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The Future of Conservation

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 26, 2013 9:35 PM


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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?

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