"We're ignoring how wealth is diffusing throughout the globe — and that oversight threatens to endanger our work."
Sanjayan, Conservancy lead scientist
Jaguar and Land Rover: That's what globalization meant to me as a young kid born in South Asia.
My father always wanted a Jaguar — which you'd understand if you'd grown up in a country touched by colonial Britain. Few things better symbolize the Empire — its luxury, its economic prowess — than this sleek, long-nosed car.
Me? I wanted a Land Rover, the rugged vehicle of choice for field biologists and explorers. England might have been fading as a power, but it was still a gold-standard brand — one of a handful of countries the rest of the world looked up to.
The world of my youth has long been swept aside by global forces. But conservation is still acting as if it's still the 1970’s and the dollar is king. We're ignoring how wealth is diffusing throughout the globe — and that oversight threatens to endanger our work.
Taking a Cue from Gisele Bündchen
Conservation has by and large embraced a global mission — to protect the diversity of life on Earth, as the mission statement of The Nature Conservancy puts it.
We're sinking enormous and increasing resources into conservation in the most remote parts of the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia.
But you'll never hear or see the word "economy" at our professional conservation meetings, in our publications, or during our debates. This silence is a mistake.
Conservation has always cost less to do abroad than in the United States. But the U.S. dollar's decline in just the last two years means that it's become 20 percent harder for the world's biggest conservation groups — which raise their money primarily in the United States — to do work in many other countries.
Land in Africa that cost $4 million to buy last spring now costs $1 million more. Hiring personnel abroad has become more expensive. The Conservancy's new Campaign for a Sustainable Planet — which will raise an unprecedented $5 billion for global conservation over the next eight years — will now stretch that much less.
And our travel to new sites has also gotten more spendy. The rise in oil prices — topping $100 a barrel as of this writing — has increased my overall air travel costs by more than 10 percent. Put another way: I need a new person to become a Conservancy member to pay the cost difference of every trip I take this year.
Of course, those currencies that are pegged to the dollar are less susceptible to its decline. But when even supermodels such as Gisele Bündchen balk at being paid in U.S. dollars, it's perhaps time for us conservationists to start paying attention, too.
Follow the Money
In his brilliantly titled book “The World is Flat” (a phrase coined by an Indian entrepreneur, by the way), Thomas Friedman argues that national borders are now obsolete and that our interconnected world is a grand equalizer of wealth and opportunity.
But globalization has also created new peaks where none have existed before. The wealth of the world is no longer the dominant province of the West.
The richest person on the planet is Mexican. Qatar has the world’s fastest growing economy. Pepsico is run by a South Indian woman. The world has changed — and by the time you read this, it will have changed yet again.
Make no mistake: U.S.-based donor support for international conservation is and will be critical. But to thrive in today’s world, conservation has to take advantage of the world's new economic shape. The Nature Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific Council, a group of influential business, thought, and political leaders in Asia, is one such effort.
The council isn't just for conservation fundraising in Asia; it's an attempt to devolve strategic decision-making power to local leaders who are attuned to local economic trends and forces.
For example, Council members were instrumental in ensuring that the Conservancy’s marine priorities were prominent on the agenda of the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting — a forum that accounts for more than one-half of the world's GDP.
We need to extend these efforts globally. We need to raise more funds in the countries we work in. We need to take account of new constituencies and new geographic wealth centers. We need to hedge against falling currencies.
The "flat world" confers us new advantages. Given our global mission, we cannot afford to squander them.
My father never did get the Jaguar he wanted. I don’t yet drive a Land Rover. And now it might be too late to lavish money on these English luxuries. Both companies recently went onto the auction block.
And the leading contender to purchase these exclusive British icons? An old and venerable company that first began life in the cloth mill business: Tata Industries.
Originally posted in January 2008. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.
The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy.