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Contrarian conservationist: Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist riles old-school greens

Photo by Dave Lauridsen.

Peter Kareiva has some unconventional ideas about conservation. Chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, Kareiva is known in scientific circles as a provocateur who constantly questions the status quo -- a habit that has made him a few enemies among old-guard conservationists.

Among his crimes: He thinks environmentalists should empathize more with the “other side” -- the loggers, fishermen, and developers. He works with big smoke-puffing, water-polluting, chemical-creating corporations such as Dow Chemical, which he calls a “keystone species” in the corporate ecosystem. And he refuses to accept the conservation mantra that nature is fragile; in fact, he thinks nature is resilient in most cases.

By working with a broader constituency, Kareiva hopes environmental issues will become human issues, incorporated into our basic social, economic, and political fabric. His advice for conservationists? “Don’t be a special interest. We all want a better future … We just have to make it clear to people how healthy nature contributes to a better future.”

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Crowd control: 7 billion people. One last chance to save the planet

Paul Ehrlich.

Paul Ehrlich, author of the iconic 1968 book The Population Bomb, now refers to himself as a “mobster.” Okay, so the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere -- the MAHB -- is not exactly an organized crime group, but Ehrlich is still raising some ethical eyebrows. After warning of impending global catastrophe for over 40 years, he and his MAHB are bringing together humanists, social scientists, ecologists, and economists to figure out how we might convince people to quickly change course.

The trouble, Ehrlich says, is in our genes. One hundred thousand years ago, when our greatest obstacles were wild animals, food foraging, and “ducking rocks thrown at our heads,” it wasn’t necessary to grapple with huge, hard-to-discern disasters like biodiversity loss or climate change. Alas, our brains aren’t yet up to speed with these fast times. As Ehrlich says, we’ve got “stone age brains with space age technology.”

What’s to be done? Having written over 40 books, Ehrlich posits that “people don’t want to hear about solutions -- those books don’t sell.” And he’s long since given up on any attempt to counter “genuine idiots” or “the mathematically challenged.” Ultimately, though, he’s a people person -- he thinks that, with the right incentives, we can be retrained.

Read more: Population

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Animal instincts: Can we harness human nature to do good for the world?

Human ecologist Bill Durham. (Photo by Claire Menke.)

As a budding ecologist, I often struggle with the Yeti-sized carbon footprint I create when traveling to faraway field sites. Research in Hawaii last summer entailed a three-hour car ride to the airport, a six-hour flight to Honolulu, a 45-minute flight to Hilo, and then half-hour car rides twice daily from our base site in town to our field site in the highlands. I always return from these trips feeling reinvigorated as an environmentalist, but I know my new knowledge and passion come at a cost.

Like it or not, travel has hidden environmental price tags. Some green-minded individuals have sworn off plane travel or confined themselves to an area reachable by bike. But for one longtime thinker on these topics, there is no contradiction between the terms “eco” and “tourism.”

Bill Durham, a professor of human biology at Stanford University, believes sustainable, well-managed ecotourism may just be an important part of the solution. Travel, he says, is in our genes: “Humans are curious primates.” We’re predisposed to wander. The question then becomes, how do we channel this human nature to do good for the planet, not just damage?

Experiential, place-based learning can foster an environmental ethic, Durham says, helping drive the long-term behavioral shifts needed to confront the Anthropocene. Visiting places like the Galapagos Archipelago or Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula -- where Durham spends much of his time as a researcher -- can reveal the fundamental evolutionary ties that connect humans to nature.

I spoke with Durham recently about topics ranging from ecotourism to experiential learning to the challenge of promoting conservation in a country where many people don’t even believe in evolution. Along the way, this truly interdisciplinary thinker provided some hope for a budding environmentalist struggling to understand everything from her role in the green movement to the impact of her next journey.


Free MP3. (Right click, select “Save Link As.”)

This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.

Read more: Animals