Anthropocene Revisited


April 2012 | Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, Robert Lalasz,

Conservation is improving in its treatment of indigenous communities and attitudes toward people. But we should not go overboard with self-congratulation on this front. The change is neither complete nor a done deal. Conservation must not fall back into the ideological and impractical fortress mentality, a mentality that is insensitive to humans with needs that might supersede biodiversity. -- Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier respond to their critics.

Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier, who co-authored "Conservation in the Anthropocene" for Issue 2 of Breakthrough Journal, reply to criticism of their essay from Kierán Suckling, Paul Robbins, Ray Hilborn, and Lisa Hayward and Barbara Martinez.

It is hard to know where to begin in responding to the diverse comments on our "Conservation in the Anthropocene" piece. A fine place is to acknowledge the good intentions and decency of modern conservationists. Conservation is improving in its treatment of indigenous communities and attitudes toward people. But we should not go overboard with self-congratulation on this front. Conservation is not yet as enlightened as Lisa Hayward and Barbara Martinez would like to believe. Indeed, the same survey that Hayward and Martinez cite as revealing concern among conservationists for alleviating poverty also exposes room for improvement.1 For instance, in only 10 percent of responses did conservationists most strongly agree with the statement, "conservation priorities should be set by the people most affected by them."


Kieran Suckling's portrayal of the modern conservation movement as accommodating to and in harmony with the needs of people and working landscapes is ironic coming from someone who, in the past at least, has seen little room for grazing and logging on public lands.2 Minimally, it seems that Suckling does not share with ranchers the same vision of a working landscape. And outside the United States, acrid conflicts remain between conservationists and people denied the right to reclaim their native lands.3

Suckling is correct that US conservationists have in recent decades been coming to terms with the important role that Native Americans played in the pre-European landscape. We never asserted that conservationists were unaware of Native Americans. Our point was that conservationists have been preoccupied by historical baselines, and only recently has the goal of recreating the past been criticized as unrealistic.4 Suckling's organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, engages in legal battles to protect one endangered species at a time. We admire the accomplishments of his organization in defining critical habitats in the United States, but we do not feel this is a long-term model for sustainable conservation. People need forward-looking conservation that improves their lives and livelihoods, conservation that protects or restores mangroves, marshes and oyster reefs, which protect human communities from storm surge and rising sea levels.

Hayward, Martinez, and Suckling fear we overstate the resilience of nature. But the empirical data -- both modern studies of ecosystem recovery and the fossil record -- demonstrate the ability of nature to bounce back once a perturbation is curtailed. This hopeful news should inspire positive change. Wherever people can reduce the quantity and extent of such disruptions, nature will flourish again. When we argue that nature is resilient, we are proposing a hypothesis that can be scientifically tested. In fact, we are currently testing, via rigorous analysis, the response of ecosystems to hundreds of major perturbations. But Hayward and Martinez fear any admission of nature's resilience will give license for unfettered environmental destruction. Their concerns are a manifestation of conservationists' penchant for doom-and-gloom scenarios. Suckling claims that our argument is with dead white men, when in fact our argument is with living conservationists who use scare tactics to justify their unwillingness to compromise.

Suckling accuses us of ideological optimism, while emphasizing the bad news surrounding fisheries and polar bears. Our point was not to deny the existence of real ecological threats, but to bemoan the fact that conservationists seem to downplay good news. The six-fold increase in the abundance of the demersal community cited by Ray Hilborn is a real success, not ideological optimism. And while polar bears certainly are at risk, scientists have found evidence of them exploiting new food sources5 and of past rapid evolution and hybridization with grizzly bears.6

We believe we correctly characterized the failure of conservation, our metrics being the continued loss of habitat and species. But it is true that species have been saved by the Endangered Species Act and similar laws elsewhere. And thanks to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, Americans live much healthier lives today than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, conservationists had little to do with the protection of air and water. In fact, modern conservation is notable for its inattention to water pollution and air quality in places like Beijing and Mumbai, which are seen as largely irrelevant to the biodiversity mission.

Finally, we find it remarkable that some of our critics maintain the adolescent view that corporations are evil and not to be trusted, as though they were run by people somehow less ethical and less decent than conservation organizations. Yes, some corporations do harm and behave badly, but so do conservationists on occasion. Ecologists know that strongly interacting species such as killer whales, wolves and starfish determine ecosystem structure and dynamics. In modern ecosystems, those strongly interacting "species" are often global corporations. A handful of agricultural companies are responsible for 70 percent of the soy trade out of Brazil. Walmart, through its massive purchasing power, is able to reshape supply chains in favor of conservation outcomes. Over 80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies issue sustainability reports and have some sort of institutional effort aimed at sustainability. Of course, corporations have different goals than conservation organizations. But there are instances where the interests of conservation and business align, and the critique of capitalism and corporations that seems to infect our critics is a recipe for ineffectiveness and failure.

Our essay was meant to provoke conservationists to rethink old metaphors and assumptions, and to embrace new ways of doing things. We are pleased to see change afoot in marine conservation with leaders such as Hilborn leading the charge. But the change is not complete and the enlightenment assumed by Suckling, Hayward and Martinez remains an aspiration, not a done deal. Conservation must not fall back into the ideological and impractical fortress mentality, a mentality that is insensitive to humans with needs that might supersede biodiversity.

Peter Kareiva is chief scientist and vice president of The Nature Conservancy. He, along with Michelle Marvier, is the author of Conservation Science. Robert Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and founding editor of the Conservancy's blog, "Cool Green Science". Michelle Marvier is professor and department chair of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University.

1. Rudd, M.A. 2011. "Scientists' opinions on the global status and management of biological diversity." Conservation Biology, 25: p. 1165-1175. (back)

2. McGivney, A. 2011. "Moses or Menace?" Backpacker, 2003. 31(1): p. 47. (back)

3. Beymer-Ferris, B. and T. Bassett. 2011. "The REDD menace: Resurgent protectionism in Tanzania's mangrove forests." Global Environmental Change, December. See also De Santo, E.M., P.J.S. Jones, and A.M.M. Miller, "Fortress conservation at sea: A commentary on the Chagos marine protected area." Marine Policy, 35: p. 258-260. (back)

4. Jackson, S.T. and R.J. Hobbs. 2011. "Ecological restoration in the light of ecological history." Science, 325: p. 568-569. (back)

5. Rockwell, R.F. and L.J. Gormezano. 2009. "The early bear gets the goose: Climate change, polar bears and lesser snow geese in western Hudson Bay." Polar Biology, 32: p. 539-547. (back)

6. Lindqvist, C., et al. 2010. "Complete mitochondrial genome of a Pleistocene jawbone unveils the origin of polar bear." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 107: p. 5053-5057. See also Edwards, C.J., et al. 2011. "Ancient hybridization and an Irish origin for the modern polar bear matriline." Current Biology, 21: p. 1251-1258. (back)