On Pragmatic Conservation

How Decoupling and Pragmatic Rewilding Are Key to Conservation in the 21st Century

The last few years have seen a big debate among leading conservationists over the future of parks and protected areas. On one side are groups like The Nature Conservancy that work with foreign countries to site hydroelectric dams so they are less destructive of river systems and with big corporations to protect wetlands and reduce pollution. These groups have tended to argue that all of nature is a kind of “rambunctious garden,” a mix of human and nonhuman influences.

On the other side are groups like the Center for Biological Diversity that sue US government agencies to protect more endangered species and try to stop dams in poor countries. These groups criticize the view of nature as a garden and defend older views of wilderness as devoid of human activity. The fighting has been so intense that a group of scientists last year urged both groups to calm down and seek common ground.

What has been missing from the debates is a discussion of the biggest challenge facing conservationists everywhere: how to meet the food, energy, and other resource needs of poor nations while protecting parks, biodiversity, and threatened animal populations. While conservation has succeeded in protecting 13 percent of the ice-free surface of the Earth, many protected areas in poor countries are threatened by societal demands for food, energy, and resources.

Although the situation looks grim in poor nations, in rich nations protected areas are growing in number and size, and animal populations are growing so much that communities from Bangor, Maine, to Brisbane, Australia, are struggling to control their respective bear and kangaroo populations.

Understanding the reasons for this difference between rich and poor nations is crucial to protecting more nature in the 21st century. In rich nations, demand for food, energy, and natural resources has largely saturated and is increasingly decoupled from economic growth. This has allowed for what conservationists call "rewilding." In the United States and Europe, marginal farmland has been abandoned and returned to grasslands and forests, and animal populations have surged.

For ecomodernists, the implications are clear: if we want to protect more nature in the 21st century, then poor and developed nations must also decouple their food, energy, and resource demands from economic growth. Such a reality can be achieved more quickly through urbanization, agricultural intensification, electrification, and other modernization processes.

Decoupling efforts are not enough, however, and still require a strategy for managing rewilding. On this question, argues Stanford geographer Martin Lewis in a new piece for Breakthrough Journal, rich countries have something important to learn from poor ones. In “Rewilding Pragmatism,” Lewis draws on the messy successes of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Kruger is crisscrossed by roads and cluttered with middlebrow accommodations. But its populism, its growing size, and its rebounding animal populations, including elephants and apex predators, have led many scientists to conclude that Kruger’s pragmatic model — characterized by positive relations with park neighbors — is superior to fussier rewilding efforts in the United States and Europe.

“We don’t have to choose between the ‘wilderness’ of the traditional green imagination and the ‘domesticated garden’ that is the supposed desideratum of the new school,” Lewis concludes.

Conservationists will, to be sure, continue to disagree about the best path forward for protecting more nature in the 21st century. Such debates are inevitable to democratic societies and resource management questions that require trade-offs and tough decisions.

What decoupling for conservation offers is a strategy for reducing the number of trade-offs and accelerating the arrival of peak human impact. What pragmatic rewilding offers is a framework for managing trade-offs and minimizing conflicts with local communities negatively affected by land use restrictions and burgeoning animal populations.

Decoupling and pragmatic rewilding won’t end the nature wars, but together they provide a path to meet the rising global demand not only for food, energy, and resources, but also for biodiversity and nature protection.

As always, responses are welcome.