Instead of assuming that people disrupt ecosystems, scientists are studying how we interact with the environment to learn how we can better sustain the planet.
Development and preservation have had an uneasy and frequently conflicting coexistence. During the past century, environmentalists more or less have looked upon humans as intruders into nature: Pristine wilderness areas must be protected from encroachment by civilization. More recently, social and natural scientists have been debating the concept of biodiversity.
Biologists argue that biodiversity -- maintaining an ecosystem's abundance of flora and fauna -- is essential for a healthy Earth. They have targeted human population growth, with its increasing demands on land and natural resources, as Natural Enemy No. 1. Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson, for example, has called excessive population growth "the root of all environmental difficulties."
But some researchers see a fundamental flaw in this line of reasoning: Population growth is a threat, they acknowledge, but too little research has been devoted to assessing its impact on biodiversity. Most evidence is anecdotal and intuitive, they claim, and policy decisions are being based on incomplete and imprecise data.
"On the surface we find evidence like deforestation, soil erosion and destruction of fisheries," according to Fred T. Sai, chairman of the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development. "But what are the real problems, how do they manifest themselves and how can they be addressed to achieve environmental sustainability and a good quality of life for all people?"
Others still are more assertive. "The idea of protected areas has been built on a distinctly misanthropic foundation," says Jeffrey A. McNeely of the World Conservation Union. "It assumes that people are destructive of a pristine nature that needs to be protected."
People can't be expected to support protected areas unless they derive some benefit from them, argues McNeely, who notes that the very concept of pristine areas is flawed. Humans have occupied Africa for millions of years, Asia and Europe for several hundred thousand years, Australia for 50,000 years and the Americas for at least 12,000 years. "Humans have played an important role in forming the ecosystems that are today considered natural," he says.
Like-minded scientists have initiated an effort to replace sketchy information with "hard" data. The International Research Cooperation Project, a three-year effort sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and several private foundations, will support studies at a dozen or more sites around the world. …