- Issue: Spring 2021
- Author: Carter Roberts
Thirty years ago, my first job in conservation was marking the boundaries of a modest wetland system in the southern Berkshires. I was deploying traditional tools of conservation: mapping species, negotiating land deals, and fundraising from communities and governments to make it all work. A simple, durable formula that worked for small-scale conservation.
Whether bringing in crops with farmers, sitting in barns listening to landowners, or sorting land-use conflicts, the work rested on working with people to keep intact a place that defined their lives and their community. Relationships mattered more than anything, and I spent untold hours just listening.
When I joined WWF 17 years ago, it was clear I had entered a whole new world of conservation—profoundly complex and global, with diverse local leaders from 100 countries striving to accomplish conservation at a different scale, from the entirety of the Northern Great Plains, to the length of the Mekong River, to the sweep of coral reefs in the southern Pacific. It required deploying a far more complex array of tools to keep vast ecosystems intact, and it included addressing climate change, the design of infrastructure, the production of food, the financing of nations, and more.
The scope was mind-boggling. Early in my tenure, I helped develop one phase of the largest conservation project in the world, the Amazon Region Protected Areas project. We worked in collaboration with many others to build and finance a network of parks in the Amazon more than one and a half times the size of California. During the past 20 years, WWF has also systematically built programs to certify sustainability efforts around the commodities—such as shrimp, palm oil, and timber—most related to habitat destruction. And we’ve worked with the world’s most influential companies to set and achieve science-based targets for emissions reductions, water efficiency, and removing deforestation from their supply chains.
Our ability to monitor the changes affecting our planet has grown exponentially, and now shows us with exquisite clarity that while we’ve made progress on some fronts, we need to evolve our work and up our game to stem the loss of nature and the acceleration of climate change.
Reflecting on what I’ve learned over the past 30 years, I keep returning to five key lessons that I believe provide essential guidance as we look at what we need to deliver in the years to come.
1. Look at the whole
The first time I visited the Amazon with Tom Lovejoy, my friend and a noted scientist, he gave me a simple but profound piece of advice: Look at the whole. By which he meant the whole ecosystem—the entire Amazonian forest and the entire Amazonian watershed. Because only by understanding the entirety of a landscape can you act to keep the whole functional and intact.
In the Amazon, that means understanding the hydrological cycle that provides rainwater to one of the largest agricultural economies in the world. It means understanding the needs of hundreds of Indigenous groups, the economics of soy and beef production, and the different options for infrastructure schemes that seek to connect this region with the world.
A fancy term for looking at the whole is “system-level thinking”—connecting the dots between disciplines, whether that’s economics, ecology, political science, business, or anthropology. Only by considering every aspect of a place, or every aspect of a global pandemic, or every aspect of climate change, can one best discern the interventions essential to keeping the whole intact.
Future conservation leaders will be gifted at system-level thinking—not just experts in one area, but experts at connecting the dots between disciplines. That’s where the good stuff lies, and where the most effective solutions will be found.
2. Move from footprint to influence
We’ve always pressed individuals and institutions to lighten their footprint—to reduce the impact on the planet of their own choices and behaviors. We’ve made progress along those fronts. But it’s clear that if we are going to reach the speed and scale of the solutions we need, we must go beyond our own footprints and use the greatest sources of influence we have to move our partners, our friends, our consumers, and voters in the direction that the planet needs them to go. In short, we need to move the world. And I’ve learned that influence rests on each of us identifying our own particular “superpower” or ability to look beyond our own footprint and move whole sectors or nations or populations toward sustainability in all that they do.
As a global retailer, Walmart’s superpower lies in engaging its suppliers in efforts to improve the sustainability of product supply chains. For example, Walmart’s Project Gigaton initiative, developed in collaboration with WWF, is designed to challenge suppliers to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, drive forest conservation efforts, and more. And The Coca-Cola Company’s superpower is seen in their influence on water use by their global network of bottlers, and in their deployment of world-class marketing and communications to inspire partners and communities to see and use water differently.
Conservationists of the future will more consistently press individuals and institutions to look beyond themselves, to take ownership of solving the larger problems beyond their own four walls, and to have the courage to use their influence to move the rest of the world in the right direction.
3. Government still matters—a lot
The environmental movement exploded in the 1960s with a bang of sweeping regulations on water, air, species, and pollution. But over the past three decades, that movement has increasingly focused on markets, corporate initiatives, technological innovation, and philanthropy—essentially the whole world of “non-state actors”—to drive cultural and market-based change.
But it is becoming abundantly clear that community- and market-based solutions can thrive and endure only in the context of well-informed government regulations and programs—and that those programs must respect the rights and territories of people and incentivize market-based solutions to reach the scale we need.
Increasingly we are seeing civil society, funders, and corporations stand up and call on governments to enact and enforce regulations that create clear, consistent rules of the road. Those rules must insist on sustainability—whether they’re regulations banning the destruction of nature, establishing a price on carbon, guaranteeing the right of communities to clean water, or shutting down the illegal trade in wildlife that continues to give rise to global pandemics like COVID-19.
I predict that, more and more, we will build integrated strategies that combine our corporate and community partnerships with more pointed government engagement—to scale up our work, to establish solutions, and to protect and support initiatives so they can endure over the very long term.
4. Put people at the heart of everything
Scientists and nations have set a goal of expanding protected areas to reach 30% of the planet by 2030. Every initial study of what that requires points to the vital importance of the sovereign lands and reserves of Indigenous peoples, as well as the need to ensure that the world supports them in safeguarding those lands.
Knowing this, it is clear that we must acquire greater depth and discipline in community-based conservation. Indigenous and local people must have a pivotal role in the design, execution, and evaluation of conservation projects. This imperative builds on existing tools—like community consultations, efforts to foster gender equity, education and health initiatives, and consent and grievance mechanisms—to make sure that we truly, deeply listen to the communities where we work and follow their lead in understanding what they need.
The future of conservation doesn’t see the protection of nature and the pursuit of justice as mutually exclusive. They have always been intertwined, and future conservation initiatives will provide in equal measure for the protection of vulnerable people and the protection of vulnerable species.
5. Innovate constantly
Ongoing success demands that we remain nimble and aggressive in applying innovation to our work. We’ve already seen the difference that infrared technologies and drones can make in reducing the illegal trade in species. We know that cellular handheld devices and apps can help connect communities to markets. We’ve seen how the thoughtful analysis of big data can make connections and share information and solutions across countries, and how blockchain and long-term contracts can translate corporate commitments into real shifts in bringing genuinely sustainable products to market.
Fostering a culture of innovation and experimentation also requires embracing the importance of failure. We must fail fast and often if we are to realize real change at a level that matters.
Thirty years later, I could not be more motivated and excited about what the next 10 years will bring. I cannot think of a field more significant to the future of our world. This vision of an inclusive, people-centered form of conservation requires us to be clear-minded about what the world really needs, and to move forward on all five of these fronts.
But more than anything it requires us to be constantly learning so that we can build the culture, skill sets, and partnerships needed to navigate the complexity not only of nature, but also of economies, governments, and technology, in order to safeguard the glittering array of people and species with whom we share this planet.
What could be more important than that?