Photo by Brian Garrity / Unsplash

Conservation in the Age of Man

Nature is often resilient, not fragile. There is no wilderness unspoiled by man. Thoreau was a townie. Conservation, by many measures, is failing. If it is to survive, it has to change.

Environment & Energy Publishing recently featured an article on former SALT speaker Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy who argues that conservation work is in need of a new direction and philosophy. The “horror stories” ecologists love to tell about how humanity is singlehandedly (or better said, too-many-handedly) destroying nature are, he claims, not corroborated by research data. They are also a “strategy failure,” because they fail to connect the importance of conservation to the everyday lives and concerns of ordinary citizens.

The old ways aren’t working. Inch by inch, for better or worse, conservation must, he says, enter the Anthropocene Epoch – the Age of Man.

Kareiva argues that we must accept the irreversibility of the Anthropocene. Our impact on the environment can be traced back even further than we always thought – and nature itself has been continually changing since long before we came around. It is neither tenable nor desirable to protect nature from our influence. Rather, Kareiva tells us, conservation efforts must be structured around human life and our influential place in the larger ecosystem.

This means taking steps that ‘traditional’ ecologists might consider blasphemous. Conservation decisions must be based on value judgments – evaluations of value to human life – rather than on the a priori assumption that all human life is naturally destructive to the thriving of ecosystems.

“It’s not about biodiversity,” [Kareiva] said. “It’s about having a forest so you don’t get what happened in Haiti. It’s about having vegetation so water doesn’t get overloaded with nutrients. Having oyster reefs to reduce hurricane storm surges.”

E&E Publishing reports that the Nature Conservancy has indeed begun to shift its focus, with plans for precisely such an oyster reef on the Gulf Coast. In deciding its location, the Conservancy looked for a place that was not just ecologically vulnerable, but socio-economically vulnerable as well: the reef now protects a low-income region that could suffer disproportionately from storm damage.

This approach means having to make some difficult decisions. Our own Stewart Brand calls Kareiva a courageous man.

The Nature Conservancy is no longer in the business of “saving the last great places on Earth.” Its new slogan? “Protecting nature. Preserving life.” It’s a mind-boggling and welcome shift, said Brand, the environmentalist and author.

For Kareiva, it simply makes scientific sense – and it gets the message out to a wider public. For conservation to really work, everyone must be on board: not just Conservancy scientists, but also big corporations, inner-city kids, and the loggers and salmon fishers whose livelihoods depend on natural resources. Only with such a joint effort can we hope to make a sustained effort to preserve nature – so that nature can, in turn, help us preserve our civilization.

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