World Wildlife Fund Science Driven

A Pivot for Conservation

  • Date: 13 August 2013
  • Author: Jon Hoekstra

Deforestation in Borneo

Conservation is in the midst of a fundamental shift that I call "The Pivot." Conservation is pivoting from being backward-looking to forward-looking. This reorientation promises to expand what conservation can achieve by setting the stage for Conservation 3.0.

Despite frequent reference to the interests of future generations, conservation has mostly been a backward-looking endeavor. Hearkening back to "good old days" before extensive human impact on nature, conservation resisted change. It used verbs like "protect," "preserve," and "restore." It benchmarked success in terms of similarity to historical baselines. In short, conservation sought to make the future look as much as possible like the past.

The thing is, the world is hurtling into a profoundly different future. The way things have been is not the way they will be. Since the modern environmental movement took off some 50 years ago, human population has doubled from about 3.5 billion to more than 7 billion today. It will take less than 20 years to add the next billion. People have cleared forests, plowed grasslands, dammed rivers, and trawled the oceans in order to meet burgeoning demands for food, water and other natural resources. People are burning so many fossil fuels so fast that it is changing the climate and acidifying the ocean. Instead of letting up, human demands on the planet are growing. Indeed, human impacts on the planet are so extraordinary, that geologists have declared a new epoch in Earth's history—the Anthropocene—that will be unlike anything that came before it.

The Pivot is necessary for conservation to meet the challenge of the Anthropocene—to sustain as much nature and biodiversity as possible on a human-dominated planet.

Forward-looking conservation is pivoting from asking "How did nature look before human impacts?" to asking "How will nature look in the future if global trends continue?" Consider the unfolding impacts of climate change—species' distributions are shifting, shorelines are being redrawn by sea-level rise, ecosystems (and human communities for that matter) are experiencing more intense droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events. Forward-looking conservation science is helping us understand how much things may change, and how quickly, based on society's efforts (or lack thereof) to dramatically reduce climate-warming carbon emissions. Anticipating how climate change may redraw the boundaries of nature enables conservation to better help people and nature adapt.

Forward-looking conservation is also pivoting from asking "How can we fight change?" to asking "How can we influence change?" This is where conservation is going to get interesting! Instead of assuming static historic conditions and being against change, forward-looking conservation assumes change and seeks ways to shape the future in ways that sustain as much nature as possible.

For more about "The Pivot" and what it means for the future of conservation, I recommend reading Hillary Rosner's article in Ensia magazine