Green is Good: Science-Based Conservation in the 21st Century

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Published on May 5th, 2014  |  Discuss This Article  

Jaymee Marty's team looks into buckets of water collected from the vernal pools on the Howard Ranch near Sacramento for research into the effects of cattle grazing on California's delicate vernal pool habitats. Photo by Ian Shive.

Conservancy scientists look into buckets of water collected from the vernal pools on the Howard Ranch near Sacramento for research into the effects of cattle grazing on California’s delicate vernal pool habitats. Photo by Ian Shive.

Mark R. Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive By Investing in Nature.

Peter Kareiva is chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

More than 60 years ago, scientists began The Nature Conservancy (TNC) with an idea — to protect a piece of nature by purchasing it and setting it aside.

The Nature Conservancy has grown since then. But we’ve remained consistent about our dedication to science, to practical solutions, and most of all, to finding the best ideas to meet the challenges nature faces.

That inclusive approach is why TNC embraces a wide variety of ways of doing conservation — and reasons for supporting it. Those reasons range from having access to abundant hunting and fishing to the philosophy that every species has a right to exist. From the need to sit alone in quiet contemplation of a beautiful landscape to the needs of hundreds of millions whose livelihoods depend on healthy fisheries or grasslands.

Some might think all these motivations are incompatible. At TNC, we see them as part of our big tent.

But you might be surprised to learn that science is a crucial part of what allows us to be so ecumenical. How is that possible? Doesn’t science rule out much more than it allows?

On the contrary. Science asks questions, challenges conventional wisdom, applies the latest technologies, and leaves no stone unturned. A science-based organization is by definition always restless, experimenting and casting a wide net for better solutions whose worth is proven by evidence.

And conservation today needs that attitude. The challenges the world faces — from climate change to land conversion for agriculture to the growing footprint of our energy appetites — are immense and expanding exponentially.

The story journalists report about conservation today — like the New Yorker piece just published on The Nature Conservancy — sometimes emphasize tensions between “new” and “traditional” approaches. We understand how tension and conflict makes for a good story. But we do not see things as new versus old.

We also do not see conservation as choosing between protected areas and biodiversity or working with corporations and smart development. We think and have shown you can get both. We have worked with Rio Tinto in Mongolia to mitigate mining impacts and gotten an additional 400,000 hectares of land protected where mining is prohibited.

To be clear: The Nature Conservancy continues to embrace “traditional” strategies. We still buy land, we arrange for easements with ranchers and logging companies, we help nations establish marine protected areas.

But we also know that securing those “last great places” (as our old motto had it) will be to no avail if climate change renders them obsolete. If overgrazing and poor farming practices lead to large-scale dust storms that sweep across continents. If dry and brittle forests burn up in record-setting wildfires. If overfishing empties our oceans.

Our newer tactics — working directly with people on strategies that can benefit them as well as nature — acknowledge that conservation today cannot succeed without the support of those who depend directly on resources for their livelihoods. The science and our desire to be better conservationists drive us to adopt and test these tactics. We see them as much as “conservation” as any big land deal.

That desire is why TNC collaborates with corporations to further the work of conservation. For all its flaws, capitalism has been an engine of innovation and improvement in the quality of life in many nations — and corporations are major drivers and shapers of today’s civilization. Here again, we are science-based in our approach. Even though we have written extensively about why nature is a good business investment, we also must produce evidence to show that the approach is making a difference.

It is often written that companies have motives and goals contrary to conservation and that when a corporation’s objectives run counter to conservation, the notion of working with business will fall apart. We think business and nature are aligned in their interests more than most realize, and that the environmental values of business leaders and their employees can also play a huge role.

Our approach — to try, to test, to justify through evidence, and to revise in the face of evidence before replicating — will always be a hallmark of TNC. It has and will continue to allow us to explore questions from a conservation standpoint.

For instance: Is the U.S. push for corn biofuel really good for nature? Our research showed that corn biofuels reap too little and too delayed a greenhouse-gas reduction benefit—and could be using up land that would be better devoted to food or conservation.

With more than half the world’s population living in cities, what does it mean to do conservation in cities and for cities?

Might genetically modified organisms be part of the solution to growing more food on less land — again, thus sparing massive habitat conversion?

Given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report warning we have only a decade to halt the worst ravages of climate change on nature and the natural systems people depend on, should nuclear power be off the table as an energy option?

Can we afford to ignore population growth, particularly in areas where resources and species are under heightened pressure? In Tanzania, TNC now works with partners to support family planning in the same communities where we also develop fishing and grazing methods that bring food to the table without destroying wildlife and ecosystems.

Finally, as the New Yorker article details, we are working with Dow Chemical Company, in search of natural solutions to engineering, regulatory and operational challenges they face—solutions that benefit both nature and the company’s bottom line. The work can be difficult, with occasional misunderstandings — we have had to learn how to communicate across different cultures and lexicons.

But difficulty isn’t going to deflect us from finding out whether conservation can make the case for its relevance to a corporation’s systemic business planning. Imagine the gains if we can do so. We submit our results in papers to peer-reviewed journals for publication, to share the knowledge we generate from this collaboration to all.

Since much of this “new” work is an experiment, it doesn’t all work out. For instance, many years ago we tried to set up an aquaculture operation in Indonesia as a means of providing alternative livelihoods so local communities would not damage or over-fish coral reef systems. The enterprise was an economic failure and had to be shut down.

But the lesson was not to pull back from working with people; it was that we had a lot to learn about conservation that benefitted both biodiversity and people in that situation. We are even incorporating new disciplines into our science portfolio, and new collaborations that bring together our scientists with engineers, practitioners, policymakers and others. Our NatureNet Science Fellows program, for instance, is supporting some young scientists to explore nanotechnology for both cleaning water, and for creating a more efficient solar-energy driven battery. Our Science for Nature and People collaboration is delving into whether fracking can be done without compromising water quantity and quality for nature and people.

None of this fits the profile of traditional conservation, or conservation science. But all of it fits squarely within our mission to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends, not to mention the heritage of intellectual curiosity and pragmatism that mark TNC.

Part of science, too, is asking hard questions — of new ideas and old ones. We owe our supporters nothing less as we seek to give them maximum conservation return for their investments in our work. Those small parcels of land TNC bought in the 1960s and 70s are sometimes surrounded by a sea of degradation, and require relentless management. We know it was worth spending millions of dollars to rid Santa Cruz Island of non-native pigs. But we are pretty sure it would not be worth spending what could be hundreds of millions of dollars to rid California of non-native Eucalyptus trees (which also happen to harbor wildlife and monarch butterflies). As the world changes, our ideas have to respond to what science tells us, and how we can best make the biggest impact for nature.

In the end, those of us who do and who support conservation don’t have the time to get caught up in debates over “traditional” vs. “new.” We have to focus on what works — discovering it, testing it, replicating it and amplifying it. That is the genius of science, and of The Nature Conservancy. We work with people and organizations that can help us move the conservation agenda forward, and help it to garner the support of as many people as possible. It’s time to get back to work.  

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Comments: Green is Good: Science-Based Conservation in the 21st Century

  •  Comment from Blythe

    So well written. Thanks Mark and Peter for your open, honest assessments. And yay science!

  •  Comment from Tom Rumpf

    Well stated. Thank you. Change is hard, but necessary if we are to succeed. Let’s get back to work saving lands and waters for people and nature.

  •  Comment from Paul Kingsbury

    Mark & Peter, you said it well. It’s not about “old conservation” vs. “new conservation.” It’s about what works, even if what works is not perfect. Remember what Voltaire said: Perfection is the enemy of good. We can’t leave a perfect world for our grandchildren. Let’s leave a good one!

  •  Comment from Robert Osborne

    As one of the very largest global organizations dedicated to protecting the environment, on a scale with many governments, it is appropriate that TNC think big and operate in ways that can have huge impacts. This will often mean investing in projects that are nuanced, that involve market-based business solutions and/or public partnerships, that balance competing interests in order to be effective, and that may not be as popularly charismatic as some alternatives. TNC’s strong science roots will help sort out the best places to make these enormous bets. Fortunately, TNC is not alone. There is a broad range of conservation NGOs, and each can find its appropriate niche on the spectrum that includes legislation and lobbying, regulations and policy initiatives on public lands, investment partnerships and market-based solutions in the private sector, engagement, advocacy and activism at local and personal levels, etc. Some of these are “traditional” NGO approaches, some are not. But not everyone can, or should, follow the same model. TNC is uniquely positioned for large-scale, science-based projects at the scale that Mark and Peter describe, and should pursue them aggressively. Other NGOs can operate in different spheres of activity. Let’s celebrate the diversity of approaches and maximize effectiveness for all of them.

  •  Comment from Chris Madson

    I hesitate to make this point, but in several public statements over the last two years, Dr. Kareiva stressed what he saw as a conflict between the “old” and “new” approaches to conservation— if the NEW YORKER considered this issue, it was only because Dr. Kareiva has brought it up repeatedly. His characterization of the “old” was historically inaccurate and cast aspersions on many groups who were conserving wildlife on “working landscapes” before TNC was even established. I’m somewhat encouraged by the content of this post, since it suggests that he has at least revised some of these views, which are not only contrary to fact but threaten to erode important partnerships. TNC has built a reputation for working across a spectrum of landscapes, from the near-pristine to the most altered. It has worked with individuals, private-sector conservation groups, government at all levels, and, where possible, with industry. Most important, it has strived always to maintain native biodiversity, which is to say “wildness,” on earth. Accomplishing that goal requires advocacy for untrammeled country as well as managing degraded areas. Striking the balance between cooperation with corporate interests and commitment to that mission will always be crucial to TNC’s success. It’s a balance that’s difficult to achieve. I hope this statement from Mr. Tercek and Dr. Kareiva reflects their renewed commitment to that goal.

  •  Comment from Naomi Kirschenbaum

    Well said, Mr Osborne. I’m happy to see you are serving TNC-Alaska. The deep roots in science based perspective serve to provide rational, reflective evaluation and decision making. This is the direction we must go for best success.

    And, getting it wrong sometimes, well that’s just to be expected. There is so much we learn when we appear to fail. So many successes would not be achieved without the rocky road traveled.

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