How Peter Kareiva Changed the Trajectory of Conservation

July 28, 2015

Peter Kareiva delivering a talk at the PopTech 2012 conference. Image credit: Thatcher Cook for PopTech.

Sanjayan is executive vice-president and senior scientist at Conservation International, which he joined in 2014 after 12 years as lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

Global conservation organizations claim to be “led” or “guided by science.”

Those are useful assertions — for instance, when we need to stoutly defend taking or refusing to take a controversial or popular position, or perhaps to impress a donor. And to be fair, many ideas now firmly spliced into the DNA of our institutions (from connectivity to natural capital) were developed in conservation science.

But the trouble with the phrase “guided by science” is that it implies conservation has in place an

orderly, clean-sheet process — whereby scientists are duly consulted, and their wisdom incorporated seamlessly by managers into conservation practice.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, science claws its way in — to conservation as much as any other pursuit. It flips the magnetic poles of established paradigms, destroys what comes before, and upends lives and budgets with unnerving frequency. And then it ushers in the creation of tottering new edifices from the ruins of old temples and gods, only to knock them down anew.

Science is a disruptive force. And Dr. Peter Kareiva is Shiva incarnate — the disruptor himself.

People, Truth, Service…and an Inimitable Dress Code

PK and I (along with John Wiens) started together as lead scientists at The Nature Conservancy about 12 years ago. I was director of science for TNC’s California program when, at Peter’s urging, the then-CEO of the Conservancy picked me to join Peter and John.

Lead scientist for the organization was a role I could not have had the confidence to tackle if not for Peter by my side. And all that I have subsequently accomplished both at TNC and beyond I can easily trace back to the friendship and mentoring that Peter offered. I suspect I join a long list of similarly empowered leaders.

As chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, Peter has both fundamentally changed the trajectory of the largest international conservation organization in the world, and beyond that, conservation in general. He has achieved this unique distinction and had outsized influence on the organization in three ways: people, truth and service.

First, let’s talk about people. Especially those who live on the margins of protected areas, where rural poverty is high and opportunity for advancement low, or those crowded into mega-cities like Rio or Houston or Beijing.

Peter consistently made conservation about people — and with that simple innovation, he gave us a new paradigm by which we could protect the places and creatures we love.

Everything from water funds to community-based fisheries to Development by Design is rooted in and supported by this simple premise: that people need nature, and saving natural capital is an investment in our future.

Second, let’s talk about truth. For a scientist, truth is what the evidence supports, and it’s permanent only so long as the data holds. Truth is ephemeral — and it’s the pursuit of truth rather than the dogmatic acceptance of any particular path that defines a dynamic organization.

This pursuit can be uncomfortable because it is continually upending internal power structures and external trajectories, yet it’s crucial for long-term relevance. Peter embraced the role of gadfly — the guy whose job it is to say “but what if,” continually testing the patience of his bosses, and setting a modern-day example for the rest of us scientists of what it means to speak truth to power.

Finally, let’s talk Peter’s service — to science at TNC and conservation as a whole.

The Germans won the World Cup last year through teamwork, not great individual achievement. Keep the ball moving and it doesn’t matter who takes the winning shot. The best basketball player in the world (Lebron James) met his match in June’s NBA finals when confronted by a team of disciplined generous players whose depth and bench strength proved superior.

Peter is the smartest scientist at TNC. But alone that would not have been enough to succeed. Rather, it was his continual mentoring, recruiting and cultivating of others, all of whom he believed could be smarter than him, that made his brand of leadership so infectious.

Many of us were personally touched and greatly influenced by his care. Eddie Game, Jen Molnar, Stephanie Wear, Mike Beck, Scott Morrison, both Joe Fargione and Joe Kiesecker (“Good Joe” and “Bad Joe,” as per two of PK’s innumerable nicknames for his science staff) are among many new leaders whose rising stars can be traced to PK’s efforts to make the team better than the star.

Finally, there is his dress code, if we can we call it that. Peter made me look good — made us all look good. No one had to bother wearing even khakis. All we had to do was aspire beyond basketball shorts and Haines.

I expect the last of his legendary out-of-office messages as TNC chief scientist to say something like this: “After enduring years of derision at the hands of the blue blazer and khaki crowd, I am moving to Los Angeles to reinvent my sartorial splendor as a celebrity apprentice for Kanye West. Do not expect me to reply to your emails, but I am prompt on Snapchat.”

Peter, thank you for a fearless decade of advancing science and conservation at The Nature Conservancy. The world — both people and, yes, nature — are better for it.

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