Are Environmental Conservation Strategies Misguided or On Target?


Some of the essays that are presented in this blog site communicate a deep concern over the negative impact of human beings on Nature. The information sources that support these essays predict the destruction of the human race within the next 50 years unless humanity is able to make a significant change in the relationship between human beings and Nature. This point of view is presented by many experts and is well documented in great detail in the book by Lester R. Brown  entitled “Plan B – Mobilizing To Save Civilization”. You can download a free copy of this book.


The warnings that are outlined in the “Plan B” book seem to go unheeded by much of the human population. This includes people who are professional and volunteer stewards of Nature who profess allegiance to one of two conservation strategies. This essay presents a brief summary of these two conservation strategies and suggests that neither strategy will conserve and preserve a Nature that will support the lives of all creatures on Earth, including mankind.


In 1985,the well respected Michael Soule published a paper entitled What Is Conservation Biology? Soule proposed a conservation strategy that supports designated human-free and/or highly regulated tracts of land to protect Nature from mankind. This strategy is sometimes called “Fortress Conservation” because it is designed to protect Nature from humans.


Soule’s conservation strategy sets humans apart from Nature and fails to recognize that humanity has already negatively impacted almost every square inch of our Earth.


In 2012, Peter Kareiva, then chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, and Michelle Marvier published a second conservation strategy in the Bioscience journal entitled What Is Conservation Science?. This paper suggests that humans are part of Nature’s ecosystems and their economic and social interests must be considered when conservation strategies are formulated. The authors summarize their new views on conservation science by stating:


We offer a revised set of core principles in light of the changed global context for conservation. Most notably, scientists now widely acknowledge that we live in a world dominated by humans, and therefore, the scientific underpinnings of conservation must include … paying better attention to human rights and equity. We argue that in conservation, strategies must be promoted that simultaneously maximize the preservation of biodiversity and the improvement of human well-being.”


These papers by Soule and Kareiva set the stage for an intense dialog within conservation science that is documented in a paper entitled “The Battle For The Soul Of Conservation Science. According to the the “Plan B” book mentioned earlier in this blog essay, neither strategy seems to be stemming the tide of human beings that are acting as if there are infinite resources available on a finite planet. The promoters of these two conservation strategies don’t focus on a solution that would prevent the grim disaster that might be facing human beings in two generations. Indeed, Peter Kareiva, in subsequent essays,  offers questionable assurances that the “Plan B” scenario will never happen because human ingenuity and technology will prevail.


Political will always seems to be a part of scientific endeavors. New policies of the Trump administration threaten to interfere with the conservation of Nature in the United States. Trump’s secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is wielding destructive power and influence over conservation strategies in the United States. Zinke is highly unqualified for the job of protecting and preserving Nature. He is a politician and a former Navy seal with apparently no training or experience in biology or ecology. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, describes Zinke as a “fraud”.


The Guardian reports that Zinke:

“…meticulously crafts his image as wilderness-loving western cowboy and sportsman. But nine months into his job at the Department of the Interior, the federal agency that oversees most public lands and natural resources, … demonstrate strong allegiance to the oil, gas and other extractive industries seeking access to some of America’s most spectacular protected landscapes. [Zinke] has reversed an Obama-era ban on coal mining on public lands, and proposed changes that would shrink the borders of four national monuments set aside by previous presidents. His agency has taken early steps to open the door to oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – one of the most symbolic and fiercely protected sites of the American environmental movement. He’s announced plans to repeal an important fracking safety rule, and loosened safety guidelines for underwater drilling, both major shifts away from Obama-era environmental protection regulations.”


In both Kareiva’s and Soule’s conservation strategies, as well as the questionable political efforts of Ryan Zinke, no mention is made of the fundamental fact that Nature is an interdependent, living system of energy flow conduits that transport and transform the necessary energy of life to all living organisms on Earth. By embracing the idea that our planet is a living system and by devising conservation strategies that focus on the identification, the protection and the preservation of the networks contained within these living systems, the concerns of Kareiva, Soule, and other ecologists would be addressed.


Another scientist, Kevin McCann, in a 2007 article in Nature, said:


Scientists have focused on diversity at the expense of ignoring the biological structures that maintain ecosystems – networks of interactions between organisms that characterize ecosystems. The network of interactions between organisms breathes life into ecosystems. Perhaps the main reason why researchers and Nature’s stewards within government organizations have focused on diversity is that it is easier to count species than to document their interactions. Empirically mapping biological networks is no small chore.


The goal of any conservation program should be to protect biostructure by defining an ecosystem’s energy flow network structure and conserving the energy flow within that network. For anyone who is charged with the responsibility of conserving an ecosystem, the primary  question one must ask when faced with a request that might impact Nature is: How does current activity or a proposed action affect the energy flow of the ecosystem under question?


McCann’s description of energy flow networks contains the elements of a conservation strategy that holds great promise for reducing or eliminating the crisis that humanity will be facing in the near future. All conservation strategies need to center around the identification, the understanding, and the preservation of energy flow conduits in Nature. I know of no disagreement with the fact that Nature’s energy flow defines life. By preserving Nature’s energy flow, we preserve life and the home in which all earthly creatures live – including ourselves. This approach to conservation also transforms the human race into a sustainable species that accepts its interdependence with all other creatures on Earth. The  key question then becomes: “are interdependent energy flow networks being conserved in the proposals offered by Soule and Kareiva?” Neither author answers that question? But, by protecting Nature’s energy flow, the land tracts defined in Soule’s arguments will be protected.


I submit that a powerful conservation strategy should be the definition, the understanding, the protection, and the preservation of Nature’s energy flow conduits – Her connections. By focusing on this conservation strategy, Nature’s life blood, her flow of energy, is maintained. When we protect these energy flow networks, we let Nature do her own thing. We humans no longer need to vainly try to control Nature or make predictions that are mere guesses at best. This strategy requires the human race to view Nature as a living system upon which we humans depend for our own lives. We need to acquire a systems worldview – a “connectivity consciousness”.


Human survival will depend upon a renaissance of ecological ethics and literacy driven by environmental educators, and backed by good science. This renaissance must instill in humans, both youth and adults, a consciousness of interdependence with Nature. These interdependent processes are manifested from the biological structures which are the energy flow networks described by McCann. Interdependency in Nature is a scientific fact. Interdependency is the core process in Nature that defines life. It is this core process that needs to be conserved by humans.


A “connectivity consciousness” is a sense that can be developed within we humans. This consciousness addresses how and why everything is interrelated. This consciousness also provides an internal map of how to act when addressing ecological issues. With a “connectivity consciousness”, humans are equipped to ask the right questions when approaching any ecological issue. Those questions are:


• What are the conduits of energy flow that exist in the ecosystem under study and how can these energy conduits be preserved?

• What might happen if changes are made to these conduits either by mankind or by Nature?


To most people, I would assume that all of this sounds really great. But, a huge problem stands in the way of these good things. That huge problem is human beings. How do we convince the human race that it does not control Nature? We cannot rely on Peter Kareiva’s speculation that technology will somehow control Nature for us. Gus Speth, a US advisor on climate change, said:


I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”


Scientist Joe Hutto, in his book “The Light In High Places”, offers his perspective:


It is not the greed of multinational corporations with their vicious bulldozers, chain saws, and oil rigs that consume resources, but rather individuals like you and me creating these insatiable demands. The real problem is our many nonnegotiable needs for fuel, transportation, our modest twelve-hundred-square-foot houses, and worse, the incessant demand for industrially grown food that requires the proliferation of strip mines, chemical companies, and the mind boggling complexity of the energy and transportation networks. Each of us standing on the brink of our own individual crisis fuels these insatiable demands”


In addition to ignoring an exponential and unsustainable human population growth, humans have come to believe that they can predict and control Nature. With this belief comes the false idea that humans are not dependent upon anything. The quotes by Gus Speth and Joe Hutto suggest that conservation is a people problem and not some technical issue to solve.


I submit that one of the most important conservation strategies that we humans can implement is environmental education programs that build a human consciousness for Nature and Her interdependent character. The emphasis is on the fact that our earth is an interdependent living system that consists of networks of energy flow conduits.


Unfortunately, this systems worldview of life fails to resonate with many current conservation practices which assume that human input will achieve a predictable result. Conservation managers set goals and reference points for killing so many wolves or deer or other creatures based on the assumption that equilibrium or a steady state will be achieved. This idea is blatantly false because Nature’s equilibria and steady states are constantly changing. The assumption that mankind can control Nature is also false. Indeed, Nature’s living systems are dynamic. They are always moving. Equilibrium shifts as Nature’s feedback systems adjust. Human predictability is impossible. Consequently, current conservation practices will ultimately be ineffective.


The future of this life-supporting planet of ours is dependent on our moral and ethical values and a deeper understanding of the intricate relationship we have with the natural world. Moral and ethical values are guidelines that originate from scientific fact. The fundamental facts of life are that:


  • Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism, including mankind, can exist in isolation.
  • Life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.
  • Diversity assures resilience and survival.
  • Energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun.
  • Matter cycles continually through the web of life.
  • One species’ waste is another species’ food.
  • Each species in an ecosystem helps to sustain the entire food web.


All of this means that we need to teach our children, our students, and our corporate and political leaders, these  fundamental facts of life. Together plants,animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life. Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community.


There are two keys to successful environmental education programs. The first is an emphasis on hands-on, place-based experiential teaching methods where students get out of the classroom go into Nature. George Schaller, recognized by many as the world’s preeminent field biologist, says:


I console myself that natural history remains the cornerstone of conservation, that it must be learned on the ground, asking questions, observing, listening, taking notes, getting the boots muddy.”


The second key to successful environmental education is an emphasis on legacy where students become the influencers and teachers of their parents and the next generation.  The Nature Conservancy (TNC) sponsors an urban environmental education program called LEAF. TNC reports that:


“Many former LEAF interns have continued with their passion for conservation, and are now working in the field as national park rangers, environmental engineers, environmental science teachers, and in careers helping to connect future generations to nature at some of the world’s largest environmental organizations. Over 30 percent of surveyed LEAF alumni go on to pursue environmental careers, and over 50 percent volunteer for environmental causes in their communities.”


It is both a consciousness for an interconnected and interdependent Nature and the building of a legacy that needs to be emphasized by our environmental educators. Environmental education programs must teach more than scientific fact about objects. These programs must also focus on on both relationships within the human race and relationships in Nature.


There are solutions to the major problems of our time. The key goal of environmental education is to restore the relationship between humans and Nature. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key world views that must be part of a new paradigm that portrays the vital interconnections between food, health, and the environment. This profound transformation in the global thinking of all humans is needed for humanity to survive.

My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

4 Responses to “Are Environmental Conservation Strategies Misguided or On Target?”

  1. Really appreciate this perspective and am sharing your post broadly with the educators I work with. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for this! I think you are correct and have posted my thoughts at

    We need to understand that as a living system, Planet Earth is not going to be under our control. One thing I add, and I wonder if you will agree: influence, yes, but control, no.

    • Hi Roger: Thanks for your insightful comment. While I agree with you that “influence” is an important strategy as long as it is guided by a solid, healthy, and adequately informed environmental consciousness. I wish there were a better word than “influence” because so many humans see influence and control an synonymous. Those of us who study systems science know that it is physically impossible to predict, control, or positively influence Nature. Since Nature is a “complex system”, there is no way that the results of our “influence” can be predicted — much less controlled. Almost all the conservation programs/philosophies that I have read about simply fail to see this scientific fact. This include the two main schools of thought that are currently in vogue.

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