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Conservation for the Next 100 Years

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

The world is different than it was, and changing at light speed, but can we learn from the last 100 years of conservation to inform the next 100 years

Really, it was quite unfair of me to answer the question the way I did, but I stand by it.

I had been asked by a ‘young environmental professionals’ group to speak at their chapter meeting. Once I got past the fact that that I was chronologically unqualified for membership (!), I was happy to speak.

I talked about my sector, my career, the dips and turns, etc. Then they made the inevitable query: “Do you have any advice about securing a job in this [area], [day and age], [etc.]?”

I leaned forward and began confidently, almost conspiratorially,“You need to be good at two things.” Even the slightly disengaged leaned forward, mental pencils hovered over mental notebooks. I finished, “… and it doesn’t really matter what those two things are.” The responses ranged from confused to annoyed (murderous?), but I meant it.

From a linear world to a systems world

I went on to explain how I was raised in a linear world, which meant that job-security was based on doing something, then doing it better, and perhaps even becoming the best at it. They, by contrast, were living in a systems world, one where interconnection and trans-boundary knowledge was the core element of effectiveness.

For me personally, it was ‘communications’ and ‘ecology’. I joked that when I was in the room with ecologists, I was the worst ecologist, but the best communicator; the reverse being true in a room of communicators. In many ways, the successes I had achieved were based on not being an expert, nor even being a jack-of-all-trades, but being a knowledgeable intermediary.

Complexity increasing by orders of magnitude

The change in our world has been two-fold. First, we have come to recognize the importance of systems, the reality of overlap, and that considering a problem in isolation is a good first step, but one that needs to be followed by immersion into the messy reality of systems.

Second, the world has become more complex. Of course, there is no generation in history that could not say that. That change, however, that evolution, is on a logarithmic scale. The right side of that graph is bounded very simply by the physical limits of the earth. Having 400,000 people on the earth is exponentially more complex than having 40,000; similarly the difference between 4 billion and 40 billion. But the finite nature of the earth makes the order-of-magnitude change in the second case infinitely more “complex”. Options for ‘solutions’ require consideration of many, many more parameters.

At a parks conference last year, I described the challenge before us as conservationists this way.

I put up a picture of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir standing together - an iconic image of America’s most-conservation-minded president, and the ‘father’ of their national park system. One hundred years ago, these people (and their colleagues) were visionaries who recognized that, despite ‘wide open’ vistas all around, the future threat required immediate action. That action was to draw lines around ecologically-intact areas, and protect their naturalness for the future, whatever that future might be.

Conservation of the next 100 years requires people who are equally visionary, but the coming century presents us a different canvas. We still need to protect areas, we still desperately need those core refugia. But conservation needs to adapt to the infinitely-more-complex system we have in front of us. That means becoming focused on micro-biota as much as macro-biota; it means learning how to accommodate working landscapes without losing biodiversity; it means thinking of ecological systems not as pieces, but as something layered over and interwoven with human-affected systems; it means recognizing that novel/emerging ecosystems and climate-change-affected landscapes make ‘natural range of variation’ an imperfect analog.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir accepted that the population was growing, that ecologically-damaging land uses were multiplying. That doesn’t mean they liked it, but they accepted it as the base case, and set about to doing something that would mitigate its greater impacts.

Our challenge

That is the challenge before us: accepting the circumstance we are in, yet still crafting actual solutions versus railing for a non-recoverable past. Protection will always be an important part of conservation, keeping those critical pieces that provide a complexity of life that we will likely never fully understand; i.e., keeping our ecological elder. But the challenge handed to those of us in this century is to accept we are now on the steeper end of that curve; not the “2 plus 2” end, but the “8 billion plus 8 billion” end. In this range, the technologies of scarce-resource allocation will take us only so far, and time is not our ally.

In essence, the conservation sector’s fundamental challenge is to build on last century’s tactic of ‘where to say no’, and become infinitely more sophisticated regarding ‘how to say yes.’ This means working with the finance sector and insurance industry; it means protecting communities adversely affected by sea-change that is needed; it means designing, articulating and advocating for forward-looking solutions that also meet the needs of those outside the sector.

And it means regarding the earth as a fundamentally human-affected system, one with multiple overlapping social, cultural, economic, political, and ecological systems, while at the same time recognizing those first four systems exist at the pleasure of the last one.

This is why I told the group of young professionals to be good at two things. The linear thinkers of my generation will be important contributors to this new perspective, providing understanding and explaining the causal connections inherent in specific pathways. There are also systems thinkers in my generation, but they are self-taught and in limited supply, because as a whole we were not raised this way. The generation that is currently moving into the decision-maker role, however, was steeped in this. From cellphones to the internet to economic globalization to social enterprise, they have trans-boundary interaction skills baked into their DNA.

My high school career counsellor could not have conceived of conservation policy analysts, ecological economists, green finance, nor careers in charities, social enterprise, private land conservation, etc., primarily because these require the ability to span worlds (or at least span parts of the system), and we weren’t there yet.

This is not oldster vs youngster

A final word here. This is not the usual exhortation for the current generation to take over and solve the woes created by the previous generation. Far from it. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. Today’s teens did not invent the smartphone, the internet, or globalization. Our societal evolution is a constant process of passing the baton. The same perspective is needed here: we inhabit a system of different generations, all playing different roles, all in need of each other if we are craft a workable conservation vision for the next 100 years.


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