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.”

When told to respect history, Kareiva says, “Honor the past? I think we should build the future!” He’s ready to innovate, to create and design new landscapes that keep up with a changing global system. And as a bigwig with the largest conservation organization in the world, he’s in a good position to do just that.

Don’t think that Kareiva takes this challenge lightly, however. Humans have been having massive impacts on the planet since we evolved as a species, Kareiva says. The difference now is that “we have such dominion over the planet that we can actually decide what we want to do with it,” he says. This is “a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous opportunity.”

“The Anthropocene means it’s in our hands,” Kareiva says. “If we’re smart, we could have a very, very good planet with a lot of wild areas, enough food, enough energy. And if we’re not smart, we’re going to blow it. And it’s all going to play out in the next 20 to 30 years.”

In this interview, I talk to Kareiva about conservationists, corporations, the push and pull between science and values, and why he thinks many of our plans to save endangered species are wrongheaded.


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.