2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

[ print ]

Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons
Keystone Consumer

When it comes to common resources, a failure to cooperate is a failure to control consumption. In Hardin's classic tragedy, everyone overconsumes and equally contributes to the detriment of the commons. But a relative few can also ruin a resource for the rest of us.

Biologists are familiar with the term 'keystone species', coined in 1969 after Bob Paine's intertidal exclusion experiments. Paine found that by removing the few five-limbed carnivores, Pisaster ochraceus, from the seashore, he could cause an overabundance of its prey, mussels, and a sharp decline in diversity. Without seastars, mussels outcompeted sponges. No sponges, no nudibranchs. Anenomes were also starved out because they eat what the seastars dislodge. Pisaster was the keystone that kept the intertidal community together. Without it, there were only mussels, mussels, mussels. The term keystone species, inspired by the purple seastar, refers to a species that has a disproportionate effect relative to its abundance.

In human ecology, I imagine diseases and parasites play a similar role to Pisaster in Paine's experiment. Remove disease (and increase food) and Homo sapiens takeover. Humans inevitably restructure their environment. But not all human beings consume equally. While a keystone species refers to a specific species that structures an ecosystem, I consider keystone consumers to be a specific group of humans that structures a market for a particular resource. Intense demand by a few individuals can bring flora and fauna to the brink.  

There are keystone consumers in the markets for caviar, slipper orchids, tiger penises, plutonium, pet primates, diamonds, antibiotics, Hummers, and seahorses. Niche markets for frog legs in pockets of the U.S., Europe, and Asia are depleting frog populations in Indonesia, Ecuador, and Brazil. Seafood lovers in high-end restaurants are causing stocks of long-lived fish species like Orange roughy or toothfish in Antarctica to crash. The desire for shark fin soup by wealthy Chinese consumers has led to the collapse of several shark species.

One in every four mammals (1,141 of the 5,487 mammals on Earth) is threatened with extinction. At least 76 mammals have become extinct since the 16th century, many, like the Tasmanian tiger, the great auk, and the Steller sea cow, due to hunting by a relatively small group. It is possible for a small minority of humans to precipitate the disappearance of an entire species.

The consumption of non-living resources is also imbalanced. The 15% of the world's population that lives in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia consumes 32 times more resources, like fossil fuels and metals, and produces 32 times more pollution than the developing world, where the remaining 85% of humans live. City-dwellers consume more than people living in the countryside. A recent study determined the ecological footprint for an average resident of Vancouver, British Columbia was 13 times higher than his suburban/rural counterpart.

Developed nations, urbanites, ivory collectors: the keystone consumer depends on the resource in question. In the case of water, agriculture accounts for 80% of use in the U.S., i.e. large-scale farms are the keystone consumers. So why do many conservation efforts focus on households rather than water efficiency on farms? The keystone consumer concept helps focus conservation efforts where returns on investments are highest.  

Like keystone species, keystone consumers also have a disproportionate impact relative to their abundance.  Biologists identify keystone species as conservation priorities because their disappearance could cause the loss of many other species. In the marketplace, keystone consumers should be priorities because their disappearance could lead to the recovery of the resource. Humans should protect keystone species and curb keystone consumption. The lives of others depend on it.