Friday, June 6, 2014

Conservation in the Anthropocene: Trying to be Realistic

The geologic era in which we live is officially known as the Holocene. The era has become better known as the Anthropocene, a term coined to better recognize the effects of humans on the earth. The point to be determined by those who make these labeling decisions is whether or not some scientist examining geologic records many millions of years from now would recognize our current era as having unique characteristics that would set it apart from the periods immediately before and after. We can probably be assured that the popular term will become the official one.

One of the characteristics of the Anthropocene is something referred to as the Holocene Extinction or the Sixth Extinction. From Wikipedia:

"The Holocene extinction, sometimes called the Sixth Extinction, is a name proposed to describe the extinction event of species that has occurred during the present Holocene epoch (since around 10,000 BCE) mainly due to human activity. The large number of extinctions span numerous families of plants and animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods."

There have been five previous recorded mass extinction events in which large fractions of the flora and fauna simply disappeared. The most severe of these occurred about 250 million years ago and is popularly referred to as the Great Dying. From Wikipedia:

"It is the Earth's most severe known extinction event, with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. It is the only known mass extinction of insects. Some 57% of all families and 83% of all genera became extinct."

How does our era, the Anthropocene or Sixth Extinction, stand up against these earlier catastrophes? From Wikipedia:

"According to the species-area theory and based on upper-bound estimating, the present rate of extinction may be up to 140,000 species per year."

There are more species than can be counted and species come and go naturally without the assistance of humans.

"One scientist estimates the current extinction rate may be 10,000 times the background extinction rate. Nevertheless most scientists predict a much lower extinction rate than this outlying estimate. Stuart Pimm stated ‘the current rate of species extinction is about 100 times the natural rate’ for plants."

Given this view of the Anthropocene in which humans have already had such a profound effect on nature, isn’t it reasonable to ask the conservationist community what exactly is it that it is trying to conserve?

To that end, Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz produced an article titled Conservation in the Anthropocene. They begin with this assessment:

"By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline. We continue to lose forests in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are so few wild tigers and apes that they will be lost forever if current trends continue. Simply put, we are losing many more special places and species than we're saving."

The view of a reserve where nature can be enjoyed devoid of other humans and human activity has never been a possibility. Humans have been around for a long time and have had their foot on Mother Nature’s neck all the while. It is a bit arrogant to assume that the state of nature when an individual first observes it is somehow an ideal that must be preserved. Consider the case of Yosemite.

"Though Yosemite was a state park when Muir arrived, it was occupied by Miwok Indians growing crops, white settlers raising sheep, and miners seeking gold and other minerals. Not long after he built himself a cabin and a water-powered mill, Muir, as head of the Sierra Club, decided the other occupants had to go. Muir had sympathized with the oppression of the Winnebago Indians in his home state, but when it came time to empty Yosemite of all except the naturalists and tourists, Muir vigorously backed the expulsion of the Miwok. The Yosemite model spread to other national parks, including Yellowstone, where the forced evictions killed 300 Shoshone in one day."

Similar expulsions of indigenous peoples have been necessary to create nature preserves around the world.

"In 2009, the investigative journalist Mark Dowie, now professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley, published Conservation Refugees, which estimated, ‘About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples. In the Americas that number is over 80 percent.’ Estimates vary from five million people displaced over the last century by conservation to tens of millions, with one Cornell University professor estimating that 14 million individuals have been displaced by conservation in Africa alone."

These authors also point out that conservationists’ actions are often inconsistent with their stated goals.
"Beneath the invocations of the spiritual and transcendental value of untrammeled nature is an argument for using landscapes for some things and not others: hiking trails rather than roads, science stations rather than logging operations, and hotels for ecotourists instead of homes. By removing long-established human communities, erecting hotels in their stead, removing unwanted species while supporting more desirable species, drilling wells to water wildlife, and imposing fire management that mixes control with prescribed burns, we create parks that are no less human constructions than Disneyland."

The best of intentions often go awry when assets are removed from private ownership and become part of the "commons."

"In Indonesia, every major international conservation NGO has invested heavily to stem the tide of deforestation and the decline of iconic species, such as the orangutan. As a result, the country now has many protected areas. But you would never know it if you were to visit them because these areas are so heavily logged. Quantitative analyses of deforestation rates using satellite imagery reveal that forest loss is much greater inside protected Indonesian forests than in forests managed by local communities for sustainable logging."

The authors issue this challenge to conservationists of the future:

"….conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so. What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in which nature -- forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems -- exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness -- ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science -- and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision."

It is not surprising that this article shocked and angered a large number of "traditional" conservationists. The element of shock arose because the authors are not headline-seeking journalists; rather, they are firmly embedded in the conservationist community. Peter Kareiva is the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy, and Michelle Marvier is professor and department chair at the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University.

The Nature Conservancy is a big-time player in this arena.

"Founded in 1951, The Nature Conservancy works in more than 35 countries, including all 50 states of the United States. The Conservancy has over one million members, and has protected more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide. The Nature Conservancy also operates more than 100 marine conservation projects globally. The organization's assets total $5.64 billion as of 2009."

"The Nature Conservancy is the largest environmental nonprofit by assets and by revenue in the Americas."

D. T. Max produced an article that describes the tumult the Anthropocene paper caused within the Nature Conservancy community for The New Yorker: Green is Good: The Nature Conservancy wants to persuade big business to save the environment. Max details the efforts of Mark Tercek, the head of the Nature Conservancy as he tries to make the organization more "people friendly."

Tercek was recruited from, of all places, Goldman Sachs. He hopes to grow active collaborations with industry to further the Conservancy agenda. Max’s article focuses on an interaction underway with the Dow chemical plant in Freeport, Texas.

"The key idea is to create tools that can assign monetary value to natural resources. Tercek, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, thinks that environmental organizations rely on fuzzy science and fail to harness the power of markets. With the help of sound metrics drawn from the world of finance—‘a higher level of accountability,’ in his words—some of the ecological harm caused by the very same corporations can be undone. Nudging big business in a green direction, he believes, can do far more good than simply cordoning off parcels of Paradise."

"The assumption is that if you want companies to care about nature you must put a price tag on it. Otherwise, as one Nature conservancy economist told me, 'it implicitly gets a value of zero'."

An example of how the collaboration with Dow is intended to work was provided.

"The ground ozone level in the region exceeds the legal limit, and the Nature Conservancy calculated that, for what it would cost Dow to furnish the Freeport facility with an additional smokestack scrubber, it could reduce smog by planting a thousand acres of trees….In addition to absorbing the pollution, the trees would suck up carbon dioxide—the primary cause of climate change—while beautifying the landscape and providing wildlife with food and sanctuary. Moreover, a mechanical scrubber needs to be replaced every two decades, but a forest is self regenerating. ‘The idea to look at trees—it would never have crossed our minds,’ the Dow manager told Tercek."

Max expresses doubt that corporations can be expected to act in an environmentally sound manner.

"Yet there’s something dubious about trusting the main forces behind ecological ruin to reverse it. Dow and Coca Cola and Rio Tinto, to name three Nature Conservancy partners, are motivated not be public spirit but by survival instinct. If business goals overlap with ecological impulses, so much the better, but if they don’t, most companies will continue on a polluting path. This leaves little room for conservationists to operate."

That seems a rather harsh assessment of future possibilities. Putting credible costs on environmental damage and pollution is critical in convincing people of the need for regulations and restrictions. If the Nature Conservancy can play a role in that process, more power to them.

One wonders how the Nature Conservancy might put a price on the destruction of the only known habitat of a frog no one ever heard of so that might be compared with the benefit of a major construction project.

Change comes to all things, even to the concept of conservation. Let’s see what Tercek and his allies can accomplish.

1 comment:

  1. Two contradictions to consider:

    1. Karieva bashes conservationists with an exaggerated claim that they advocate removing indigenous people from their homelands. This is supposedly a terrible human rights violation of old school conservation that the "new" people-friendly conservation would never allow. Yet in the Max article you cite above, Tercek proudly boasts of supporting a massive dam building proposal that will displace indigenous people from their homeland which henceforth will exist at the bottom of a massive reservoir. It would appear that TNC is only people-friendly when that means opposing conservation. It is perfectly happy to destroy native cultures when it means supporting corporate profits.

    2. Karieva, in the paragraph and article you cite says conservation is failing, species are going extinct at record rate. Later in the article, he attacks old school environmentalism for it's doom and gloom pronouncements. In fact, he says, nature is resilient not fragile, it recovers very well from human impacts thus we shouldn't be so critical of the behavior of corporations seeking profit by logging, mining, polluting, etc. So which is it? Is conservation failing because things are falling apart? Or are things not falling apart because nature is resilient? Similar to its position on driving people from their homes, TNC adopts one standard for conservation (negative, prohibitive) and a completely different one for corporations (positive, tolerant).

    What is driving these contradictions and double-standards? Does it have anything to do with TNC's board being dominated by large corporations, its CEO being an international hedge fund manager, and its funding coming predominately from the world's largest corporations?


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