During World War I, French doctors working on the battlefield were often presented with far more wounded soldiers than they had the time or resources to care for. Faced with the stark reality that they would lose patients no matter what they did, these doctors came up with a system of “triage,” letting the most critically wounded die so as to save the most lives.

The time may have come for us to use a similar triage system to save species, according to Terry Root, a Stanford biologist who, along with her fellow authors with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, won a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. “If you had told me even five years ago that I would be saying we need to deal with triage, I would tell you you were crazy,” Root says. “But … you can’t save everything.”

For many people, this may be a hard pill to swallow. How can we accept that, as Root says, “We can’t do anything but lose species” and that “there are things that are going to go extinct no matter how hard we work”? How do we decide which species to save and which ones to let go? Doesn’t it feel like “playing god” to treat conservation this way?

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I spoke to professor Root about conservation triage, how scientists can be advocates, and how to maintain hope in the face of certain loss and unavoidable mistakes.

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Free MP3. (Right click, select “Save Link As.”)

This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.