Rethinking Conservation for a Crowded Planet

Nature, Pristine, Wild. These words ground the modern conservation movement. But a growing circle of new conservationists is making the bedrock shake. The call to action was most clearly sounded in a 2012 Breakthrough Institute essay titled, “Conservation in the Anthropocene” penned by Peter Kareiva, rabble rouser and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, along with TNC’s director of science communications Robert Lalasz and ecologist Michelle Marvier from Santa Clara University.

The essay summons conservationists “to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness—ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science—and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.” Central to this vision is a growing body of science that is replacing the idea of pristine and wild nature with the notion that people have shaped landscapes at a global scale since ancient times. The new vision also sees nature as supremely resilient—a tough mother earth who can bounce back from nearly anything we humans can do to disturb her.

There is a wrinkle in Kareiva and company’s cause, however, for many traditional conservationists will have nothing of it. They see the call to renovate conservation for the Anthropocene—the Age of Man—as distracting claptrap based on bad science, when what conservationists really need to do is double down to protect the dwindling biodiversity from the mounting incursions of a bloated humanity.

Unfortunately, debates over science have overshadowed the new conservationists’ central question: How should conservation benefit both people and nature on a crowded planet of 7 billion people and counting? To answer this question, conservationists will need to spend less time arguing over the science, and more about who and what conservation is for.

Mired Among Baselines and Vagabonds

The kerfuffle over science has been a sticking point between Kareiva and his opponents. In a pointed rejoinder to Kareiva’s essay on “Conservation in the Anthropocene”, Kieran Suckling, Executive Director of the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity, counters that exemplars of so-called resilient ecosystems—like the recovery of cod stocks on the Georges Banks or ability of polar bears to weather climate change—are naive misreadings of a well-established science that, in reality, shows nature to be fragile, precarious, threatened. Suckling says that Kareiva and colleagues’ ideological “destruction of truth…drives the authors to misrepresent, ignore, or obfuscate the science in virtually every example they give of nature being optimistically resilient to destructive impacts.”

The truth, Suckling suggests, will give the movement an “honest, hard-headed assessment of what works and what needs changing.” The science supposedly spells out a self-obvious end goal: the recovery an authentic ecological baseline. The baseline might be in the remote wilderness or working landscapes, but wherever sought, is the main ideal worth aiming for.

Suckling is not alone in holding up science as source of moral authority. An 2011 article appearing in the journal Conservation Biology (under the same name as Kareiva’s article) holds up a baseline-first model for conservation. Like Suckling, the authors worry about shortchanging conservation by turning it into a clean-up crew to salvage what is left over after civilization has had its way: “Especially worrying to us is the ongoing change in conservation agenda from identifying and protecting sites of high conservation priority to conserving ‘working landscapes’ with extensive human influence.”

Others, by contrast, use science to support the very opposite conclusion. In a recent piece for Yale Environment 360 by journalist Fred Pearce, titled “True Nature: Revising Revising Ideas on What is Pristine and Wild,” Pearce argues that once old school conservationists come around to see that their ideas about a faulty nature are outmoded, they will rethink the purpose of conservation itself. The future of conservation, as he sees it, will dispense with faulty assumptions about a pristine and wild nature in favor of a new paradigm that embraces ecosystem change and generously recasts invasive species as vagabonds, desperadoes and fellow travelers on an ever-shifting planet.

By all means, scientific questions over historical baselines and ecosystem resilience are valid and worth pursuing. But with too much of the debate hung up on the science, conservationists are forfeiting a chance to rethink what they are aiming at and why.

We can’t turn to science to provide tell us what conservation should strive for because science offers little guidance without a normative compass. Even if we had complete confidence in resilient ecosystems readily bouncing back from disturbance, that information by itself says little about how we should live in relation to the natural world. Likewise, science alone does not tell us if introduced species are insidious invaders or charming vagabonds. And whether human domination of the world’s ecosystems has persisted for 50 or 5000 years means nothing without a moral sense of what that domination means in the first place.

‘Typos in Books’ and Killer Gardeners

The failure to advance debate over what conservation should achieve in the Anthropocene has left the enterprise in limbo, and this is a problem for several reasons.

First, everyone claims to be pro-biodiversity, but that claim comes with actions that too often leave in the lurch the great many living things that exist in farmers’ fields, backyards, cities and other working landscapes. To endorse triage of the unwashed in favor of the not-yet-touched is a remarkably durable theme. One sees it, for instance, in the writings of esteemed conservationists like Brian Miller, Michael Soulé, and John Terborgh, who, in their 2013 article on “New Conservation’s’ Surrender to Development,” assert that “gardeners” like Karieva “deflect attention away from how their ideas are killing life.”

Second, people still appear as part of the problem. The not-yet-touched wild often turns out to be the just-so-slightly-touched, where people may be present but found in such thin numbers you can scarcely see them. It is on these margins where humans seen as a rounding error on an otherwise pristine landscape need correcting. Or, as Miller, Soulé, and Terborgh write, “Typos in books do not justify burning the library.” Treating fellow people as misprints, it would seem, do little to remedy conservation’s reputation as a niche outfit for malcontents and misanthropes.

One might argue that these days are in conservation’s dark past. But the questions still sit uncomfortably. In any case, they sit uncomfortably now only because of a checkered history of scrutiny, critique, and reflection.

The proposals from the new conservationists, however, haven’t undergone the same level of scrutiny and debate. Despite the allure, their “optimistic, human-friendly vision” shouldn’t be left off the hook for failing to raise pesky questions about just who is going to have to get out of the way of a better world.

Here the traditional conservationists, to their credit, have attempted to generate debate. To start, they open questions about power in politics the new conservationists are trying so hard to escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, Miller, Soulé, and Terborgh share an abiding suspicion that the new conservationists are a shill for corporate interests. “The ethics of gardeners, or the new conservation, is to exploit nature for human benefit. It is an economic argument based in neoliberal, corporate philosophy.”

The new conservationists, however, have yet to engage this critique in a meaningful way, unlike the traditionalists whose own dark past has forced them to rethink some of the more dubious assumptions about parks and protected areas, often cast disparagingly as known as “fortress conservation.”

At the end of the day, the conservation movement will live up to the challenges of the Anthropocene only if it can craft an inclusive vision, for both people and other living things. If it is to do that, it needs to ask hard questions about the possible downsides of defining development-friendly conservation too narrowly. Fortunately, contours are emerging where that debate can be opened up amid the new conservation’s growing influence in the world’s biggest conservation groups.

Charging Ahead

The new conservationists are charging ahead with ideas for making their vision reality. To get a sense of these ambitions, you need to turn no further than the title of TNC President and CEO, and former Goldman Sachs Partner, Mark Tercek’s book, “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.” The book contains quite sensible plans to protect storm-buffering shorelines, pollution-filtering watersheds, and other cost-effective investments in green infrastructure to protect public and private assets. It also dances around some uncomfortable tensions between profit-making and the public good.

Thinkers sympathetic to the idea that we need a new conservation ethic question the profit-first motive for conservation. Paul Robbins, Director of the UW Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, for instance, highlights these tensions in a response to Kareiva’s Breakthrough piece. Although Robbins is encouraged by the new conservationists’ effort to surmount “exclusionary, anti-human and anti-poor models of conservation,” he is cautious of their historically naive assumption that partnering with corporations automatically serves the public good, warning that “It is not especially radical to say that the surpluses that allow returns for investors, owners and others have historically rested on findings ways to undercut, underinvest, and undervalue both labor and nature.”

In response, Kareiva caricaturizes the likes of Robbins as stuck with an “adolescent view that corporations are evil and not to be trusted.” Robbins, however, is simply pointing out that the new conservationists should be a bit more sophisticated than Kareiva when he leans on the science of ecology to conclude that corporations are, quite literally, keystone species, and goes on to defend that conclusion by saying that “I actually have come to this conclusion from a purely scientific perspective.” One might think to turn to, say, economics or political science too, no?

Environmental philosopher Mark Sagoff, writing sympathetically alongside Kareiva in the Breakthrough Institute’s volume, “Love Your Monsters,” cautions that a strategy of pricing ecosystem services is self-defeating. Sagoff argues that “If environmental decisions are fundamentally framed as questions of economic welfare, public officials and the public itself will opt nearly every time for whatever policy promises more economic growth, more production, and more jobs.”

If society ever does put a meaningful price on ecosystem services, Sagoff argues, it will be only after having internalized the idea that it is, simply put, a good thing to protect nature. When it comes down to policy, there is too much interpretive wiggle room in calculating what is a benefit and what is a cost to ensure the promised failsafe calculus for conservation. In all likelihood, the rules and regulations that would be written to make that calculus work would reflect the values and interests of the rule-makers. And it is no secret the experts and rule-makers have a complicated and often tenuous relationship with the average citizen.

The challenge then is not simply about getting the prices right. It is also about good governance that better reflects the cares and concerns people already have for their human and non-human communities. That high-mindedness need not be invented whole cloth.

Even Kareiva’s boss at TNC doesn’t think so. Tercek calls the local love for nature is the “secret sauce” that enabled his $800 million per year organization to become the largest conservation group in the world. In a sit down session with NY Times Andy Revkin, Tercek explains, “I’ll tell you the secret sauce at TNC….We do local conservation, and I hope we never loose that because that’s how we get a lot of our supporters. People who don’t think of themselves as environmentalists. They might not even like environmentalists but they care about something where they live or where they vacation. And so then they make inquiries and we help them understand how ecosystems work. I think there’s a kind of inner-environmentalist in everyone. They just don’t know that. If we expose people to nature in a way, in a place they care about then they kind of get the religion and we take it from there.”

The rub is that the lure to turn the environment into a business opportunity makes for a fine tactic—but questionable long-term strategy. At some level, Tercek seems to have been aware of this tension when qualifying his above remarks. “It’s really a brilliant formula. I just got to make sure we” don’t mess it up.

But conservation will mess it up if it forgets its moral roots. Yes, big business will be part of the picture. And, no, reciting a mantra on the intrinsic worth of millions of unknown species will not carry the day. Yet neither strategy will revive the conservation movement’s fading senior, white, wealthy constituency in our predominantly young, often poor, globalizing world. The alternative does not mean sentimentalizing a pristine and wild nature, much less pursuing only a crude utilitarian logic that will inevitably fail to capture the moral inclinations of everyday people additional resources. After all, the capacity for moral reflection makes us human in the first place. The traditionalists understand this. But the kinds of traditionalist purism are too often seen as elitist and out of touch with people’s everyday concerns.

The problem then is not so much that our economic institutions are blind to nature’s worth. Rather, as the likes of Sagoff and Robbins suggest, our political institutions are deaf to the moral inclinations of everyday people, and our social institutions are dumb to visions for better possible worlds. In other words, conservationists should work harder to fashion democratic spaces able to hear public’s latent concerns over dwindling nature and, where that fails, foster inclusive visions for what it means for humans to sustainably co-exist with myriad other living things on a crowded planet. Only then will economic tools be able to do the kind of life-saving work they’re supposed to accomplish. To be sure, these are not convenient problems to have, but they are the ones conservationists will have to confront to help create a flourishing Anthropocene.

Chad Monfreda is a Ph.D. Candidate in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology at the ASU Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO)

Cover Image: Atlas of the World, 8th Ed. Human World Plate, National Geographic, 2004 (Source: