morality from my very comfortable armchair

  1. nskhalfan says:

    Interesting post Bec. Sounds like a no brainer to me (also an armchair scientist – actually more like a bed scientist): if you have two species, A and B, each requiring a similar but large amount of resources to properly conserve, but A has a small chance of survival given these resources and B has a large chance, B is the obvious choice (all else equal of course) – it would be naive to attempt to save each one, effectively splitting the resources and risk loosing them both. And what about the opportunity costs of these resources; schools, hospitals, other conservation projects. Triage is a necessary part of all public policy choices – I would argue that efficiently allocating scarce resources is the most morally upstanding position and doubting this could only be immoral.

  2. Chloe says:

    Great post – I’d be interested to see examples of where triage works and where triage doesn’t work. As a first step, what do you see as ‘scientifically responsible’ triage? Is it based on threat level, on use to humans, on use to ecosystems, on individual value of a species?

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