Approaching 8 billion people, it has never been more apparent that environmental management requires difficult discussions about this tension between individual freedom (e.g., to exploit) and societal interests (e.g., to protect). Population growth has meant that nearly all decisions in the environment are contested in this crowded world where people are everywhere, exploiting everything. I suppose that it is inevitable that conservation groups look around and see population growth as the root of the problem, and the key to long-term solutions.
A more nuanced view of the fundamental drivers of environmental degradation looks at resource use, human footprints and income disparity as a core root of the problem. The earth would be able to support 8 billion people much more readily if a couple billion of us (with wealth) lived more like the rest (who lack wealth). This leads to consideration of life choices and an emphasis on the individual choice to leave a small footprint on earth systems as a consequence of our own existence.
It is a bit more than a decade since three immigration proponents ran for the Sierra Club board of directors (2004). It was about the same time that the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) arose, capturing ideas about non-growth economies that have been raised since the birth of economics itself.
These ideas should challenge conservation scientists. Sure, we seek local solutions for local problems. And, by doing so, we find a variety of bright spots (and e.g., here). However, we also see these as bright ‘spots’ specifically because there is a background of darkness, or degradation, that is inexorably driven by an ever increasing human population with needs.
This is a big challenge. Who doesn’t want to improve the lives of themselves and their families through access to clean water, better food, more material goods, and an increased capacity to travel (ie, be moved about by some vehicle that consumes fossil fuels)? I suspect mostly people who already over-consume with respect to the planet on all of those fronts (e.g., people like me).
This brings us to the next conundrum. When it is people who do not lack basic goods who are the predominant proponents for tight constraints on population growth and reductions of human footprints, we find environmental justice advocates arguing that this is a modified version of a classist argument to keep the oppressed in subservient positions, protecting the advantages of the wealthy. That seems like a fair argument.
This, then, is a root challenge for conservation. How do we actually help conserve a livable planet that provides for the rights of the trillions of organisms amongst the millions other species on the planet to persist while not abusing the rights of the ~6 billion humans on the planet who would like to live more like those who with the wealth to value conserving nature?
Sorry, I don’t have an answer to that. Practically, I face that conundrum through avoidance. Yup, the easy route. Working with conservation agencies within the U.S., economic disparity among stakeholders is less severe; solutions can be found with relatively little environmental imperialism. That, however, does not make solutions for nature easy.
As developed countries appear to increasingly struggle with civil discourse. Differences in opinion are often too often viewed as scorecards of side A versus side B rather than viewed as finding a pathway that maximizes achieves competing but shared values. Health care in the US is an obvious example. Arguing the merits of ObamaCare reform, we lose sight of the shared values: maximizing the capacity to maintain healthy people within a context where fully funding all health care interventions for all people appears unaffordable. The decidedly uncivil dialogue that emerges from this politicized discourse focuses on caring for people versus crushing the national economy with lack of individual responsibility.
I previously wrote on using environmental conflict to re-learn how to engage in civil discourse to seek solutions without descending in to win-lose framing of issues (i.e., politics). In conservation, we do this by focusing on shared values, clearly identified competing objectives, and identifying solutions that jointly maximize positive outcomes. This is often, but not always, a quantitative exercise within a social context of people who are not quantitative sorts. Thus, there is a strong emphasis on communication and inter-personal relationships. This is also true for problems in developing countries.
Conservation seeks engagement in civil discussion on challenging issues that do not reduce to polarized and simplified us-versus-them arguments. Environmental issues are providing the opportunity to regain civil discourse around shared values. Conservation groups are finding ranchers with whom they can find solutions to local ranchland / open space challenges despite disagreeing on most political issues. Everyone recognizes the need to use natural resources for human benefit (e.g., sufficient food production) alongside a need to place limits on this use so as to protect healthy environments in which we can live and work in a sustainable manner (e.g., minimize agricultural pollution and habitat use).
Conservation science has turned a page toward becoming a fully inter-disciplinary field combining natural and social sciences to find socially implementable strategies to protect livable environments for all species. The fields of psychology, ethics, sociology, law , economics and communication now each have sub-fields in the environment. Conserving nature requires deploying this diverse toolbox of scholarship to try and figure out what creates sustainable solutions for nature under which conditions. Nature conservation has a new focus on helping people to prosper while also providing livable ecosystems for other species.
Within this context, we see a balance or tension between top-down governmental regulation (e.g., The Endangered Species Act) versus bottom up solutions (e.g., community-based river keeper groups). The future of conservation requires learning which kinds of challenges work best with what degree of top down and bottom up inputs, responsibilities and controls.
Given that environmental issues are consistently near the top of people’s priorities, yet never at the very top, results in a sweet spot of opportunity to engage in real dialogue about civil discourse within the context of the environment to see if people can use principles that work in environmental discourse to regain civil discourse in other realms. Carefully listening to civil discourse from people with varying perspectives is a pre-requisite to tackling the root issues of conservation, for sure.
I still do not know how best to go further to get at the root issues facing the protection of nature on planet Earth, the dark cloud providing the contrast for our bright spots of conservation. However, I do think that it is a good idea to balance the idea of bright spots with the dark reality of fundamental drivers of degradation that we are slowing, but not stopping.
Google chrome users: click here to download a RSS extension