Escape the Urban: Seemless Habitat

13 Mar

The Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, has a radical thought – there is no wilderness left, humans are part of the environment, and its foolhardy to pretend otherwise. As such, the goal of conservation should be to create working sustainable landscapes, not to protect abstract “biodiversity,” or other shibboleths that ultimately mean little to all but white, rich Americans.

A couple of the gems from Dr. Kareiva:

People want to be safe and secure, have food and shelter, and have an opportunity to better their lives. And they will use natural resources in any way possible to further those objectives.

The modern conservation movement has been naive in its strategies of defending nature against these human goals. Most notable is the thinking that “fortress conservation”—in the form of parks and nature reserves with guards and restrictions—can both expand enough to protect biodiversity and hold up against the pressures of the projected 2 billion more people by midcentury who will be in search of food and water.

The conservation of the future will be less and less about protected areas and increasingly about working landscapes, in which the most intrusive human activities are planned for and managed to generate the least damage and to avoid irreplaceable natural systems that cannot tolerate heavy impacts.

The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups write about “millions of acres protected.” Protected from what? From humans? The message of protecting nature from humans is a losing message to most of the world.

The alternative message is a goal of providing billions of people with a natural environment that is managed to meet their needs in perpetuity. We have to change the way people think about conservation, so that its connection to their well-being is ingrained.

Such pragmatism may seem common sense to those outside of the environmental community, but it flies in the face of decades of philosophy, activism, and trumpeted “success.” Environmentalists have taken an American Big Box approach to conservation – let everyone go to Walmart for their toilet paper, and the Grand Canyon in the summer to get their nature. The humans live over here. The nature lives over there. Its all very neat, clean, and separate. Nature is protected from humans, and if we just wall off enough of it, we’ll somehow shelter all the endangered species, maintain clean water, stop climate change, etc etc.

Dr. Kareiva is talking about blurring the lines, and managing all our land more efficiently. Integrate people and nature, and create a sustainable balance. Because even if we lock up ever larger sections of the world, and protect them from us, humans are still going to find the water, energy, food, livelihood and security they need to survive, one way or the other. Thus far, that has not been done in a ecologically sustainable way.

Such thoughts are not ivory tower treatises – they impact us in Western New York. Can we drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale and maintain the ecological integrity of the Southern Tier? Must Gasland be the result? Or with sufficient technology, regulation, oversight, and safety measures, can it be recovered without destroying the Allegheny Mountains? How much does the gas have to cost to pay for that rigorous oversight? Traditionally, oil companies would line up on one side shouting about jobs and development, and seek to undermine any regulations that would contain their activities. On the other side, environmental groups would line, and seek to place Allegheny in the fortress, under lock and key, and protect it from the humans, us. Dr. Kareiva’s model would admit that humans will get their energy from somewhere, and we should be asking “how,” and not “if,” because “if” isn’t working.

11 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Seemless Habitat”

  1. Chris Sasiadek March 14, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    It’s really because of our poor understanding of the natural environment that protecting biodiversity is so important from a utilitarian standpoint (ignoring all the ineffable intrinsic values that you dismiss as only important to rich white people). The ways that we get our food and other natural resources is not separate from the natural environment, and as we are seeing with bee die-offs, or sardine die-offs( they are delicious and nutritious, people!) we don’t know what actions on the part of humans will ultimately cause the destruction of something we find quantifiable and economically important.

  2. Brian Castner March 14, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    @ Chris – Dr. Kareiva’s point, which I think is well taken, is that to most of the poor, brown world (India, South America, Africa), biodiveristy is an abstract concept that doesn’t help them get fresh water and food for their families now. They will find food and water somehow, and currently it is in a non-earth friend, bio-diversity protected way. Even in America, environmental activism is a predominantly white activity, with little minorty representation or participation. So instead of selling “biodiversity” and fortress parks to the world (or even the US), make it accessible and put humans in the center. Sell fresh water for Africa through environmental stewardship. I love biodiversity, and I am totally on board with the point that our knowledge is limited – this is about how to best achieve those results.

    To your second point, Dr. Kareiva notes that farms are seen a threat to nature by many environmentalists. Instead, work on integrating them into the natural world more (animal migration corridors, for instance), as they are currently separate monoculturals that can produce some unanticipated effects.

  3. Brian March 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Farming as my grandfather did it was very much integrated with the wild.  On the other hand, the Depression wiped him out.  E’en now we pay much less for food (as for gas) than we really should. 

  4. Leo Wilson March 14, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    I see Dr. K’s point as being well considered. Nature doesn’t conserve or preserve, it wipes things out as fast as a weakness displays itself. And, people ARE part of nature – we evolved here from the same muck as everything else. Our byproducts are as natural as a bumble bee’s.

    We can learn to live better and have foresight. Simply restricting access isn’t working.

  5. STEEL March 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    A sustainable mix sounds so nice. So does endless energy with no pollution or other negatives. Lets do that too. And lets stop having wars too. Do date we have rammed our environmental ship into an ice burg. Talking about how nice it would be to now steer through the ice field with our sinking the ship is irrelevant at this point.

  6. Brian Castner March 14, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    @ Leo – I think you need to be careful with the “our byproducts are natural” line of thinking. Some of them are. Some are completely man made and have no natural way break them down (PCBs, CFCs). And some are natural but hazardous when present in the unnatural quantities we produce (uranium, benzene).

    @ STEEL: So, once we’ve made mistakes we should make no attempt to correct it, or do something better in the future. We’ve spent 50 years building suburbs, but that doesn’t stop you from going on and on and on and on about sprawl.

  7. STEEL March 14, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    No, I am saying that once you go past the tipping point you may no longer have the choice to do the ‘nice’ thing. We are way past the tipping point with the environment.

  8. STEEL March 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    To be clear I don’t totally disagree with the guy. There are programs in Africa which teach villages to value the wild environment as an economic asset which needs to be protected and enhanced. It has worked to save wild life in small instances. The force of absolute destruction however is far far more powerful.

    You wight rich comment however is just pure assholeness

  9. STEEL March 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    ‘Your white’ that is

  10. Brian Castner March 15, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    I think you do disagree with the guy. He’s not talking about setting up programs in Africa to save wildlife for tourists to look at – that’s the old model. He’s talking about devising programs to encourage food production and water management in a sustainable way . . . because currently water diversion and farming practices are a bigger threat overall, and humans will always seek food and water to survive.

    As for the “assholeness,” that’s the Nature Conservancy’s point, which I happen to agree with. From the article:

    To that end, the CEO and his chief scientist are aligned in pushing the Conservancy to reach out to new constituents, particularly minorities. Diversifying makes practical as well as moral sense. It’s impossible to influence something as vast as the global environment, Kareiva argues, by marshaling only a fragment of the population. So more people of color need to embrace green, which means the Conservancy needs to think outside the usual large-landscape box.

  11. Leo Wilson March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    @Brian your note of caution will be remembered.

    Feed those people, and they’ll learn all kinds of ticksey new things that were previously only for those that can afford it. Hungry people feed themselves, and worry about the long term consequences later.

    I believe it was Mother Teresa who, when a suggestion was made that poor people should abstain from having more children, said something to the effect that sex was the only pleasure they had in the whole world and it was something less than realistic to ask them to give it up.

    The same is true for the environment – people will consider it when they aren’t desperately trying to survive. I think that was Carlos Santana’s point in the song, “Amazonia”.

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