Environmentalist: Nature is Resilient, Not Fragile

Hold onto your seat, there’s a lot of text below:

Peter Kaveira, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization in Washington D.C., recently made headlines by writing a provocative essay, criticizing many of the assumptions held by today’s professional environmentalists:

“We love the horror story,” Kareiva said. He was dressed in New Balance running shoes, a purple sweater and rumpled tan trousers. “We just love it. The environmental movement has loved it. That, I think, is … [a] strategy failure. And it’s actually not supported by science.”

This is not some vague hypothesis, he added to murmurs. He’s seen it in the data.

“The message [has been that] humans degrade and destroy and really crucify the natural environment, and woe is me,” he said. “The reality is humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment — and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well, and 20 percent of the time it doesn’t.”

One of the visitors, Lisa Hayward, an ecologist working on invasive-species policy at the U.S. Geological Survey, spoke up. How can that be so? “I feel that does not represent the consensus of the ecological community,” she said.

“I’m certain that it doesn’t represent the consensus of the ecological community,” Kareiva shot back, with a smile and flash in his eyes. A circle of nervous laughter swayed around the room. “I’m absolutely certain of that! Wait two years.”

Kareiva has never feared following the data, or dragging others with him. Already a respected ecologist, for the past decade he has shoved the Nature Conservancy toward a new environmentalism. The old ways aren’t working. Inch by inch, for better or worse, conservation must, he says, enter the Anthropocene Epoch — the Age of Man.

Though the rest of the article is behind a subscription wall, a longer excerpt is available here. It is a refreshing perspective from one leader of groups that have been historically dominated by gloom and doom, as his personal essay points out, fewer and fewer people are buying into that anymore. The world has dramatically expanded its impact on the environment, as the global population continues to grow. More and more people are moving out of poverty, and though this can have a short-term impact on local environments, a wealthier world is a healthier world. Individuals demand more environmental responsibility as the societies they live in become wealthier; the Chinese are currently dealing with severe air pollution problems in their cities, and it is expected that their future power plant generation will require more pollution controls, and similar requirements will be ramped up on vehicles, etc.

Kaveira argues that environmentalists are living in the past, and are effectively lying to their constituents about the state of nature, producing a doom-and-gloom view to sustain their relevance, at the expense of any sort of real progress:

That working-class background has never left Kareiva; he has clung to it. It’s in the accent never abandoned, the deep love of sports, the dishevelment of his day-to-day clothing. (A student once complained about his dress. Kareiva stuck the note on his file cabinet.) He came from the fields of agricultural ecology to the wealthy man’s world of conservation, and he would not pay fealty. Not without looking at the data.

This underdog mind-set and scientific adherence have often left Kareiva disappointed, especially with environmentalists, whom he sees drowning in credibility problems.

“We all know corporations lie to us and distort things, but so do environmentalists,” Kareiva told his visitors, policy fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, earlier this year. “And conservationists. Just as much.”

Take the salmon incident, he said. By the late 1990s, Kareiva had joined the National Marine Fisheries Service as a senior ecologist. The Pacific Northwest was then embroiled in a controversy over salmon and dams. The service needed Kareiva’s modeling talents to save its analysis, which he did in short order, according to Mary Ruckelshaus, Kareiva’s former postdoc, who had lured him to the service.

Most environmental groups ignored his work, though, which found that dams weren’t the problem for a number of runs. Instead, they published a full-page ad in the New York Times claiming that, by 2017, chinook salmon would be extinct in the Snake River.

We would certainly agree that environmentalists have a habit of exaggerating the negative, and completely ignoring the positives of new resource development.

Here is an excerpt from his essay:

One need not be a postmodernist to understand that the concept of Nature, as opposed to the physical and chemical workings of natural systems, has always been a human construction, shaped and designed for human ends. The notion that nature without people is more valuable than nature with people and the portrayal of nature as fragile or feminine reflect not timeless truths, but mental schema that change to fit the time.

If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conservation? It would start by appreciating the strength and resilience of nature while also recognizing the many ways in which we depend upon it. Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development — development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind. And it will utilize the right kinds of technology to enhance the health and well-being of both human and nonhuman natures. Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures. Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden — not a carefully manicured and rigid one, but a tangle of species and wildness amidst lands used for food production, mineral extraction, and urban life.

Nature will, almost always, take the backseat to policies that improve human welfare. However, being in the backseat doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as Kaveira points out. For a more positive outlook on human progress and the environment, check out this article from Reason magazine’s science correspondent, Ron Bailey. And more commentary on Kaveria’s essay, including disagreement, from follow environmentalists.



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