Nature Compensates

Interview with Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy

The legendary environmentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” For Dr. Peter Kareiva, however, this view is not only misguided, but counterproductive. Nature is not delicate and fragile, argues Kareiva, but resilient and quick to bounce back.

That’s not what you may expect from the Chief Scientist of the world’s largest environmental organization. The Nature Conservancy, after all, was founded on the idea of buying and protecting vast tracts of threatened wilderness.

But Kareiva has been at the helm of a major transition in the conservation movement: a conservation science that embraces people. The way that Kareiva conceives of nature has drawn both accolades and sharp criticism. Kareiva, however, seems to savor the controversy. As the ecologist Dan Simberloff has said, Kareiva is a “bomb thrower” who “gets tired of old ideas pretty quickly.”

SAGE Magazine’s Noah Sokol sat down with Peter Kareiva at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where he was delivering the keynote address at the School’s 30th Annual Doctoral Conference. Their conversation has been condensed and edited.

Peter Kareiva.  © Photo courtesy
Peter Kareiva. © Photo courtesy

SAGE Magazine: You’ve been outspoken about rejecting a long-held environmentalist view that nature is fragile – this thing we have to be very delicate with. You point out that that idea is simply not borne out by the science, and that nature is often resilient.

Peter Kareiva: Right. The way I actually like to talk about it, because I got in a lot of trouble about the whole “fragility” and “resilient” thing, is to use a better phrase: nature compensates.

By that, I mean you take out one productive species, you may not get it back, but other species compensate for it in some way. In a functional way. You may not get the same nature back, but often, functionally, you can compensate for you what you lost. That might be a better wording for scientists to use too.

And there are just so many examples of it. Mount St. Helens is where I used to do field research and that was obvious. Restored rivers all around the world … freshwater systems are highly restorable. The Nature Conservancy’s work now down in the Gulf of Mexico with the oyster reefs is remarkably effective. It’s expensive, but effective. And even with clear-cut forests and how they bounce back. So, it’s really changeable.

SAGE: This is a view that’s drawn some criticism.  From the environmentalist angle, the criticism is that this view of nature can be used as a justification for corporations who do damage to the environment, and say, “don’t worry, it will just bounce back.”

PK: So that’s certainly a risk with anything you say. But I think it could be a risk. So The Nature Conservancy has an approach called development by design. And the basic model is for a mining company going into Mongolia, for example. So you identify certain areas that you just don’t let them touch – if a location would block a migratory route or cripple a watershed, those are certain areas you would just not want them to mine in.

But you recognize that in other areas they could mine, and then either offset or mitigate it, and that area is not lost, it will eventually be part of your conservation portfolio. And then you have areas that are considered totally trashed.

If you view nature as fragile, the danger is that it can lead you to a view that it’s so fragile you can’t do anything – hands off. But I also agree that if you think that nature is totally resilient, it can lead you to thinking we can do anything.
When I say nature is resilient, I don’t intend it to mean: “we can do anything.” What I mean is that you can actually do a lot and it will bounce back.

SAGE: When you discuss nature’s resilience, you are discussing individual disruptions to individual systems. You list off these examples, such as the Gulf of Mexico bouncing back after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, plant and animal life rebounding after the massive eruption of Mount St. Helens.  I’ve also heard you speak before about the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands where an atomic bomb was set off in 1954 that literally boiled the ocean water, and now coral reefs there are flourishing again.

Is it possible to compare those types of disruptions to the more broad, global changes we’re now seeing? I’m thinking of climate change, land use change, changing species compositions within ecosystems.

PK: That gets at the whole planetary boundaries and thresholds question. I think that’s one of the most interesting scientific questions out there right now. Are there thresholds that, if crossed, will cause things to totally collapse?

When addressing that question, you always have to ask if it’s a regional question or a global question. For carbon emissions, it’s a global question because it’s a global system. That’s the core question of all the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) modeling: is it a linear thing, or at some point, will we flip and go to a totally different climate system? I certainly don’t know the answer to that. I know there’s a risk of it flipping, and that’s a real risk.

The question is, can we really screw things up so that we flip to an entirely different system that is highly undesirable? It’s not bad if it’s just different. It’s whether or not it’s highly undesirable. A highly undesirable system to me would be “the slimification of the oceans,” as Jeremy Jackson puts it. Nobody’s going to like that, right? And that’s a great visual.

So if we flipped to the slimification of the oceans, that would be highly undesirable. Whether or not that’s going to happen as we accumulate these different stressors is, to me, something we should be answering. I don’t know the answer.

SAGE: You’ve said before that the idea that “nature is fragile and we can’t do anything to it” is an idea that can be really misleading when making management and policy decisions. Are there any examples of how you think that view has misinformed policy or management efforts?

PK: Sure. Take endangered species legislation: I mean, I don’t want to see species lost. But because I don’t want to see species lost, I think we have to be willing to move them around. We’ve got this case in Santa Cruz Island with the bird called the Island Jay. It’s only one population. The logical thing to do, if you care about preserving species, is to move it to another island where it used to be anyway. To be more active. But we’re so hands off, so “don’t touch,” it doesn’t allow us to be proactive.

That’s a very classic case. As we’ve thought about the way we manage and protect nature, we’ve sort of put ourselves in a straightjacket that doesn’t allow us, as scientists, to be experimental about solutions.

There are so many examples. With the salmon in the Snake and Columbia Rivers where I used to work, the dams were a really, really bad thing. Everyone knows that the fish just washed up dead on the shores. But then, we spent a billion dollars re-engineering those dams. And if you look at the data, the salmon – particularly the salmon that those dams were re-engineered for – are doing fine.  I mean, they may not be doing fine, but they aren’t being hammered by the dams.

But people don’t like to say that, because that’s an engineering and technical solution to a problem. Now it’s true, it’s not a free-flowing river, and that has its problems. But the “no dams” view is the extreme extension of the idea that “we can’t touch nature.” It’s a manifestation of it. The opposite view is to say that it’s in the country’s best interests in terms of energy policy to get part of our power from hydropower, so how can we best design the dams?

SAGE: That’s a good segue to discussing Henry David Thoreau. There’s a Thoreau quote that seems to sum up perfectly the view of the old guard of environmentalists:  “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Can you explain why you see that view as of the old guard, and why the conservation movement has to move away from that perspective?

PK: Because the new conservation movement has to embrace people.  I mean there’s no question. It has to embrace people.

And actually, it’s not that new. You have to separate the conservation movement on college campuses versus the conservation that’s actually done.  The conservation done on college campuses is a passionate exercise, its advocacy, it’s intellectual. But you know, if you go into California, or you go into Washington to work on salmon conservation, you actually get engaged. And by that I mean if you go to town hall meetings, try to affect legislation and policy, talk to the First Nations, you will embrace people. You will.  You’ll have to see things from their points of view; you’ll have to negotiate with them.

So even though it might seem new in the pages of Conservation Biology, it’s not that new in the practice of conservation.

But I think what’s threatening about that to some people is the view that we’re in a zero sum game. The view that: as we add people, we take away from nature. That’s the fear. So if I say: “Its not just about wilderness,” that gets translated to “You’re taking away wilderness.”

I don’t see it as a zero game. If it is a zero sum game, we’re doomed. Because there’s too small a sector of the population, and of the economy, that cares about it.

SAGE: I want to talk about connecting people with the conservation movement. As you’ve stated before, the majority of people in the conservation movement are white, affluent, Democrat, and have an average age of 65. The Nature Conservancy has been increasingly reaching out, trying to energize different demographics, such as urban youth.

Do you see the effort to engage urban youth in conservation as necessary because it will help expand the influence of the movement, bring in more awareness, more money, etc. Or is there another reason to engage this group?

PK: I mean, there are so many reasons to do it. Certainly by engaging urban youth you are engaging a constituency that may allow you to gain additional money. But the real reason you engage urban youth, and this new demographic, is that you have to look forward to what society is going to look like in twenty years. If you have no link, understanding, empathy, or even ability to relate to the culture in twenty years, you just won’t be able to do your job.

We have this program called LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future), where we take urban youth, and they go out and work on our nature reserves.  Its not only an education program, they work for pay, collecting data, building fences … you know, real summer field-season work.

And initially we evaluated that program by doing a whole bunch of ‘before and after’ social science surveys about how the kids changed their attitudes.

But for the first time this year, we decided to do surveys of The Nature Conservancy employees that received these folks. And we just got the report from that and it blew me away. It revealed the other reason you do this: it changed how our staff thought about conservation.

SAGE: How so?

PK: It made them realize that there are other people (these kids) who are passionate about conservation and about nature, but they don’t quite see it quite the same way. They don’t want to, you know, go out and sleep in the forest in a tent. They don’t want that. But they love nature and they want to do conservation.

SAGE: So as the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, how do you use that? Envisioning where The Nature Conservancy is going, and these urban youth who form an increasingly large demographic, who have this different view of conservation?

PK: First of all, we hire social scientists and economists a lot more. We put a lot more into communications. We have a science communications team of three, and that includes different media, Facebook outreach, we have online lessons plans –

SAGE: But more broadly, does this change what you are aiming to conserve?

PK: The message you are trying to deliver to those folks is: we want to conserve nature you can enjoy and gain benefits from. And that picture of enjoyment can’t be an elephant safari you’re never going to get to. That picture has to be something you can actually use. That a kid in New York City or Los Angeles could take part in.

SAGE: The Nature Conservancy seems to be, for awhile now, moving away from the traditional model of buying vast tracts of land and preserving individual species, and more towards preserving –

PK: – Systems.

SAGE: Yes. Systems and functions. Which is, in some ways, a more nebulous, harder-to-grasp idea. So, first off, do you think the age of buying big tracts of land is nearing its end?

PK: Absolutely not. We just did the Montana deal, the world’s largest land conservation deal: half a billion dollars. We have deals going on the record now that I can’t talk about, but they’re bigger scale than that.

There are lots of reasons to have big landscapes. But in these big land deals, like in the Montana deal, there’s mixed timber. There’s sustainable logging mixed with no logging areas. You buy the land to have some control over the landscapes, then you give away or sell some of that landscape to the government for parks, you keep some of it to learn how to manage it, then you might give some it to ranchers or loggers under easement, so they can work they land.

SAGE: Okay, so the age of big land deals is not done. But it’s hard to argue that it’s not slowing down, because there’s just not that much land left to buy. So there does seem to be a movement away from these big land deals, and towards this idea of preserving ecosystem function.

PK: Yes.

SAGE: So I have to ask you, is the name The Nature Conservancy still a relevant name?

PK: Absolutely.

SAGE: Why?

PK:  Why? (laughs) Because it is still natural systems that we seek to conserve. People have different definitions of nature, but it is still nature we want to conserve. I mean, there were conservationists before anybody invented the term “biodiversity.” People have been working to conserve nature for ages. The Japanese were working to conserve nature two thousand years ago. But they didn’t have the concept of a species-by-species approach. It was just this place that they thought was beautiful.

Editor’s Note: The Thoreau quotation was originally misquoted as “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” We’ve made the correction to “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Thanks to Michael Cohen for the correction.

Noah Sokol

Noah Sokol is an Associate Editor at Sage Magazine and a second-year PhD student in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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  1. Asked to give an example where a false “don’t intervene because nature is fragile” philosophy has “misinformed policy or management efforts,” Peter says a “classic example” is the Endangered Species Act requiring a “hands off” approach to conserving the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay. This is incorrect. The Santa Cruz scrub jay is not listed as an endangered species and the Endangered Species Act has not limited any action directed toward its management. Moreover, management of the scrub jay has not been hands off: the Nature Conservancy, park service and others have successful taken active steps to improve its habitat and are capturing and vaccinating birds against the potential threat of West Nile virus. As a result, the species population size has grown.

    Scientists are now considering establishing a second population on nearby Santa Rosa Island which may have been a historical jay breeding area. That proposal has not been stopped, slowed, affected by, or in any way subjected to Endangered Species Act review.

    Unfortunately, this is not an isolated error. As I and others have pointed out elsewhere

    Peter’s description of the “problem” with conservation is so off base, it thoroughly contaminates his “solution”.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

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