[Editor's note: This article is a summary of a recent conversation between Stewart Brand and Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, in San Francisco. The article originally appeared on Stewart Brand's blog at the Long Now Foundation.]
Peter Kareiva began by recalling the environmental "golden decade" of 1965-75, set in motion by the scientist Rachel Carson. In quick succession Congress created the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act -- which passed the Senate unanimously.
Green influence has been dwindling ever since. A series of polls in the US asked how many agreed with the statement, "Most environmentalists are extremists, not reasonable people." In 1996, 32 percent agreed. In 2004, 43 percent agreed. Now it's over 50 percent who think environmentalists are unreasonable.
Kareiva noted that as the world is urbanizing, ever fewer people grow up in contact with nature -- current college freshman have less than a tenth of the childhood experience of nature as previous generations. And there's a demographic shift toward multiethnicity, with whites already a minority in California and soon to be a minority in the whole country. Asked to describe a typical environmentalist, current grade school students say it's a girl, white, with money, preachy about recycling, nice but uptight, not sought as a friend.
In general, environmentalists have the reputation of being "misanthropic, anti-technology, anti-growth, dogmatic, purist, zealous, exclusive pastoralists."
Kareiva gave several examples of how that reputation was earned. In Green rhetoric, everything in nature is described as "fragile!" -- rivers, forests, the whole planet. It's manifestly untrue. America's eastern forest lost two of its most dominant species -- the american chestnut and the passenger pigeon -- and never faltered. Bikini Atoll was vaporized in an H-bomb test that boiled the ocean. When National Geographic sent a research team there recently, they found 25 percent more coral than was ever there before. The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster last year caused dramatically less harm to salt marshes and fisheries than expected, apparently because ocean bacteria ate most of the 5 million barrels of oil.
The problem with the fragility illusion is that it encourages a misplaced purism, leaving no room for compromise or negotiation, and it leads to "fortress conservation" -- the idea that the only way to protect "fragile" ecosystems is to exclude all people. In Uganda, when a national park was established to protect biodiversity, 5,000 families were forced out of the area. After a change in government, those families returned in anger. To make sure they were never forced out again, they slaughtered all the local wildlife. In the 1980s, Kareiva was a witness in Seattle for protecting old growth forest (and spotted owls). At the courtroom loggers carried signs reading: "You care about owls more than my children." That jarred him.
When genetically engineered crops (GMOs) came along, environmentalists responded with "knee-jerk anti-technology religiosity," Kareiva said. How to feed the world was not a consideration. Lessening the overwhelming impact of agriculture on natural systems was not a consideration. Instead, the usual apocalyptic fears were deployed in the usual terms: EVERYTHING'S GOING TO BE DEAD TOMORROW! When Kareiva was working on protecting salmon, he saw the same kind of language employed in a 1999 New York Times full-page ad about dams in the Snake River: TIMELINE TO EXTINCTION! He knew it wasn't true. Salmon are a weedy species, and the re-engineered dams were letting the fish through.
The Nature Conservancy -- where Kareiva is chief scientist working with the organization's 600 scientists, 4,000 staff, and one million members in 37 countries -- promotes a realistic approach to conservation. Instead of demonizing corporations, they collaborate actively with them. They've decided to do the same with farmers, starting an agriculture initiative within the Conservancy. For the growing cities they emphasize the economic value of conservation in terms of valuable clean water and air. They started a program taking inner-city kids out to their field conservation projects not to play but to work on research and restoration. An astonishing 30 percent of those kids go on to major in science.
Kareiva sees conservation in this century as a profoundly social, cooperative undertaking that has to include everyone. New social networking tools can be in the thick of it. For instance, people could use their smartphones to photograph (and geotag, timestamp, and broadcast) the northernmost occurrence of bird species, and the aggregate data could be graphed in real time, showing the increasing effects of global warming on the natural world. When everyone makes science like that, everyone owns it. They've invested.
Photo CC-licensed by Eus Nieuwenhuizen.