The Future of Conservation

I’m tempted to cut to the chase and tell you at the outset that conservationists have come a long away from the sense of urgency that in the mid-1980s gave birth to the field of conservation biology, which Michael Soule defined as a “crisis discipline.” True, for foot soldiers carrying the biodiversity flag the core mission of conservation biology remains intact, as Mark Burgman, the new editor-in-chief of the field’s flagship journal, has just reaffirmed:

In 2000, Ed Wilson described conservation biology candidly as “a discipline with a deadline” and an “intensive-care ward of ecology” (volume 14, issue 1, pp. 1–3). Not much has changed. Triage is topical, and translating science into policy recommendations and action remains a key theme in many papers.

At the ground level, however, where conservation managers must reconcile the needs of human and ecological communities, much has changed. This has been a bitter pill for purists and some of them refuse to swallow it. For pragmatists, well, they now live by the creed of a Rolling Stones classic.

The bigger question, which I’ve explored in several essays (such as here and here), is whether the purist and pragmatist strands of conservation (and more broadly, environmentalism), can be reconciled? I’m not sure they can. I’ve argued that enviros have to first jettison a moldy worldview and embrace a modernist green outlook given expression by a renegade group of intellectuals and thinkers:

Pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth, the green modernist has emerged in recent years to advance an alternative vision for the future…In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better.

Recently, Fred Pearce has echoed this theme in a piece for Yale Environment 360 and Hillary Rosner has examined it (from a conservation perspective) in a nice article for Ensia, a smartly produced webzine sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Rosner discusses the emerging worldview that has been laid out in thought provocative manifestos by the Nature Conservancy’s Peter Kareiva and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute.

She also interviews mainstream figures in the environmental movement, such as Jon Hoekstra, the chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who appear to be pivoting from outdated notions of conservation to a more pragmatic mindset:

With the pivot, the goals of conservation remain roughly the same — protecting natural habitat, preventing species from vanishing — but they’re set within an entirely different frame. Instead of asking, “How can we stop this thing we don’t want?” — exurban sprawl in place of a prairie, say — we might ask, “How can we engineer this thing we do want?” — thriving urban centers or wildlife-friendly ranchland, for example. Instead of setting aside vast tracts of land, we stitch together mosaics — landscapes that combine sustainable food production with natural habitat. “If we apply conservation science in a smart way,” Hoekstra says, “we can make those landscapes work for people and protect biodiversity. We’re not going to always get both those things right, but I think it’s our only chance.”

Has the future of conservation finally arrived?

4 Responses to “The Future of Conservation”

  1. C Giroux says:

    Do different points of view have to come to consensus? I am happy that in the United States, for the most part, I can do what I want with my land. A purist will surely have a hard time in any city, but with enough land, can surely do things as “purely” as they like. I think this is far from perfect, pretty bad really, but I endorse a system that allows people to make their own choices.

    To live together as humans, we must learn to accept that we will not agree but we can still avoid killing each other (hopefully). Of course, people often feel most passionate when they believe that their life is potentially threatened. Regardless of how someone feels, they cannot make others act differently. It may be possible through communication to change someone else’s view of a subject. If successful, you may be able to modify another person’s behavior; most often in leading by example. I doubt pragmatists and purists will ever agree; however, that seems irrelevant since each should be allowed to do as he / she pleases.

    I consider myself a purist, but it is impossible to force my views on others. Our only hope for sustained survival is a well informed populace, something of which I fear we have short supply.

  2. jh says:

    “Has the future of conservation finally arrived?”

    Perhaps. Or perhaps, instead, the past of conservation is fading with the fading of it’s chief benefactor, Generation Boomer.

    Here in Seattle there is designated wilderness all around us. None of it feels very wild. On a warm summer weekend, thousands of people swarm out of the city and into the “wilderness”. Some haul jeeps and bikes and piles of other paraphernalia to the margins of the wilderness, where they cook on propane stoves with food stored in propane refrigerators or powered by electrical generators, and drink late into the evening. Others sport nothing but running shoes, shorts and a t-shirt for a 10-mile round trip hike. Almost no one is really interested in an actual wilderness experience. You’d be more likely to see a bobcat or a bear on the streets of the suburbs that march up the foothills of the Cascades.

    The “nature” ethic the boomers embraced – with all it’s messy inconsistencies – is dying. To today’s youth and to a large extent even GenX’ers, “wilderness” is more like a theme park.

  3. Buddy199 says:

    Dear Facebook, I’M IN THE WOODS!! OMG!!

  4. jh says:

    On a more serious front, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the “nature first” wing of conservation survives as a serious force far into the future. Until only a decade or so ago, it was fairly easy to imagine a world where vast tracts of untamed wilderness survived far into the future. Today, that’s impossible to imagine. In the US, wilderness areas that were once thought far removed from civilization are now increasingly hemmed in by it. In the rest of the world, particularly Africa, we Americans have been disabused of our fancy that the traditional cultures that inhabit the margins of the wilderness would always wish to stay traditionally dirt poor and effectively part of, rather than separate from, the surrounding wilderness. Suddenly we have realized that, like us, they want to use the resources around them for a better life. Worse yet, they’re actually doing it!

    Thus, until the last decade, the “nature first” wing of the conservation movement could convincingly argue that “nature first” didn’t equate to “humans last”. Today, that argument isn’t very convincing and it will only become less so in the future. Like the climate crusaders, the nature-firsters will be forced to demand direct payment from the population to support nature-first ambitions. And like the climate crusaders, they’ll be faced with the conundrum that people aren’t willing to pay unless they’re doing well economically, but to do well economically people need to consume the natural resources that the nature-firsters are committed to “protect”.

    Ultimately, the selection pressure created by the economic problem will reduce the nature-firsters to a relatively small sect of the conservation movement. No doubt, however, they’ll be screaming louder and louder as they close in on the bottom of the cliff.

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