Future thinking conservation

With so many people living on this planet is it time to think about conservation in terms of them?
12 July 2016

Interview with 

Peter Kareiva, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability


It seems that our cities have a surprisingly large capacity for wildlife but, in order Los Angeles Riverto protect this wildlife we may need to work out how it can make a profit. But does this all seem a little cynical? Connie Orbach asked UCLA's Director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Peter Kareiva if the problem is that we just don't value nature enough...

Peter - People do value nature. Nature is our habitat, so I don't see the absence of value at all and I don't see it in political action. Cities all around the world are investing heavily in putting nature back into them. Nature is a form of wealth. I think the way to speak about nature in cities is inequity and inequality. Everybody around the seems to be having a conversation about the unfairness of a small elite class having access to so much wealth. Well, access to nature is a form of wealth. Sometimes I think in the conservation movement, we forget that. We do conservation in wonderful places around the world - in Africa, Mongolia, Patagonia. We sit around and tell stories about spectacular landscapes and places we see. We're the upper one per cent there in terms of access to nature. We have to think about equality of access to nature in cities and when we frame it that way, states and countries and cities are increasingly willing to pay to give their people access to nature in their cities.

Connie - It's one thing to look at that from a westernised society where we have gone through that stage of change and only now, we're talking about putting more effort back in. is there something we can do at those earlier stages in poorer parts of the world before we get to that point?

Peter - You're exactly right. Most of our examples of spectacular examples of urban conservation are in places like San Francisco, are in places like Los Angeles where there's a fair bit of affluence and that affluence is what makes it possible. The more challenging question is these newly emerging, they're much smaller cities initially, in Africa would be a good example. Can we have those cities develop so that there's still nature in them? I think there's two ways in which that is really feasible. One is: land is cheap in those cities. So it's not the huge expense. As there's a sprawl, pay attention to the water waste and pay attention to remaining fragments of forests and natural habitat. In those cities, it's not expensive. It's more a matter of political will and planning. It's not an expensive endeavour. It's an expensive endeavour in Los Angeles, but Los Angeles has the money. I've taught ecology for 40 years. It's cross cultural. Kids feel awe and wonder when they see nature, when they see a fox, when they see neat birds, and something beyond ourselves or beyond our species. Awe and wonder for nature is not a western concept. It's a human concept.

Connie - Is that quite a different way of looking at conservation or is that the way that everyone is looking at conservation, looking at what we can do for people as opposed to looking at the planet, and thinking of ourselves maybe a bit of as a blight on that planet?

Peter - I think conservationists have always recognised that they have to work with people. In other words, human behaviour is part of conservation. I think the slight shift is the recognition that speaking of people as a blight upon the planet is not very inspiring. There's an undercurrent of the good old days and I think we all feel the good old days. I have nostalgia myself for a world less crowded. There are certain places I like to hike and when I go there, there's more people on the trails and I wish there weren't. But that's not a foundation for political action. So I think a way to sort of reframe conservation is instead of it being just about what we've lost, we should be nature futurists. We should be imagining the best possible future for nature, and for species, and for biodiversity. When we do that imagining, we can't constrain our thinking into saying that the only way to get that best possible future is to return to the way it was in the past because if we went that pathway, it would cost us way too much money. It would be disruptive. We would never get there. So, if we free ourselves from having only a picture of the past when we think about the future for nature, I think we could be much more creative and have a much better future. Does it make any sense?

Connie - Yeah. What I get from that is as a species, we have moved the world on too far really to go back, haven't we?

Peter - Yes, we have. That might sadden us but we got to get over it.

Connie - We've got to move forward. And so, this is the kind of thing you're working on, right?

Peter - One of the reasons I moved to Los Angeles - it's a mega city of the world. It's viewed almost as a dystopian city. Yet, it's a biodiversity hotspot. There is an increasing awareness and  appreciation for nature here. If you go to action movies, you've seen the Los Angeles river. It's the concrete river where they're always doing the Terminator films and the car chases. There's a billion plus project underway to restore that river. All the fish in the Los Angeles river now are non-native. It's been so modified. It's got carp and bass, and tilapia. On the other hand, there's a lot of really spectacular native birds. They have egrets, great blue heron, osprey. Now as we think about what we're going to do with that Los Angeles river, I might argue, those non-native fish may not be what we wanted, but the birds don't care, so maybe we should take delight in restoring the Los Angeles river, accepting the non-native fish, but encouraging and taking marvel in the native birds and the spectacular birds that everybody can see. So that's an example of thinking about conservation in a way that's future oriented, that really has something for people in it, and that really has something for biodiversity in it as well.


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