- In Part 1 of Conservation, Divided, veteran Mongabay reporter Jeremy Hance explores how the world’s biggest conservation groups have embraced a human-centric approach known as “new conservation” that has split the field over how best to save life on Earth.
- Neither side of the debate disagrees that conservation today is failing to adequately halt mass extinction. But how to proceed is where talks break down, especially when it comes to the importance of protected areas and the efficacy of the biggest, most recognizable groups.
- Conservation, Divided is an in-depth four-part series investigating how the field of conservation has changed over the last 30 years — and the challenges it faces moving into an uncertain future. Hance completed the series over the course of eight months. Stories will run weekly through May 17.
Bashing the big...One of the things you discover as an environmental journalist is just how quickly scientists and conservationists are happy to bash — off the record, of course — big conservation groups. These include four of the world’s largest wildlife and wild-lands-focused groups with a global footprint: WWF, Conservation International (CI), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and at times, though to a much lesser extent, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Together these four groups employ over ten thousand people in nearly a hundred countries and have a collective annual income of around $2 billion. In many parts of the world, if not most, one of these four groups is likely to be seen as the public face of conservation efforts.
Over the years former employees have regularly dished the dirt to me about missed opportunities, misplaced values, and projects that seemed to fail as often as they succeeded, while current employees often sounded like public relations officials speaking in staccato. Outside conservationists often complained that the big NGOs took credit for their hard work and bungled local relationships. The same concerns would come up repeatedly: an obsession with the organization’s brand at the expense of success, a corporate-mimicked hierarchy, cushy relationships with some of the world’s biggest environmentally destructive corporations, radio silence on so many environmental issues, and an inability to respond to crises that are appearing with ever-more regularity...
The rise of “new conservation”The biggest shift in conservation in recent times is the rise of something called “new conservation.” This change is the origin of some — but by no means all — of the criticism flung at big conservation today.
Since the beginnings of the modern conservation movement — often linked to the rise of national parks in the nineteenth century — conservation has been largely about setting aside tracts of land or water and developing ways to protect endangered species. While early conservation efforts were in part propelled by economic and human-oriented values (such as hunting and recreation), they also placed a major emphasis on saving nature for its intrinsic and spiritual worth.
...Inspired by Muir and others, many environmentalists argued that whatever nature might be worth economically to humankind now or in the future, it possesses a deeper importance that can’t and shouldn’t be measured in dollar signs. We should protect nature not because it serves myriad human needs (even though it does), but because we have a moral duty to do so.
Yet in recent decades the pendulum has swung back toward viewing nature through a largely utilitarian lens. This is perhaps not surprising given the rise of global environmental threats like climate change, ocean acidification, overpopulation, pollution, and mass extinction — and the growing realization that these threats could actually unhinge the workings of human civilization and plunge millions, maybe billions, into misery.
But this shift also followed the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 80s, a movement that espoused de-regulation, distrust in governments, and deepening trust (some might even say religious-like fanaticism) in free markets and private enterprise. Conservationists were not immune to such beliefs. Following this period, environmentalists took a page from economists in attempting to meticulously measure everything in nature for its economic worth today and even make guesses about tomorrow. How much is pollination worth? Carbon sequestration? Water filtration?
A wonderful vision took form: if we could only incorporate the dollar value of nature into our current economic system — and convince policy makers and business people to understand that unrecognized economic value — we could save the world. This economic-centric approach has come to be called “new conservation.”
New conservationists argue that past conservation efforts never fully comprehended or addressed the real causes of biodiversity loss.
Tom Dillon, Senior Vice President of Forests and Freshwater for World Wildlife Fund-US (part of WWF), told me that the “core” of new conservation is transforming the drivers of destruction to be more environmentally friendly.
So, the new philosophy largely turned to focus on lands and waters outside protected areas with attempts to green big industries like agriculture, logging, fisheries, and mining.
“Expanding agriculture is responsible for most of the world’s deforestation. Polluted runoff and fragmented ecosystems from poorly planned infrastructure, such as roads and dams, is a major threat to the world’s rivers. Understanding the magnitude of these threats has helped us in creating innovative approaches to addressing them,” Dillon said. “And that is the only way we will be able to protect the world’s wildlife.”