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On Pragmatic Conservation

Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus .'s picture
Consultants, Breakthrough Institute
  • Member since 2018
  • 21 items added with 19,277 views
  • Jun 11, 2015


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.

Photo Credit: Thoughtful Conservation/shutterstock

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jun 11, 2015

Before sounding like a self righteous know-it-all I should take my first shower in days and wash off the bug spray.

I look at what I consider the “European model” of high population, high living standard balance. Having participated in preservation (aka gentrification) efforts in core urban environments, and now (gulp, for over 35 years) in rare biodiversity areas, my perspectives are very different from many. Some helpful steps would likely not cross most minds.

The first step is garbage disposal and recycling. This area was full of legacy dumps that don’t fix themselves.

Second, learn to weld. I bought an old copper winding Lincoln stick welder, and other steel tools, and use them. Your flesh means nothing to the task at hand. I use heavy leather gloves for everything, always.

Third, forget the cute wood or trailer houses. Bugs and rodents and woodpeckers and rot love wood. Nothing worse than rotten wood full of rusty nails, except maybe a 50 year old broken beer bottle. Decades ago I was laughed at for grabbing rock from farm fields, now rock even from the gravel pit is hard to get. Rock and concrete and steel will survive, mostly.

And when you finish working hard on your 30 foot tall modern home or barn, full of what makes you feel civilized and secure, go for a walk. You, and wildlife, lose sight of your effort quickly in the 60 foot tall trees.

Since the Roman Empire, European planners have no comparison. The developing world, including the US, can learn a lot from them. And after all the masculine structural exhibition, a feminine touch makes it come to life in ways we can’t yet anticipate.

Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus .'s picture
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