The Wrong Conservation Message


April 2012 | Lisa Hayward, Barbara Martinez,

We applaud Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier for broadening the constituency of the conservation movement, but regret that the message of "Conservation in the Anthropocene" seems at odds with their larger objective. For a reader outside the conservation community, the paper is likely to reinforce the misconception that the conservation movement is fueled by a dogmatic, nature-before-people ideology. At the same time, a reader within the conservation community is likely to chafe at the incompatibility of the authors' arguments with the consensus of best available science and with the scientific process in general.

We agree that conservation leaders should seek opportunities to come to the table with corporations. But engagement with industry introduces new risks, including the possibility that nonprofit organizations will damage their own credibility and the credibility of the movement through association with corporate "greenwashing" schemes. Effective negotiation, both with industry and with policy makers, requires a positive and forward-looking vision, along with a strategy for risk management. Unfortunately, we feel that neither a vision nor strategy have been outlined in the authors' paper, although we strongly suspect the authors are in a position to significantly inform both.


"Conservation in the Anthropocene" was written in the tone of a polemic, effectively eliciting an emotional response. The problem with this approach is the authors do not accurately represent contemporary conservation leaders. They reinforce the misconception that modern conservation sets nature apart from and above people.

The argument, "by its own measures, conservation is failing," implies that the only goal of conservation is to prevent the loss of biodiversity. Although a major goal is to prevent extinctions, it is not the only metric that conservationists should or do apply to measure success.1 The abbreviated history of the conservation movement outlined in "Conservation in the Anthropocene" reinforces the misconception of nature versus people, as does its identification of "economic development for all" as a long-standing "anathema" to conservationists. To the contrary, a recent survey of conservation scientists found more support for poverty alleviation than for creating protected areas of high biological diversity.2

Scientists are likely to object to the statement "conservation is failing," given the lack of an appropriate counterfactual argument (i.e., we cannot observe the state of our planet in the absence of the conservation movement). Many conservationists identify as successes the creation of the US Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Environmental Protection Agency, university and corporate level programs on sustainability, the establishment of protected areas and the growth in membership and impact of conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund for Nature. Without the nongovernmental organizations, legislation and federal agencies established and amended over the past 60 years, we might have lost our national symbol, the bald eagle, and the Cuyahoga River might still be on fire.

An effective conservation message should neither overstate the resilience of nature nor understate it. The authors' statement, "Nature is so resilient it can recover rapidly from even the most powerful human disturbances," cannot be tested empirically. Paleontology suggests that ecosystems can indeed experience large-scale collapse and take many millions of years to recover. The geologic record indicates that oceanic ecosystem collapse during the End Permian and the End Triassic mass extinctions followed from loss of functional redundancy among species; after each collapse it took up to 10 million years for ecosystem stability to be reestablished.3 While in a certain sense these events may be taken as evidence of "nature's" "rapid" recovery, they also represent an unacceptable outcome that could follow from the current anthropogenic extinction event. In a conservation context, emphasizing the ability of nature to recover rapidly from disturbance is an inappropriate response to an overemphasis on ecosystem fragility. Overstating nature's resilience undermines the authors' credibility and provides an unacceptable starting point for negotiations with business interests or policy makers. Coming from respected conservation leaders, the published statement is likely to carry significant weight and may even be used to set standards of legitimacy4 for future negotiations between conservation and industry interests.

In recent years, conservation has broadened its constituency in the corporate sector and the world by legitimizing and elevating sustainability as critically important. As we move forward, we should be careful to design metrics to evaluate success that reflect the goals of conservation, which include protecting the quality of life for all people and preventing extinctions. But conservation leaders must also take care to articulate their goals in ways that do not alienate or cause counterproductive divisions in the field.

Given the authors' experience in engaging business interests, they stand to offer valuable lessons in risk management and negotiation. We welcome a detailed plan for new approaches to conservation and vision for measureable success. Absent this, we worry that "Conservation in the Anthropocene" will diminish conservation's reputation and its capacity to spur positive change, and, at worst, may justify the distortions of those who seek to profit at the expense of both people and nature.

(We would like to acknowledge the contributions of the 2011-2012 AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Biodiversity Affinity Group, particularly Dr. Sean Watts, who played the devil's advocate.)

Lisa Hayward and Barbara Martinez are AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows.

1. Redford, K., et al. 2003. "Mapping the Conservation Landscape." Conservation Biology. 17: 116-131; Rudd, M.A. 2011. "Scientists' Opinions on the Global Status and Management of Biological Diversity." Conservation Biology. 25: 1165-1175. (back)

2. Rudd, M.A. 2011. "Scientists' Opinions on the Global Status and Management of Biological Diversity." Conservation Biology. 25: 1165-1175. (back)

3. Whiteside, J.H. and P.D. Ward. 2011. "Ammonoid diversity and disparity track episodes of chaotic carbon cycling during the early Mesozoic." Geology. 39: 99-102. (back)

4. Fisher, R., et al. 2011. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Books. (back)