Conserving Places and Helping People

Bomb-thrower.  Not an adjective typically applied to reasonable conservationists or environmentalists.  Yet it is how The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva has been recently described after a series of lectures and interviews in which he calls the conservation movement to task for failing to protect biodiversity.  This failure, he claims, is due to an anachronistic view of nature and a misguided focus on preservation at the expense of humans.  His solution?  Viewing conservation through a human lens.

On the surface, this solution sounds reasonable; few conservationists would suggest that human well being is an unimportant consideration in environmental protection.  So why has Kareiva sparked off such a firestorm?  In part it is because he misrepresents the reality of modern conservation.  Conservation today already considers the need for human development.  Because he overlooks this critical aspect of modern conservation, Kareiva’s suggestions are seen by some as a call for a complete abandonment of the idea that conservation should be pursued for its intrinsic values and should instead be replaced by the idea that conservation should be pursued simply because it benefits humans.  A more important reason why Karieva’s comments have been so incendiary, however, is Kareiva’s arguments are based on a set of assumptions that do not ring as true as he claims.

He starts with the idea that nature is not as fragile as many conservationists would have you believe.  In fact, he suggests, it is incredibly resilient, recovering from human caused perturbation in over 70% of cases.  However, this argument omits crucial details of the study that he cites; most critically, he neglects to mention that the areas that recover are areas where the human perturbation ceased.  While it is reassuring that nature can recover quickly once humans have left, the vast majority of human development results in their permanent presence.  Look at one of his most central examples: Chernobyl.  He suggests that it is surprising that wildlife has recovered extremely well in the Chernobyl restricted zone considering the wide-held view by people that it is a nuclear wasteland.  But the resurgence of wildlife is not at all unexpected.  Humans have abandoned Chernobyl; that nature has recovered without the presence of humans is not at all surprising.  Equally as important, the study finds that in areas that have long-term perturbations (mining, logging) a majority of species do not recover – quite contrary to Kareiva’s claims that nature will come back from disturbances.

His second example, of the recovery of the Eastern Broadleaf forest in North America is a far more complex question than he presents.  While forest cover has increased, the ecosystem is far different from what it once was and is still under threat.

Both of his examples and his ultimate conclusion seem to suggest a belief in the presence of what economists call an Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) – the idea that has income rises, environmental degradation initially increases and then, after income becomes sufficiently high, falls again as higher wealth individuals develop a concern for the environment.  Thus, the reason Eastern Forests have recovered is because Americans became wealthy enough that they no longer needed to cut the forests to survive and began to care about their aesthetic value and so preserved them.  Instinctively the EKC is appealing; no one will care about the environment if they’re struggling to survive, but once people are comfortable, they start to try to protect it.

Unfortunately, among most economists, the EKC carries little weight anymore.  While it likely holds true for specific cases of localized air pollution, the available evidence does not support its broader application to global problems.  For example, carbon emissions continue to rise at all levels of income and the continued decline of forest stocks around the world suggest that exportation of deforestation has as much to do with the recovery of eastern forests as any rise in income.  Most relevant to Kareiva’s argument, the EKC has been demonstrated to not hold in the case of biodiversity, in part because species driven extinct during the growth phase of the EKC cannot be brought back once the right level of income is reached.  The rate at which species are lost may decline with increases in income, but initial declines in biodiversity cannot be reversed just because income increases

The inability to bring back what has been lost poses the greatest challenge to Kareiva’s desire to shift the focus of conservation organizations.  While human development is necessary and good, it often entails trade-offs between human needs and environmental protection.  If conservation organizations abandon a focus on conservation in favor of a focus on human development so that an all around richer world can better conserve nature in the future, they risk finding that there is nothing left worth preserving once income has reached a level where conservation can be prioritized.

Fortunately, there still exist places whose protection is worth sacrificing some human development.  The Baker and Pascua rivers in Patagonia are an excellent example.  It is the role of conservation organizations to help balance the needs of conservation with the needs of development.  Abandoning the idea of “protecting places” for a human focused lens of conservation inevitably compromises their ability to do this balancing. Abandoning the idea of “protecting places” for a human focused lens of conservation inevitably compromises their ability to do this balancing. Kareiva’s conclusion that damming the Mekong River was necessary is a clear demonstration of how embracing human development first and conservation second can lead to less than optimal outcomes. Instead of choosing to replace the dams with other, less destructive sources of renewable energy like those proposed to replace the HydroAysén project, the Vietnamese “need” for energy drove the development of environmentally damaging dams.

Human development cannot, and should not, be stopped.  Conservationists must embrace human causes and human needs in their pursuit of conservation.  Conversely, human development programs should embrace sustainability and environmental protection.  Programs like Kareiva’s Natural Capital Project are excellent examples of this in practice.  That does not mean, as Kareiva suggests, that conservationists should begin to focus their efforts on projects that aid human development instead of targeting conservation needs.  That is the role of institutions like the World Bank.  Instead, conservation organizations have a responsibility to advocate for protection of those places whose value, as they are today, is too high to sacrifice.  In this way they will ensure that development is not only sustainable but that there remain areas worth protecting in the future.