Why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?

Of all the questions I am asked as a deep-sea biologist, the hardest to answer is “why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?” Sure there are the classic canards of economics (vents produce valuable minerals) and biotechnology (vents house unique organisms that may produce useful pharmaceutical or technological products) but these are hollow, belie a conservation ethic driven by human selfishness, and pander to an exploitative system. Beyond those lie a series of high minded, though vague, ethics about preserving biodiversity, protecting unique habitats, and understanding an ecosystem more alien than any science fiction story before destroying it.

Our global society is coming around to the idea that biodiversity is valuable in its own right, that species are precious, and that we have a duty to minimize the damage we inflict upon the world. We still have a long way to go, but the wind is in the sails and the ship is coming about. Despite this growing environmental ethic, the tragic reality is that before 1977 we didn’t even know hydrothermal vents existed and if every vent community was wiped from the face of the seafloor, few outside of a handful of fortunate scientists and deep-sea enthusiasts would notice.

So why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?

My answer to that question is not the only answer, and it is probably not the best answer. It is informed by my philosophy of fatal optimism: the changes occurring on our planet, driven by human growth and exploitation, are largely inevitable, and, while we should do all we can to restrict the damage we are causing and restore that which can still recover, we are also in the midst of the largest and most fascinating experiment ever conducted, and the ways in which life adapts to the new world we are constructing will be terrifying and beautiful.

In conservation, we often talk about the destructive power of the human race, and for good reason. Our capacity to destroy is awesome beyond measure, but it is exceptional only in its magnitude. We are not alone in the pantheon of selfish species; all living things act in their own self-interest. We are simply the best at it. Contrary to the myth of balance in the natural world, ecosystems exist in a constant flux between expansion and collapse, as organisms compete for dominance over limited resources, and all resources are limited.

What makes us truly unique is not our ability to destroy, but our ability to conserve. No other species in the history of the planet has recognized the inherent value in another species, not as a resource, food source, or substrate, but simply as another living organism. No other species has expended its own resources, its own precious energy, to protect another, simply for the sake of the other species existence. No other species has ever planned and implemented an initiative to bring a species back from the brink of extinction. As certain as humanity’s ability to destroy has driven countless species to extinction, it is our unique and, frankly, unnatural desire to preserve and protect species and ecosystems for purely altruistic reasons that defines us.

There are myriad ways life on this planet could come to an end, but only the thoughtful ape, Homo sapiens sapiens, can save it.

And that brings us back to deep-sea hydrothermal vents. In the icy darkness of the deep ocean, beyond the region where 19th century explorers thought no life could flourish, communities, driven by the chemical energy produced by the earth’s mantle thrive. Contrary to popular references, they are not independent of sun light, but rather, indirectly dependent. The oxygen produced by photosynthesis is ancient, taking up to 12,000 years to reach the sea floor, but it is a necessary component. These high biomass systems thrive off an energy source few imagined could exist prior to their discovery. They are enclaves of life so far removed from what we commonly recognize that the best description of these communities is alien.

They are detached from the rest of life, not completely, but enough. The vent ecosystem is patchy and subject to frequent and massive disruptions, it is lousy with heavy metals and toxic compounds. The vent itself may be radioactive. In short, the organisms that live there are tough and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

And that is one reason hydrothermal vents matter. They have the potential to be survivors. It is unlikely, but not inconceivable, that either through human activity or from extraterrestrial transgression, life as we know it could come to an end. The odds are minuscule, but not negligible. Because of that, if we are truly concerned about the continuation and propagation of life, not just human life, we must maintain enclaves of biodiversity and we must play the odds by protecting those ecosystems that differ so wildly from our own that they could endure where others fail.

  1. “if we are truly concerned about the continuation and propagation of life, not just human life, we must maintain enclaves of biodiversity and we must play the odds by protecting those ecosystems that differ so wildly from our own that they could endure where others fail. ”

    It’s always good to have a plan B, I suppose, but this may be the most “out there” thing I’ve ever heard you say. I like it.

    Assuming, however, that humans aren’t going to die anytime soon, we’re going to need to convince others of our species of the need for conservation. I still say that “he classic canards of economics and biotechnology” are a good way to go.

    Yes, they represent “a conservation ethic driven by human selfishness, and pander to an exploitative system”, but they also get the attention of people who don’t believe that biodiversity has inherent value (i.e. the majority of people).

    Look at the U.S. government (which, despite it’s failings, has some of the strongest conservation legislation in the history of the world). With a growing tea party influence, do you think we’re more likely to get people on our side by arguing that “we should conserve this ecosystem because there are economically valuable things to discover there” or by arguing that “if humans die out, at least there will be some life left in the universe”?

    I see what you’re saying and don’t disagree with the underlying philosophy, but in terms of convincing the so-called “regular people” and the policy-makers who answer to them, classics never go out of style.

    • For better or for worse, I don’t think anyone considers either of us to be normal….

      Seriously though, you know what I mean. A random person on the street is more likely to be persuaded by economic arguments.

    • I have to disagree, I think that’s a cop-out answer.

      Economic arguments are easy precisely because they oversimplify what’s really at stake and boil down deep and nuanced issues into a single cash value. The problem with that is that you’ve given each ecosystem a value, so if, for example, the value of the copper in a hydrothermal vent system becomes greater than the perceived ‘economic value’ of an undisturbed vent, you’ve lost the high ground.

      I also think your assumption that “regular people” or “a random person on the street” will only be swayed by raw economics and not loftier ideals is wrong. After all, how many Americans are currently ignoring the economic arguments for health care or a multi-tiered tax system in favor of lofty ideals like ‘freedom’?

      Underestimating humanity’s potential is always a mistake.

    • I didn’t say they can only be persuaded by economics. I said “more likely”, and I stand by that for most people.

      I don’t think it’s an issue of underestimating humanity so much as recognizing the kind of argument likely to persuade policy-makers in today’s political climate.

    • We’ve been making the economic arguments for as long as conservation has been a policy issue. Part of the reason we’re still stuck in the same rut is that no one is even trying to elevate the debate above “today’s political climate”.

  2. A very thoughtful post, Andrew. I just stumbled across your blog, so sorry if you answered this question before, but in what way are hydrothermal vents threatened? Why would they need special conservation efforts?

  3. There’s no reason this has to be an either/or argument. The “canards” of economics and biotechnology are actually pretty persuasive, but I think most people also sympathize at least a little bit with the idea that we should preserve species and ecosystems for their own sake.

    I’d also add one more selfish argument: it’s inherently risky to destroy what you don’t understand. Wipe out the passenger pigeon and there’s suddenly a vast surplus of acorns on the forest floor to feed a boom in deer mice, the major reservoir host for Lyme disease. Flood an Egyptian valley behind the Aswan High Dam, and you create a vast new habitat for snails carrying schistosomiasis. Lose the hydrothermal vent communities and you cause … who knows?

    • I think you’ve got the right idea, and it reminds me of the philosohpical question “Is there such thing as a selfless good deed?” I wonder if it’s possible for humans, despite our laudable efforts, to actively conserve life on Earth sans selfish premises?

  4. Replies to replies to replies get tedious so I’m going to try and start a new thread.

    Undeniably, the number of people who care about biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake is growing.

    However, at the same time, the number of people who roll their eyes when they hear the words “conservation” or “environment” is also growing. There are a lot of these people, and they have influence, but certain arguments will reach them.

    I like what Al said- we don’t have to choose one or the other argument. We can decide based on who we’re talking to.

    • Undeniably, the number of people who care about biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake is growing.

      Thanks for at least recognizing this. I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure this number keeps growing and more people recognize the inherent value of ecosystems as something other than an exploitable resource.

      However, at the same time, the number of people who roll their eyes when they hear the words “conservation” or “environment” is also growing. There are a lot of these people, and they have influence, but certain arguments will reach them.

      I’ll repeat, because you started a new thread instead of responding where the point was raised:

      Economic arguments are easy precisely because they oversimplify what’s really at stake and boil down deep and nuanced issues into a single cash value. The problem with that is that you’ve given each ecosystem a value, so if, for example, the value of the copper in a hydrothermal vent system becomes greater than the perceived ‘economic value’ of an undisturbed vent, you’ve lost the high ground.

      I think the major problem is that you’ve assumed an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality in these conservation initiatives, when the reality is, there’s only ‘us’.

    • “I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure this number keeps growing and more people recognize the inherent value of ecosystems as something other than an exploitable resource.”

      Let me know how I can help.

    • I don’t think the assumption is us “versus” them but rather just an us “and” them. It’s not that there are two camps against one another, but rather two ideas of the world that have very different views of conservation, and cannot wrap their brain around such a concept in the way that others, which means there will be multiple idealogical paths toward the same goal. Describing conservation’s economic value as trite or “hollow” is a poor analysis of the subject, because some people can only understand conservation when dollar signs are a part of the equation. I do agree, however, with your final thought on conserving hydrothermal vents, and I think it applies to any effort to protect biodiversity.

      I suppose the point is that economic encouragement is a viable path towards conservation, despite the fact that it is not the ultimate goal. In the end, the continuity of life on Earth is what we’re after. There will always be people who cannot fathom that concept, and there is no harm in taking an “easy” way to progress with those people. You cannot expect the whole world to have such foresight.

    • Using economics for conservation as been and will likely continue to be a powerful conservation tool. A good example is used fairly often in shark conservation, where a shark’s short-term value as a catch is weighed against its long-term value to ecotourism. This was one of the first really effective arguments in the early days of the shark conservation movement because it was both easy to understand (as opposed to arguments over ecological importance, which, though definitely more important, tend to go over peoples’ heads without a long discussion) and hit communities square in the wallet.
      The problem with basing everything on economics is that inevitably you create user groups fighting over the “resource” that is whatever you’re trying to conserve. Now that a group has a vested interest in conservation, they’ll want to protect their investment. Recreational fishing groups in North Carolina often support tighter restrictions on commercial fishing, not because of them seeing the big picture value of biodiversity but because they want fish at the end of their hooks as opposed to in a commercial fisherman’s gillnet. This eventually muddies the whole movement as more interest groups try to push an agenda using conservation.
      Good short-term gains can be achieved using economics, but these usually end up in less trust and cooperation among all the user groups involved. Economics makes for a good tool, but the only way to really make long-term gains is to make the whole culture value the environment for the environment’s sake. And that takes time and work.
      Whew. Hope that wasn’t too long.

  5. I like this post, and I also like the argument that Alan Dove added.

    In the case of hydrothermal vents, I think the economic argument (valuable ores) is not at all one for conservation but instead for consumption. Isn’t this precisely why the hydrothermal vent communities are threatened, so that we can mine the ore deposits associated with them? How can you possibly use the economic rationale to argue that we *shouldn’t* mine the vents?