The Cooler: Conservation’s Identity Crisis

identity crisis

Identity crisis? Photo by Flickr user Pizamanpat via Creative Commons.

Welcome to The Cooler, where we note interesting links and developments in conservation, science and conservation science. Suggestions welcome.

Within conservation circles, there have been raging debates about what conservation means and what its proper role is in a world that will soon have 9 billion people. You might call it a conservation identity crisis.

This week, Hillary Rosner did one of the most thorough jobs to date of summarizing that identity crisis in her Ensia article, “Is Conservation Extinct?” While bitter fights over conservation may seem detrimental, she sees hope.

The science says conservation is fighting a losing battle — just look at rates of species decline and habitat loss, says Rosner. And everyone knows it. So conservationists are adrift, trying to figure out:

“… not why we should save nature, but what exactly we should save and how we should save it. Against a backdrop of growing global resource demand and climate change — as well as emerging technologies, such as synthetic biology — that are wreaking philosophical havoc, finding the answers is urgent.”

It’s a decidedly uncomfortable place for anyone to be, but perhaps especially for a conservation scientist — someone who relies on data, statistics and on-the-ground evidence. Aside from therapy, what’s a conservationist to do?

Rosner believes there’s good news:

“Intense disagreement persists over how best to protect the planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity. But there may be more shared ground than anyone realizes — and it’s there we should look for the future of conservation, and of the natural world.”

Rosner acknowledges that some die-hard conservationists won’t like it, but the future is one of “managing change rather than trying to stop it” — instead, we can try to shape human development to have less of an impact on nature. Focusing on protecting biological processes, not species or places, is a key strategy that all conservationists can agree with, she says. And the future may even involve partnering with synthetic biology:

“Introducing man-made organisms into natural systems is a notion that fills many ecologists and conservation biologists with horror, imagining the havoc these novel life forms might wreak. But here, too, there is opportunity to help set the course. Synthetic biology might unfold without any thought for the needs of natural ecosystems. Or its vast potential might be harnessed in the service of sustainability.”

In the days following Rosner’s post, the World Wildlife Fund’s lead scientist Jon Hoekstra (a former scientist with The Nature Conservancy), wrote “What Is Conservation 3.0 and Why Does It Matter?, calling for a new movement:

“[Conservation 3.0] will deliberately manage nature, maybe even engineer it some ways, in order to maximize nature’s ability to supply food, water, energy, and other natural resources for the growing human population. At the same time, Conservation 3.0 still supports biodiversity.”

Many large conservation organizations are in agreement with this approach, but the debate over how we achieve it is far from over. While this identity crisis seems like an internal problem, the ideas and values we discuss will touch on the lives of everyone. Because conservation is ultimately about people — our health, our prosperity and our happiness.

What is the best way forward? It won’t be just professional conservationists who decide that. What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

Darci Palmquist is a senior science writer for The Nature Conservancy. Previously she served as editorial manager for, the website of The Nature Conservancy, as well as for the Conservancy's e-newsletter. She is based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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