January 04, 2013
So, You Want To Be a Conservationist?
If Rachel Carson demanded fifty years ago that people wake up to the needs of the environment, Peter Kareiva today insists that environmentalists wake up to the needs of people.
Kareiva, a Breakthrough Senior Fellow since 2011 and chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy -- the world's largest conservation organization -- is revolutionizing the field of conservation from within the belly of the beast.
Whereas the old conservation sought to preserve tracts of "pristine nature" from human impact, a new conservation will "enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor."
The biggest conservation groups, from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature to Conservation International, have taken note, quietly transforming their agendas in recent years to emphasize conservation's benefits to people.
This sea change has required discarding basic tenets of the environmental ethos, such as the value of solitude or the notion that nature exists separately from human touch.
And it has stirred controversy.
Enter Kareiva, the subject of an extensive profile in Greenwire by journalist Paul Voosen.
"Peter is, first of all, a bomb thrower," Dan Simberloff, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is quoted as saying. "He's pretty impatient with old ideas that he thinks aren't any good. He likes to bring people together and start them talking with some preposterous proposition."
For Kareiva -- a widely respected ecologist who was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with Al Gore and Spike Lee -- the shift comes down to science.
Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society Institute called Kareiva "one of the sharpest, most incisive scientific minds... He's intolerant of bad science."
"We all know corporations lie to us and distort things, but so do environmentalists," Kareiva told a group of policy fellows earlier this year. "And conservationists. Just as much."
Kareiva has confronted his environmentalist colleagues for using shoddy evidence before, including in one controversy in the Pacific Northwest over salmon and dams, when advocates ignored his research.
And he is at it again over the "myth" of nature's fragility.
"The message [has been that] humans degrade and destroy and really crucify the natural environment, and woe is me," Kareiva said. "The reality is humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment -- and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well, and 20 percent of the time it doesn't."
Kareiva recently embarked on a project to study the resilience of nature, drawing on hundreds of case studies from coral reefs to plant life near Mount St. Helens to the Gulf Coast's post-Deepwater Horizon oil spill recovery.
His first analyses were on coral reefs and oil spills; results varied widely. This points toward the likely conclusion of his study: There will be no simple answer, no universal truth. It will always depend. But it will not always be disaster.
"The reason that's significant, when the conclusion is 'It depends,' is that the policy question is then, 'Let's understand how it depends,'" he said. "Let's understand which are the fragile places, and which are the tolerant places."
As often happens, poke a provocative Kareiva statement, like his resilience spiel, and nuance will pop out.
For a generation of environmentalists drawn to the cause of defending a vulnerable and sacred nature, it is perhaps a cruel irony to see the bastion of conservation previously devoted to "saving the last great places on Earth" -- the conservancy -- now promoting sustainable farming, urban conservation, and use of protected areas by locals.
But in a world facing the imperative of advancing the wellbeing of over a billion who live in poverty, the transformation may seem only apt.
"What we must have is a vision of the future in which the needs of people and nature are balanced, based on the hard facts of growing population, huge climate impacts, and expanding agriculture and energy exploration," Kareiva wrote recently.
"The conservation of the future will be less and less about protected areas and increasingly about working landscapes, in which the most intrusive human activities are planned for and managed to generate the least damage and to avoid irreplaceable natural systems that cannot tolerate heavy impacts. The key is to take each of the major needs of people -- water, food, livelihoods, security and health -- and find the future that meets these needs and protects nature."
Read Voosen's profile here; Karieva's pivotal essay, with Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier, for Breakthrough Journal, "Conservation in the Anthropocene," here; and a Breakthrough Debate featuring responses to Kareiva et al. from passionate 21st Century conservationists here.