Celebrating Humanity in the Environment

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A curious model for conservation is taking the stage. It is grounded in protecting landscapes and species but adds humans to the mix. Though not a new idea, it is often dismissed, even discouraged, by environmental thinkers. This conservation ethic has the power to enhance resource stewardship and environmental quality.

The new paradigm acknowledges humans as an important part of nature and is grounded in a realistic view of the state of the world. The resilience of nature is recognized with an understanding that some places are more fragile than others. The idea concedes that increased conservation will come when people personally recognize the benefits. This ethic has been supported by three iconic conservation players.

Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, was raised in a logging community and earned a PhD in resource ecology and forestry. “The central teaching of ecology is that we are part of nature and interdependent with it,” writes Moore in his 1995 book, Pacific Spirit. He believes that both protected forests and managed forests involve human action, which can enhance the benefits provided to society.

Fifteen years after its founding, Moore parted with Greenpeace. He was disturbed by the misinformation that was being disseminated and the unwillingness of organization leaders to compromise to work toward realistic solutions. Abject opposition to logging is one case in point. Stiff regulations can make forests a liability by decreasing permissible harvest and increasing management costs. Moore sees the forest and the trees that provide habitat, ecosystem services, and wood products. Trees are renewable and through proper forest management we can harvest timber while enhancing environmental quality.

Using statistical information Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician, has systematically analyzed global environmental issues. As a student, Lomborg was pessimistic about the future of the environment. He also was once a Greenpeace supporter. Following years of data collection and analysis, Lomborg changed his tune. “We are not overexploiting our renewable resources,” he writes in his 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Though we often hear otherwise, his analysis shows that global forest coverage has not changed much in the last 50 years. He also believes that “there do not seem to be any serious problems with the nonrenewable resources.” Although some regions are better cared for than others, there are more reasons for optimism than pessimism. Lomborg concludes that we are living in a healthier, wealthier, and cleaner environment than ever before thanks to human innovation.

Similar to Lomborg and Moore, Peter Kareiva puts humans at the center of conservation. Kareiva is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization. He sees a global landscape that has been touched by humans. The only conservation that makes sense to Kareiva is one that considers human needs and desires. “Protecting biodiversity for its own sake has not worked,” he co-writes in the Fall 2011 issue of Breakthrough Journal. To enhance conservation in today’s world requires us to “embrace human development” and “to integrate the value of nature's benefits into [corporations] operations and cultures.”

It is time for conservationists from all walks to shed old paradigms of doom and gloom and look at the world as it really is. Though humans have touched nearly every place on earth, our increased prosperity has brought enhanced environmental quality. We are all a part of nature and nature will be as we steward it. Therefore, incentives for conservation must be aligned with human needs and good stewardship.

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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