Wild Life

The Perpetual War for Nature

"Are conservationists too addicted to the fight and its illusion of moral clarity to even bother with specific goals?"
Sanjayan, Conservancy lead scientist

By Sanjayan

There's no such thing as winning the fight for nature, George Schaller tells me, because all victories in this war are temporary.

"You never stop fighting," he says as we split a pizza for lunch, sitting on a lawn that's still a damp from the dew despite the big blue Montanan spring skies.

Schaller is a conservation icon. His words are sobering. As a scientist and explorer for the Wildlife Conservation Society, he has journeyed to the remotest part of every continent to study more charismatic mega-fauna than probably anyone else alive.

In 1956, he was part of the Murie Expedition that helped establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now, almost five decades later, he is once again struggling to defend anew that place, which he thought was once saved.

But his ethos — perpetual struggle — implies an perpetual problem for conservation. Successful movements and successful leaders in times of conflict — from Grant to Churchill to Gandhi — share two things: a clear articulation of what winning meant, and a clear understanding of who the enemy was.

Conservationists still don't have those things, even after all these years of fighting. Do we pay a price for this lack of clarity? Or are we too addicted to the fight and its illusion of moral clarity to even bother with specific goals?

What Would It Mean to 'Win'?

Conservationists have never had an understanding of what it means to win as a movement. Sure, we've done well on specific campaigns — clean this river, save those whales. But step back from the individual battles, and our articulation of success is wholly unintelligible.

Look at the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, which was signed by virtually every nation. It's explicit about the casualties in the war on nature: 728 known species gone forever, and an average rate of extinction estimated from habitat loss of three per day. But when it comes to action, the convention gets ambiguous, meekly calling for a cryptic "reduction in the current rate of loss."

The Millennium Development Goals — through which the world articulated its most detailed objectives for the next ten years — don’t even mention biodiversity loss per-se. And conservation organizations have not done much better. Indeed, articulating goals for long-term success are legitimately rare in conservation.

Some would call this objection unfair. For these critics, victory means slowing down the train wreck that will inevitably come — saving pieces of the world so that, as our impact on the planet stabilizes in about 200 years, we can put it back together. This triage strategy may keep the patient alive — but it will never cure the disease.

The Nature Conservancy has recently created a global goal: We will join with others to save 10 percent of each habitat type on earth by 2015. It's an unusual and somewhat courageous move, taken after a great deal of scientific analysis and consternation.

It's also a meaningful first step at articulating what winning this fight would really mean. If I can contribute to this goal in my lifetime...for me, that would be victory.

Pleasure in the Fight

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu the 6th Century BC Chinese warrior philosopher wrote: "Know thy enemy and know thyself, for that is the surest way to victory."

But who's the enemy in the war for nature? Government policies? Television? Our economic system? That we all want children? Or that we can't stop buying them stuff? To paraphrase Pogo: We have a hundred enemies, and they are all us.

Even this pizza George and I are eating had a pretty big impact on the planet — with a box made in China, cheese from Wisconsin cows, and tomatoes that were drenched in precious water and pesticides in California. We can all live the good life; but it's harder to be good in living.

As Schaller and I talk about these and other things, a pair of ospreys begin to spiral in tottering circles above the Clark Fork River, their cries coming down to us across the thin warming air. It's a beautiful day — not appropriate for talk about war.

I say to Schaller that perhaps the battle analogy is all wrong. What we are engaged in is really a long love affair with the planet. Enjoying a life spent outdoors, inspiring others, and experiencing wildlife as few can are more lofty and worthy goals.

"The pay-off is not at the end, but rather every day," I say.

Schaller’s gray eyes are far away, perhaps watching the osprey. I cannot tell if he agrees or even understands what I am trying to say. "Yes, there is pleasure in it," he says.

Originally posted in June 2007. 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 or any of its other employees.


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