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A New Conservation Ethic for the 21st Century

The old conservation model isn't working to save the planet. Here's a provocative look at how to make it more effective.

Photo Credit: K. Moore


 By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline. We continue to lose forests in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are so few wild tigers and apes that they will be lost forever if current trends continue. Simply put, we are losing many more special places and species than we're saving.

Ironically, conservation is losing the war to protect nature despite winning one of its hardest fought battles -- the fight to create parks, game preserves, and wilderness areas. Even as we are losing species and wild places at an accelerating rate, the worldwide number of protected areas has risen dramatically, from under 10,000 in 1950 to over 100,000 by 2009. Around the world, nations have set aside beautiful, biodiverse areas where human development is restricted. By some estimates, 13 percent of the world's land mass is protected, an area larger than all of South America.

But while conservation has historically been locally driven -- focused on saving specific places such as Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon, or on managing very limited ecological systems like watersheds and forests -- its more recent ambitions have become almost fantastical. For example, is halting deforestation in the Amazon, an area nearly the size of the continental United States, feasible? Is it even necessary? Putting a boundary around Yosemite Valley is not the same as attempting to do so around the Amazon. Just as the United States was dammed, logged, and crisscrossed by roads, it is likely that much of the Amazon will be as well.

Only with the rapid transformation of the developing world -- from rural or pastoral cultures to urban and industrial nations -- and the unmistakable domestication of our planet that has resulted has the paradox at the heart of contemporary conservation become apparent. We may protect places of particular beauty or those places with large numbers of species, but even as we do, the pace of destruction will likely continue to accelerate. Whether or not the developing world sets aside a large percentage of its landscapes as parks or wilderness over the next hundred years, what is clear is that those protected areas will remain islands of "pristine nature" in a sea of profound human transformations to the landscape through logging, agriculture, mining, damming, and urbanization.

In the face of these realities, 21st century conservation is changing. Conservationists have taken steps to become more "people friendly" and to attend more seriously to working landscapes. Conservation will likely continue to create parks and wilderness areas, but that will be just one part of the field's larger goals. The bigger questions for 21st century conservation regard what we will do with the rest of it -- the working landscapes, the urban ecosystems, the fisheries and tree plantations, the vast swaths of agricultural monocultures, and the growing expanses of marginal agricultural lands and second growth forests that, as agriculture and forestry become more productive and intensive, are already returning to something that may not be wilderness, but is of conservation value, nonetheless.

In answering these questions, conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so. What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in which nature -- forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems -- exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness -- ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science -- and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.

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