Conservation movement’s focus is anachronistic and counterproductive – Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of the The Nature Conservancy.

The environmental and conservation movements lost their way when they moved to imposing their vision of the world onto others by fashioning people rather than fashioning a world to suit the needs of people. They started – in a formal sense – perhaps 60 – 70 years ago with the best of motives but became heavily politicised through the 80’s and since then have been more concerned about moulding people to fit their world view rather than serving the needs of human development. The environment – in some idealised and pristine form – even without man has been priorotised instead of being the surroundings to meet the needs of humans.  Biodiversity has been made into a false god and human development has been condemned as a demon. Alarmism has been used as the vehicle for imposing change.

An article in Breakthrough Journal is causing a few waves. This essay is full of “common sense” but what makes it noteworthy is that its authors – Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier – are all senior figures in The Nature Conservancy. Common sense from the environmental and conservations “movements” has been sadly absent in recent times.The essay is posted at the Breakthrough Journal and the Journal’s publicity states:

 “By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline. We continue to lose forests in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are so few wild tigers and apes that they will be lost forever if current trends continue. Simply put, we are losing many more special places and species than we’re saving.”

So begins a searing indictment by the unlikeliest of sources: Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization. …. Conservationists need to work with development, not condemn it as leading to the end of nature. In truth, nature’s resilience has been overlooked, its fragility “grossly overstated.” Areas blasted by nuclear radiation are bio-diverse. Forest cover is rising in the Northern Hemisphere even as it declines globally. …. 
And it’s time to stop prioritizing being alone over being with others.

The essay itself is well worth reading and selected extracts are reproduced below:

  • By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline. We continue to lose forests in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are so few wild tigers and apes that they will be lost forever if current trends continue. Simply put, we are losing many more special places and species than we’re saving.
  • What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have 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.
  • But conservation will be controversial as long as it remains so narrowly focused on the creation of parks and protected areas, and insists, often unfairly, that local people cannot be trusted to care for their land. 
  • As conservation became a global enterprise in the 1970s and 1980s, the movement’s justification for saving nature shifted from spiritual and aesthetic values to focus on biodiversity. Nature was described as primeval, fragile, and at risk of collapse from too much human use and abuse. And indeed, there are consequences when humans convert landscapes for mining, logging, intensive agriculture, and urban development and when key species or ecosystems are lost. 
  • But ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature, frequently arguing that once an ecosystem is altered, it is gone forever. Some ecologists suggest that if a single species is lost, a whole ecosystem will be in danger of collapse, and that if too much biodiversity is lost, spaceship Earth will start to come apart. Everything, from the expansion of agriculture to rainforest destruction to changing waterways, has been painted as a threat to the delicate inner-workings of our planetary ecosystem. 
  • The trouble for conservation is that the data simply do not support the idea of a fragile nature at risk of collapse. Ecologists now know that the disappearance of one species does not necessarily lead to the extinction of any others, much less all others in the same ecosystem. In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The American chestnut, once a dominant tree in eastern North America, has been extinguished by a foreign disease, yet the forest ecosystem is surprisingly unaffected. The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects. 
  • The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again. The wilderness ideal presupposes that there are parts of the world untouched by humankind, but today it is impossible to find a place on Earth that is unmarked by human activity. The truth is humans have been impacting their natural environment for centuries. The wilderness so beloved by conservationists — places “untrammeled by man”  — never existed, at least not in the last thousand years, and arguably even longer. 
  • Most people worldwide (regardless of culture) welcome the opportunities that development provides to improve lives of grinding rural poverty. At the same time, the global scale of this transformation has reinforced conservation’s intense nostalgia for wilderness and a past of pristine nature. But conservation’s continuing focus upon preserving islands of Holocene ecosystems in the age of the Anthropocene is both anachronistic and counterproductive.
  • If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conservation? It would start by appreciating the strength and resilience of nature while also recognizing the many ways in which we depend upon it. Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development — development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind. And it will utilize the right kinds of technology to enhance the health and well-being of both human and nonhuman natures.

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