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Climate & Energy
From the President: A Conservation Ethic for a Changing World
In a recent article entitled “Conservation in the Anthropocene,” Peter Karieva and his co-authors challenge the notion that environmental and natural resource conservation as we have practiced it in the past is capable of leading us to the nirvana of sustainability in the future.1 Karieva, it should be noted, is currently chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. The article has stirred denials and remonstrations within the environmental community reminiscent of those that followed the publication of “The Death of Environmentalism,” by Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus2 several years ago. While the environmental accomplishments of the past half-century speak for themselves—cleaner air, cleaner water, restored wildlife and fish habitats, improved conservation on both private and public lands, and higher accepted standards of environmental performance and accountability—the challenges to environmental sustainability still seem to be growing faster than we can come up with answers.

In part, the shortcomings noted by Karieva and his co-authors reflect the fact that the world itself has changed, and the pace is accelerating. At the start of the modern environmental movement, often linked with the publication of Rachel Carson‘s book Silent Spring in 1961, the world’s population was still less than 3 billion people—barely a billion more than at the close of the 19th century, when Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and their contemporaries led the first conservation movement, inspired by concerns over natural resource scarcity and environmental degradation. A few months ago, we zoomed by the 7 billion milestone on our way to an estimated 10 billion people by mid-21st century. The planet is not getting any bigger in the meantime. In addition, much of our existing scientific knowledge about how forests and other ecosystems function—and how this will affect the productivity of these resources—is being made obsolete by climatic changes that are already under way. So sustainably meeting humanity’s natural resource needs in the future clearly will require an intensity of effort undreamed of a century ago.

In this issue of The Pinchot Letter, the 2012 Pinchot Distinguished Lecturer, Yale’s Mary Evelyn Tucker, continues her examination into whether science and policy alone are sufficient to move society quickly enough along the pathway to sustainability. Her decades of scholarship on the world’s religions has revealed that environmental ethics and stewardship have been important elements in every major religious tradition for millennia. In her view, this has had an important influence on the evolution of individual moral and ethical approaches to environmental conservation. Science and policy will play a necessary—but not sufficient—role in moving human society in the direction of environmental sustainability. Tucker attempts to bridge the supposed divide between science and religion, arguing that both have an integral role to play in helping us meet the sustainability challenges that lie before us.

The idea that sustainability over the long term will depend upon conservation approaches that are environmentally sound—but also economically viable, and socially responsible—is gradually becoming accepted as the bedrock principle that will guide conservation in the future. What Karieva et al. argue in their article is not fundamentally different from the core argument of the 1987 Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future,3 and it can be found at the core of Gifford Pinchot’s 1911 book, The Fight for Conservation.4 The idea that a sustainable future for civilization as a whole may hinge upon the development of a meaningful conservation ethic by each of us as individuals goes back at least to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac,5 and continues to be refined today by leading scientists like Edward O. Wilson in his most recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth.6

The critical importance of these concepts to the future of conservation is the focus of a new PBS documentary on Pinchot’s conservation philosophy, and the Pinchot Institute’s role in carrying that legacy into the future, that will be released in September 2013 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Institute’s founding and dedication by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. For those who cannot wait for a sneak peak, you can view the film trailer here. Conservationists can take great pride in what they have accomplished over the past century. But as Albert Einstein once stated, “The problems that exist in this world cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.” Great challenges lie ahead, and a higher level of conservation thinking will be needed to successfully address them.

Al Sample

1 Karieva, P., Lalasz, R., and M. Marvier. 2011. Conservation In The Anthropocene. Breakthrough Journal, Vol. 2 (Fall 2011).
2 Schellenberger, M. and T. Nordhaus. The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post- Environmental World.
3 World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Our Common Future (The Brundtland Report). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4 Pinchot, G. 1911. The Fight for Conservation. New York: Doubleday.
5 Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
6 Wilson, E. O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: W.W. Norton.

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