Is anything actually new in ‘new’ conservation, and are there actually new things going on in conservation?
(no and yes, but you need to read on to get my take on that.)
There has been a recent debate about new conservation. "New” conservation has been framed as essentially about incorporating non-conservation human values into conservation planning and action. This seems to have three characteristic flavors, most of which are anything but new.
First and foremost is stakeholder involvement in decision-making. Considering people’s needs and desires is critical, but hardly new. The US Federal government codified stakeholder involvement in environmental decisions in 1980 with the National Environmental Policy Act, and has been working to improve upon how they do that ever since. Most of the world has evolved along parallel tracks. If this is proponents of “new” conservation catching up with the world, then I think there has been a major mis-understanding in the whole debate and it is time to move on.
Second, economic models of conservation benefit (e.g., Payments for Ecosystems Services), likewise is not new. Resource economists have been studying methods for capturing nonmarket values, natural resources among them, for decades. With the advent of “payments for ecosystem services” there is a logical growth and progression toward sophistication, specificity and application of these principles to actual projects. Efforts to economize nature, however, have resulted in few cases where economics pencils out in favor of conservation action. In other words, the benefits of ecosystem services such as water and pollination are low relative to the cost of wood, fish, etc. The economic benefit derived through actions that damage services (e.g., ecosystem fertilization, invasive species and habitat loss) still mostly far exceed the economic benefit of protecting the services. The value of the services would need to be substantially higher before we can conserve much of it through purely economic drivers. The prices of these ecosystem services won’t get substantially higher, market economics tells us, until they get much scarcer. That seems bad for conservation. While there are resources and places where things are so bad that it drives conservation action, these seem more like salvaging the remnant shards than conservation successes we should trumpet. And, here is where many appear to part ways with ‘new’ conservation.
The third, and most controversial, part of ‘new’ conservation deals with partnering with multinational corporations to create win-win conservation and business outcomes. These efforts might genuinely result in favorable conservation outcomes. However, partnering with corporations has the potential for criticism as corporate apologists helping companies provide conservation benefit that amounts to a small fraction of the conservation damage they inflict. This may be new, and it is controversial and highly disliked by some. However, corporate programs remain a small part of how some big NGO’s (BINGO's) do conservation and the BINGO' are but a small (but highly visible) part of conservation. For those of you who question that, the 2014 global budgets of the five largest conservation NGO's (TNC, WWF, CI, WCS, Audubon) was less than $1 billion, while the budgets of the USFWS, NPS, BLM and USFS sum to over $4 billion. US states likely double that pot of public funds. Then there is the rest of the world. Hence, I consider this a tempest in a teapot.
Genuinely New Conservation
Considering “new” conservation to be not all that new, are there things that we might genuinely call new conservation? I think that the answer to this is an unequivocal yes. Here are two that rate high in my book.
First, conservation is rapidly decentralizing. Where there were once a small handful of BINGO’s doing most of the private conservation action, there are now thousands of local conservation organizations, thousands of local land trusts, thousands of local landowner or community conservation groups. These organizations have sprung up to capture local interests and local needs in local problems. I bet that the magnitude of these collective efforts over-top the magnitude of the BINGO’s. The challenge for ‘genuinely new’ conservation is for science to engage in the problems that these smaller organizations face. Large organizations invest in science (maybe not as much as some of us think they should). Small organizations are typically volunteer or have tiny professional staffs, mostly focused on projects and development. Organizations such as the Conservation Coaches Network (ccnetglobal.com) are stepping in to fill the void in terms of resource stewardship advice, but there is a long way to go. Conservation organizations, governments and scientists need to work on how to engage in local action and bring relevant scholarship to the table in their decisions.
Second, the majority of people now live in urban environments. With this recognition, there has been a rapidly evolving appreciation for the degree to which these urban populations are disconnected from nature and the importance of a connection to nature to support conservation actions. What we do in urban environments with respect to conserving nature? I would focus on how we leverage urban environments to ensure that a sufficiently large fraction of humanity vigorously support the endeavor of conservation. This, I think, begins with a specific program to understand what motivates urban people about nature and also seeks to reframe conservation. Public television and popular media has done a fantastic job of peddling a romantic view of nature that is far from our homes, and hence not really our responsibility. We need to promote the reality that even in urban areas people depend on a functioning nature for health and safety, and that humans deeply benefit from connections to nature. What this sounds like to me is applying behavioral psychology to conservation. Yes, there are handful of people who have been thinking about these issues, but we have not yet begun to formalize the principles of human psichology into government or private conservation strategies.
Well, I am sure that there are more new ideas in conservation, but those are two that concern me. Hence, I suggest that we treat the ‘new’ conservation debate for what it is: a distraction. We need to get on with what is actually new and genuinely needed in conservation.
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