8. Protect Life


The argument that we need a new global sustainable development and justice movement does not imply that the mainstream conservation movement is redundant.93 Indeed, exactly the reverse is the case. It has never been more important for the conservation movement to stand up for species, ecosystems and the biosphere. Conservationists face a critical task: no less than preventing the destruction of the crucible of evolution.94

‘a transition to sustainability must first and foremost protect life’

The imperative of protecting life

The classic metaphor for extinction is that species are like rivets on an aeroplane: as each goes extinct, another rivet pops. Eventually a wing or an engine will drop off, or maybe some vital piece of the flight control system will fail. This is simplistic (and anachronistic in the age of polycarbonate fuselage)95 but it has a basis in logic. A world where techno-science seeks to deliver ecosystem services through synthetic processes is not only science fiction, but a dystopia where humane life would be impossible. Humans are part of nature. We need biodiversity if we are to remain fully human. A transition to sustainability must first and foremost protect life.

So, species matter, just as conservationists have been saying for 100 years or more.96 Biodiversity must be at the centre of any programme for transition to sustainability. Without functioning diverse ecosystems, at every scale from gene to biosphere, the ecosystem services on which both human life as well as quality of life depend, will not endure. Success in a transition to sustainability demands full understanding and accounting for the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the economy.

This ‘green’ agenda must remain the core business of the environmental movement. It will, for example, remain a driving force within IUCN, as it will for many of its members. The environmental movement needs to focus on what it does well, and conservation is something that it does with great energy and conviction, and some success. Those diverse successes of a diverse movement need to be celebrated. Nature should be the fulcrum for wider change towards sustainability.

Extending the benefits of conservation

Yet conservation cannot bask in self-righteousness. It urgently needs to change to keep pace with the changes around it. The engagement with biodiversity must be comprehensive and not confined to the rare and threatened. It is clear that protected areas cannot achieve their aims as small high-biodiversity islands in an ocean of transformed and homogenous landscapes. Nor will calls for exclusive reserves necessarily achieve political support from surrounding communities or national taxpayers. The ‘Durban Accord’, agreed at the fifth IUCN World Parks Congress in 2003, suggested that protected areas should provide benefits ‘beyond their boundaries on a map, beyond the boundaries of nation states, across societies, genders and generations’.97

The biodiversity conservation movement needs to be able to imagine and describe economies that combine high levels of biodiversity and high indices of human welfare. It needs to be able to set out how the world's poorest economies can be transformed on paths that maintain biodiversity and enhance ecosystem services.

What would a sustainable African or Asian economy look like? How would its people get fed, lead lives of aspiration and hope? How can slums be transformed and life in rural communities improved? How can economies grow without pollution, deforestation, intensification of human demands on nature? What does a successful economy look like, if it is not built on vast energy and material demands, factories, airports, and jammed freeways?

How will the biodiversity and living resources of developed economies be restored, without simply exporting consumptive demand overseas, and using accumulated wealth to turn once-working rural landscapes into manicured nature parks? How does biodiversity fit within an economy that delivers high levels of welfare and happiness to citizens? In what ways is biodiversity essential for a full human life? The foolishness of the idea that people need to choose between biodiversity and sustainability needs to be demonstrated and made real through practical political solutions.

When the modern conservation movement started (at the end of the nineteenth century) it tried to protect nature by keeping people away from it in protected areas.98 People were the problem to which conservation was the response. Such conservation was nothing to do with economic uses of nature, it was an alternative to it. Local people were either ignored, or moved away from nature's places, where they could do no harm. In effect, conservationists basically accepted that economic growth would go on damaging the world's ecosystems while fighting to ensure that the most precious areas were protected. In this limited goal they had considerable success: 12% of the terrestrial globe now lies in a protected area of some kind.99 But this was a Faustian bargain: expanding human demands on the biosphere left wider impacts on biodiversity and climate change unchecked, with disastrous effects. It is no longer acceptable to treat biodiversity conservation as if it were independent of wider debates about sustainability. The conservation movement must itself become part of the transition to sustainability.

‘the conservation movement must itself become part of the transition to sustainability’

Conservation in transition

What does such a commitment to sustainability involve? First, the conservation movement must demonstrate that biodiversity is for rich and poor alike. Conservation must be integrated with concerns about wider ecosystem health and human wellbeing. It needs to work from what people see nature doing for them, for example providing food, products, a safe or clean environment, beauty and wonder, and jobs. A recent Eurobarometer survey of attitudes to biodiversity in Europe showed that 90% of people care.100 Why is this? Which features of biodiversity are valued and why? How can this support be sustained? How do people in other parts of the world think about these things – what do they value in biodiversity, what species or attributes of ecosystems do they fear and dislike? In what ways is nature important to them?

Second, conservation strategies must be crafted that deliver a biodiverse world that includes people, not a world of biodiverse enclaves in a lifeless human landscape. There are hard questions to be faced. How much biodiversity do we need? What are protected areas for? Are protected areas in the right places to allow species and ecosystems to respond to climate change? New kinds of protected area are needed that are better at linking nature to human need. If conservation can address such issues, it will be meeting human needs and not (as its critics so often complain) thwarting them.

Third, conservation must be built on the growing scientific understanding that ecosystems will not stay static: system changes are to be expected. The biosphere has always changed: through geological time (over millions of years) quite drastically so. With the levels of anthropogenic climate change expected in the next 30 years, significant system shifts are to be expected. Conservation planning must integrate the dynamics of ecosystems and the evolution of biodiversity. Protected area systems must be revised to cope with climate change. New protected areas will be needed and some will have to be given up. An openness is needed to such give and take, and the courage to trust people in more and more countries to find space for and sustain nature, instead of trying to enforce conservation on reluctant citizens.

Biodiversity may not be able to survive extreme environmental change. The latest IPCC report has predicted that 20–30% of plant and animal species are at risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5°C–2.5°C, so ex-situ conservation (e.g., in seed banks) also has an important role. So too do museums – if only to counter future extinction-deniers who question the former diversity of the earth and the extent of human simplification of its evolved diversity.

Beyond all these things is the need for conservationists to look hard at the way nature itself is defined. Most conservation thinking is premised only on scientific definitions of what is valuable in nature, or ideas that some kind of ‘pristine’ nature can be defined and protected. Conservationists need to learn to understand and value the hybrid and social character of nature, transformed by human management in ways that can support and enhance diversity as well as destroy it, and defined by human observers in all their cultural complexity.

‘cultural diversity is integral to the conservation of landscapes’

There are remarkable parallels and linkages between the distribution and persistence of biodiversity and of cultural and linguistic diversity, and numerous case studies demonstrate that cultural diversity is integral to the conservation of landscapes and other aspects of biodiversity. We need a collaborative approach to retaining diversity on earth, not separate or conflicting strategies for dealing with the component diversities separately.

Access to nature and its benefits is an element in the wider call for environmental justice. It needs to be recognised that justice must embrace justice with respect to other species. Indigenous groups talk about justice for themselves but also for rivers, crops and wild animals. Such ideas are not quaint pre-modern relics, but valuable insights into alternative ways to view nature as part of a sustainable future.

Future ‘social natures’ may not look like past more pristine systems, but an actuarial pursuit of imagined purity must not stand in the way of conserving living diversity as it exists. Nature's capacity to recover from human impacts is remarkable, and if a significant level of living diversity is to endure, strategies will be needed that work with its power to evolve, not strive to lock its remnants into boxes like insects pinned in a lepidopterist's drawer.

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