A Conversation with Peter Kareiva: Rescaling Civilization

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Published on June 6th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy's Chief Scientist

This week, the journal Nature published a paper by Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva, Paul Ehrlich and Gretchen Daily titled Securing Natural Capital and Expanding Equity to Rescale Civilization. In it, the authors state that “humanity has never been moving faster nor farther from sustainability than it is now” and that “our increasing population size and per-capita impacts are severely testing the ability of Earth to provide for peoples’ most basic needs.”

How to address these pressing concerns? Kareiva and his coauthors focus on three main areas: achieving a sustainable population size, securing vital natural capital, and reducing gender inequity. We recently sat down with Peter Kareiva to discuss the paper, and the hope he sees in the daunting task of “rescaling civilization.”

Q: As your paper points out, “sustainability” has become an incredibly popular term. Many have argued that the word has lost all its meaning through overuse and deliberate misuse. What should sustainability mean today to regain relevance as a concept?

Peter Kareiva: I am not quite ready to say sustainability is a useless word. However vague and variously defined it might be, for everyone “sustainability” brings to mind some sense of not selling out our future for the sake of instant gratification today. Its relevance is that my kids are worried and a little angry about the possibility they are going to spend their lives in a world with degraded environments, fewer job opportunities, and a more constraining sense of limits. Sustainability should mean: do not leave your children with any fewer options, opportunities and potential for inspiration from nature than you had.

Q: One of the central tenets of your paper is that sustainability is strongly tied to women’s rights. What are the ways that empowering women makes a difference for nature?

Kareiva: Good governance and empowered communities with accountability and a say in resource management are good for conservation. This is one of the findings that won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize in Economics. Empowering women is one dimension of good governance and good resource management. The interesting question is whether women’s involvement in conservation has a unique extra benefit. Some of the studies we cite in our paper suggest it may — perhaps because women are often the ones closely tied to activities such as gathering firewood, insuring there is food for the children, and carrying water back to the household. These are all activities closely connected to the benefits of well-managed nature.

Q: The paper states: “If consumption is not brought in line with reduced population pressure, there is little hope for gains in sustainability.” But people do have “needs and aspirations,” and telling people how much is enough is never popular. Is there a realistic way to curb consumption? Should we even be trying to do so?

Kareiva: Many ecologists are quick to condemn consumerism and our overly consumptive society (but have you ever noticed how well-furnished their homes are?). That is not my shtick, although I worry the quote you excerpted has a bit of the preachy tone I so dislike. To me the consumption problem is one of getting the supply chain right and keeping our stuff for longer. Consume yes — but consume items that have made it to you via a supply chain that does the least possible damage to earth’s systems, and keep those items for longer. The surprising news is that just as population shows signs of leveling off, so too does consumption. The number of cars on U.S. highways is flat and per capita mileage is declining. In Britain, there has been a steady decline in materials used since 2000. Who knows, we might reach “peak stuff” before we reach “peak oil.”

Q: You’re well known in the conservation community as an optimist, but this paper begins with the statement that “humanity has never been moving faster nor farther from sustainability that it is now.” How do you remain confident that people really will “rescale civilization” and take the sometimes dramatic steps to become sustainable?

Kareiva: That is an easy question. The “faster and farther” is because of how rapidly we are going to add the next two billion people to the planet — with all that these 2 billion mean for food and water and energy demands. The optimism comes from the observation we make in the paper about falling fertility rates in many countries, and my conclusion that we just need to get through the next 50 to 100 years, and after that population pressure will ease up and give the planet a lot more breathing room. That is a very different scenario than worrying the population is going to just keep growing and growing, and growing relentlessly. My scenario of the global population peaking at 9 or 10 billion is a tractable problem. We know the design constraints — feed and take care of 9 billion. So now it is a matter of smart development. Smart development is within our reach.

Q: You and your coauthors call for the development of “new narratives” to get us back on the track of sustainability. What kinds of narratives do you have in mind?

Kareiva: Tomorrow’s nature will be wildly different than anything our parents grew up with. Coyotes that have acquired wolf genes will be regularly taking down deer in places they never before lived. Buffalo may be roaming on grasslands amidst fields of wind turbines. Abandoned unproductive farmland may be a mishmash of non-native and native trees and called a county park. This is not cause for mourning. Instead, we should be energized by the fact that just as we have never had so much power to destroy nature, we have also never had so much knowledge and information to design the future of nature in a way that sustains and inspires.

Q: What are one or two signs that would tell you that people take the concept of valuing nature seriously, and what might we do to get there?

Kareiva: Most people already value nature — they just do not know how to organize that value into action that makes a difference, and they see other needs such as job security and healthcare as more pressing. We will know that we are making the progress we need to make when investments in nature are seen as good for business, good for jobs, and good for human well-being. You probably think I must be so totally naïve to expect this to all happen — but heh, the Wall Street Journal just ran a piece called “Mom Was Right: Go Outside,” extolling the virtues of nature. But words are not enough — we need to see money for the Gulf go to habitat restoration, we need to see growth in the U.S. land and water acquisition fund, and we need to see China thinking about the long term impacts of its aquaculture industry, and we need to see the global rush to hydropower balanced with a concern for floodplains and natural flows. Those are all tangible outcomes that an organization like The Nature Conservancy can work to make happen. But this is only going to happen if we can get over our fear that talking about the value of nature somehow means we do not care about biodiversity anymore.

Q: How could science play a bigger role in pushing sustainability, especially given the current political climate?

Kareiva: I presume when you say “current political climate” you are remarking on that media cliché of an anti-science culture and politics? What dreck. Science has never been more influential and more core to decision-making. The fact science is often under attack in the arena of climate change and other major policy discussions is proof of that fact — you do not waste energy on attacking a group that has no influence in society. There is no question in my mind that science is society’s point guard. Science can play a bigger role by getting its act together: clear metrics for sustainability, compelling messages; being solution-oriented as opposed to doom-and-gloom oriented; better policing itself (by that I mean scrutinizing “bad news” about the environment as carefully as it scrutinizes “good news about the environment”); being more transparent and opening all data and modeling up to all-comers (so how much of TNC’s science data is open for anyone to see and access?). I want scientists with business savvy, schooled in economics and ecology, deft with computer modeling but not clueless about natural history, and ideally with some background in anthropology. In short, science can play a bigger role by simply being smarter, more transparent, and more open to internal debate and questioning — environmental science in particular has too often behaved like an ideology as opposed to a science where there are no sacred cows.

[Image: Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy's chief scientist, photographed at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. Image source: Dave Lauridsen]

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2 Responses to “A Conversation with Peter Kareiva: Rescaling Civilization”

  1. TNC is working with partners to empower women and address the unmet need for family planning and primary healthcare in an integrated manner that’s linked to terrestrial and freshwater conservation – as well as climate change adaptation – in TNC’s Tuungane (Let’s Unite in Kiswahili) project in Western Tanzania. Check it out:http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/africa/wherewework/tuungane-project.xml

  2. Ron Jones says:

    There is only one environmental problem, and that is population.

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