Walt Reid on Conservation Bright Spots & Systems Versus Species Thinking

May 7, 2014

Walt Reid, director of Conservation and Science at the Packard Foundation and past director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Photo courtesy of Walt Reid. Photo courtesy of Walt Reid.

Conservation science has changed a lot in the past two decades. In a new occasional series on Cool Green Science — Green Giants — we’re asking some of the people who have helped drive that change to weigh in with their thoughts on where we’ve been, where we are going, and what new science we need to get there. 

Walt Reid is director of the Conservation and Science Program for the Packard Foundation. Reid also directed the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), an initiative designed to improve the management of the world’s natural and managed ecosystems by helping to meet the needs of decision-makers and the public for peer-reviewed, policy-relevant scientific information. From 2001-2005, more than 1,360 experts worldwide worked on the MA and the report set a high bar for the growing role of social and decision science in modern conservation science.

Biggest problem facing conservation

Walt Reid: Over longer time scales, the biggest problem is certainly climate change (and ocean acidification). But at shorter time scales, there are immediate threats that are much more pressing than climate change and where conservation science can play a very significant role. These threats include habitat loss, agricultural expansion, loss of marine habitat, and the overexploitation of fisheries.

Why demand-side approaches have a lot of potential

We used to think almost entirely in terms of policy reform, government regulation…the supply side of conservation. But there are so many things happening now with demand side approaches. In so many parts of the world, actions taken by the private sector are having a greater conservation impact than actions taken by governments.

For example, several years ago companies in the Consumer Goods Forum, made up of most of the world’s largest consumer products companies including Unilever, Wal-Mart, Kellogg’s and General Mills, committed to removing deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. And we are seeing that translate now into actions on the ground in countries like Indonesia as companies demand traceable supply chains even for commodity products like palm oil and then require that the commodities are produced sustainably.

In the 1990s, we would never have imagined that we would see the abrupt turnaround on deforestation in Brazil that took place beginning in 2004.

Walt Reid

To make this work, there has to be self-interest from the private sector — whether that’s about reputation (they don’t want to see a Greenpeace banner down the side of their headquarters building) or they think they can reduce costs, ensure a more sustainable supply, or limit liability.

Of course, you end up with some big gaps where there are companies that can’t be easily influenced by consumer demand or where there isn’t a short- or medium- term economic rationale — the fossil fuel sector being an obvious example. But where there is self-interest, there is a lot of potential for movement.

Most overlooked issue

Food production. We urgently need to figure out how to produce much more food with much less environmental impact. The projected growth in food demand, combined with growing bioenergy demand, will place extraordinary pressure on the environment. We’re not producing food in a way that is sustainable. Unless we get agriculture right, then we aren’t going to win on conservation.

Biggest fear

Climate change keeps me up at night. I recently read a paper by Hal Harvey and Lynn Orr (A Trillion Tons, published in Daedalus in 2013) where they imagine what would happen if a hypothetical zero carbon energy source costing half the price of coal achieved mass global penetration within 20 years.

They find that even with that apparent “silver bullet” technology, emissions in 2050 would only be about 10% less than “‘business as usual” — showing how unlikely it is that we’ll be able to stay under 450 ppm carbon dioxide (the limit beyond which global average temperature increases are likely to exceed 2 degrees Celsius).

Who are the best experts on influencing behaviors of a targeted audience? Advertisers. Political campaign strategists. We have a lot we can learn from them.

Walt Reid

Most useful new science for conservation

Over the last four decades, the basic science on the distribution and status of species and habitats was instrumental in motivating and guiding conservation action. There still is a need for better biological and natural science information. For example, there is an urgent need to protect forests on peat soils in Indonesia from deforestation since these habitats can become a source of major greenhouse gas emissions, but we still don’t have high resolution maps of those habitats.

But an even more pressing need now is for better information on how to actually make conservation work at scale and as part of broader development strategies. Some of the most interesting new work is the science that allows us to better understand human behavior and how to modify it. And much of that work is in a more applied form. Who are the best experts on influencing behaviors of a targeted audience? Advertisers. Political campaign strategists. We have a lot we can learn from them.

If you look back, conservation has evolved from a focus on the site to a focus on the system. When we focused on individual species or sites, we tended to rely mostly on natural science information. But for conservation to work, the whole system of resource management, laws, policies, rights, incentives and behaviors is involved and understanding that is inherently multi-disciplinary. It was hard enough just integrating economics and conservation biology, and it will be even harder to work in a more multidisciplinary setting.

Bright spots

Two of the brightest spots of the last decade are the dramatic reduction in deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon and improved fisheries management in the OECD countries. In the 1990s, we would never have imagined that we would see the abrupt turnaround on deforestation in Brazil that took place beginning in 2004.

There were many factors involved — public awareness in Brazil, a political change, international attention, consumer boycotts. But the conservation community played a critical role in documenting the problem, explaining the impacts, pressing the government for action, and helping to prioritize and protect many of the most important areas.

In so many parts of the world, actions taken by the private sector are having a greater conservation impact than actions taken by governments.

Walt Reid

In OECD countries, there have been significant improvements in fisheries management in the past 15 years. Overharvesting of fisheries in the United States used to be the norm, but today overfishing has ended for almost all federally managed fisheries. Europe has now passed a law that should end overfishing.

Subsidies that promoted overcapacity have been reduced in many countries and rights-based management frameworks have been put in place that align economic incentives with sustainable fisheries management goals. Outside of the OECD countries, another success involved the spread (or re-establishment) of community-based management systems for coastal fisheries in many developing countries.

I’m also excited by the cases where it has been possible to create markets for previously un-marketed ecosystem services. In many places in Latin America, for instance, it has been possible to create markets for watershed protection, where downstream users will pay to protect upstream watersheds and secure their water supply. The carbon market provides an even larger-scale opportunity for ecosystem service conservation. Combined ecological, social, political and economic analysis can be really helpful in these situations.

Underutilized information

I think about situations where we have information telling us that a conservation gain would also make sense economically over the long term, but where there are short-term costs and winners and losers that make the transition too difficult.

Reforming fisheries is one of those situations. We know that we can bring fisheries back from the brink and generate higher economic returns if we greatly reduce harvests for a period — but a lot of people are going to lose their livelihoods during that transition, creating a major political obstacle.

There are other situations — such as investing in ecotourism or wetland protection — where our research tells us that an investment now will yield significant social and economic returns in the long run.  But having that information isn’t sufficient to overcome the barriers. We don’t know how to finance the transition.

Lessons from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

One of the biggest lessons from the MA was the importance of trade-offs in how we manage natural and modified systems. Conservation has moved from a focus on species, to sites, to systems. When you’re looking at a problem from a species perspective, you can say extinction is just unacceptable. But when viewing a problem from a system perspective, there really aren’t any easy stopping rules or decision points. At a site level, you can still draw some hard lines. But at a system level, there’s really nothing but complicated decisions and tradeoffs.

Walt earned his PhD in zoology from the University of Washington and served as a consulting professor at Stanford University, but has spent most of his career working with NGOs, including Resources for the Future, the World Resources Institute, and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. In addition to his work at the Packard Foundation, Walt serves on the task team overseeing an International Council for Science process to develop global environmental change research priorities and he served a member of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services working group of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). He is also on the Board of Editors of Ecosystems and PLOS-Biology and a member of the International Advisory Board of Frontiers in Ecology and Environment.

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.