By creating technological substitutes for natural resources, and by growing more food on less land, humankind’s negative impact on the natural environmental can peak and decline within a few decades. That’s the conclusion of Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, Breakthrough’s first major report on conservation.
The overarching message [of Nature Unbound] is that it’s time for “a framework that reduces trade-offs between development and the environment.” For the past couple hundred years, the trade-offs have been big, and the environment has usually lost out. If that’s changing, it may be the most important news of our time.
For the villager, who asks to be identified only as Bernadette, life is a running battle. On tiny plots of corn, millet and sweet potatoes next to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she and her neighbors scrape a bare subsistence for themselves and their children. Her sweet potatoes, she told us last year, are under constant attack from baboons and elephants that stray from the park in search of food.
Deep agrarian poverty of this kind is hard on nature, too. Virunga is home to half of the world's fewer than 900 remaining mountain gorillas, as well as endangered elephants and antelope. The park's forests are under pressure from the charcoal trade, and in 2007 the local charcoal mafia assassinated seven of the park's gorillas in retaliation for a crackdown on illegal logging. Poachers have killed 250 of Virunga's 300 elephants in recent years, probably with the acquiescence of residents fed up with crop raiding by the animals.
Rising affluence over the past several centuries has, overall, been hard on the environment. But on the front lines of conservation, where people live intimately with primary forests, biodiversity hotspots and endangered species, it is often grinding poverty that drives the destruction.
Improvements in productivity, as exemplified by Shigeharu Shimamura's farm in Japan, could hold the key for conservation in the 21st century. Shimamura oversees a 25,000-square-foot farm at the site of a former Sony microchip factory. Everything grows safely indoors. With a combination of water, plant food and 17,500 LEDs, he harvests as much as 10,000 heads of lettuce a day—100 times more per square foot than an ordinary farm—using 90 percent less water and producing 80 percent less waste. Humans use about half the world's ice-free surface, mostly for food production. Yet with continuing technological improvements, population and its impact on the environment could peak and then decline within the next few decades.