Winning the Conservation War: How to Manage the World We're Stuck With

  • Share
  • Read Later
Marco Garro / DPA / Corbis

Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. We're losing forests in South America, but we're gaining them back in the northern hemisphere, as trees retake former agricultural lands

Conservation is one of the environmental movement's greatest successes — a bit of a trick because it's also one of its greatest failures. As anyone who follows the scientific literature — or just this blog — would know, we're losing old-growth forests in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Species are going extinct at unusually high rates, and one study last year found that almost one-fifth of all existing vertebrate species are threatened. Big predators like tigers are disappearing altogether — there are perhaps 3,000 still left roaming the wild — and our closest animal cousins, the apes, are in danger of being wiped from the face of the planet. For every species we manage to draw back from the brink of extinction through measures like the Endangered Species Act, we surely lose far more. By almost every measure, the planet — humans excepted — is in a worse state today than it was a century ago.

Yet when you measure the results another way, conservationists are winning. As species have gone extinct, the worldwide number of protected areas has exploded tenfold, growing from under 10,000 in 1950 to over 100,000 by 2009. From Yellowstone National Park in America to Ankarana National Park in Madagascar, nearly every nation on the planet has set aside land on which economic development is restricted — a concept that hardly existed a century ago. Some 13% of the world's land mass is under some form of legal protection — an area that's bigger than South America. How are conservationists winning such a huge battle — but losing the war?

That's a question that a number of environmental experts explore in an intriguing new collection called Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. The book is edited by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, a pair of Bay Area provocateurs who've made a career out of poking holes in the mainstream environmental consensus. In their introduction, Shellenberger and Nordhaus — who now run the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that advocates innovation-centered policies — argue that as long as environmentalism focuses on trying to shrink the human footprint, it will be "doomed to fail in a world of seven going on 10 billion souls seeking to live energy-rich modern lives."

In other words there are so many of us and our influence on the planet is so great that there's really no getting back to unmitigated nature, no saving the planet as it was before human beings showed up. So we have a choice: embrace the power of technology and our ability to actively shape the planet to the best of our ability — best for both human beings and the other species with which we share the earth — or remain passive and suffer the consequences. "What we call 'saving the earth' will, in practice, require creating and recreating it again and again for as long as humans inhabit it," Shellenberger and Nordhaus write.

It's a provocative argument, not the least because it departs from the usual apocalyptic environmental narrative, which has reached its apex in the fear over climate change. Shellenberger and Nordhaus and the other writers represented in Love Your Monsters believe in the man-made danger of climate change, but they don't believe it poses an existential threat to the human race itself. That's debatable — the science is firm on the mechanics and causes of climate change, but it gets very cloudy when it comes to determining just how severe global warming could be in the decades to come. We may be able to adapt to climate change as well as Shellenberger and Nordhaus suggest we will, but that is a gamble — and it's one that carries terrifying consequences if we lose.

Still, it's hard to look at the history of humanity — including the transformative growth seen in once poor nations like China and India — without doubting that any amount of environmental finger wagging is likely to halt the drive for development. We may call for Brazilians to stop clearing the Amazon, but Americans essentially deforested much of what would become the U.S. on the way to accumulating more wealth than the world has ever seen. (Four hundred years ago midtown Manhattan — where I now work — was part of a quiet and wooded island, home to black bears, bald eagles and wolves.) Human beings may well be O.K. — and if we continue to innovate, more and more of us will be more and more O.K. But as Shellenberger and Nordhaus write: "What modernization may threaten most is not human civilization, but the survival of those nonhuman species and environments we care about."

So what can we do about those "nonhuman species and environments" that may not be vital to human development, but that have a value all their own? In the best essay in Love Your Monsters, Peter Kareiva — the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy — and a pair of co-authors try to construct workable conservation policies for the Anthropocene, our new human-dominated geological era. They criticize the focus on creating nature reserves, which has often led to problems with indigenous peoples in developing nations — after all, someone was probably living in that park before it was a park. (That's been true in the U.S. as well — forced evictions that accompanied the creation of Yellowstone, America's first national park, led to the deaths of 300 Shoshone Native Americans in a single day.) As Kareiva and his co-authors write: "The bigger questions for 21st century conservation regard what we will do with the rest of [the planet]: the working landscapes, the urban ecosystems, the fisheries and tree plantations, the vast swaths of agricultural monocultures, and the growing expanses of marginal agricultural lands and second growth forests." In other words, the planet that most of us live on.

Kareiva and his co-authors believe that nature is much more resilient than we give it credit for. They note a recent scientific review that looked at 240 studies of different types of ecosystems following major disturbances like deforestation or oil spills, and found that the abundance of plant and animal species recovered at least partially in 72% of them. We're losing forests in South America, but we're gaining them back in the northern hemisphere, as trees retake former agricultural lands. With the right amount of "planetary gardening" — a term that recurs a few times in Love Your Monsters — we can keep nature thriving well into the Anthropocene.

At least that's the hope, and Love Your Monsters is nothing if not an optimistic book — perhaps overly optimistic, as critics will surely note. But in a world where economic values almost always trump environmental ones, this may be the best we hope for.