The cold calculus of ‘conservation triage’

Conservation triage is a sensitive topic because it forces people to acknowledge that we don’t have enough resources to save all threatened species; that choices have to be made. Invariably when the notion of triage is raised the question is asked: “So, which species are you giving up on?” Triage is associated with logic trumping feeling, of economics ruling the heart.

Consider the opening paras in the Sydney Morning Herald article:

“In a world dominated by big data and Google algorithms, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised the fate of a species facing extinction can hinge on a mathematical equation. Tasked with trying to save almost 1000 threatened plant and animal species in NSW, the O’Farrell government is undertaking a version of ‘conservation triage’ where scarce funding will target species with the best chance of survival. Spending priorities will be ranked according to a cold calculus: the benefit of intervening to save a species, multiplied by the likelihood of success, divided by the cost.”

Describing conservation triage as ‘a cold calculus’ might make good copy but it also makes it harder to get risk-averse politicians to engage with the concept. If you think conservation triage based on cost-effectiveness is wrong, what’s your alternative? – inefficiently allocating funds? The previous situation (without triage) involved ad hoc, opaque decisions being made under the delusion that the available budget would secure the future of all threatened species. The consequences of this approach has been wasted resources, a growing list of extinctions and an inability to learn. Of the two approaches, which is rational and more moral?

We believe conservation triage is simply good decision making that requires no more than the mathematics of shopping – cost-effectiveness. In an age of catastrophic declines in biodiversity, surely our political leaders should be defending why they are not applying it, not why they should.

Three of the principal architects of PPP: (from left) Shaun O’Connor (NZ DoC), Liana Joseph (UQld) & Richard Maloney (NZ DoC).

Three of the principal architects of PPP: (from left) Shaun O’Connor (NZ DoC), Liana Joseph (UQld) & Richard Maloney (NZ DoC).

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