Do we love environmental horror stories too much?

Nature Conservancy chief scientist Peter Kareiva says conservation is failing, and must adapt or die.

by Liza Lester, ESA Communications Officer, and Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs

anthropogenic biomes (anthromes)

Anthropogenic biomes (anthromes): a classification of land ecosystems based on prolonged and abiding communion with people. Map scale = 1:160 000 000, Plate Carrée projection (geographic), 5 arc minute resolution (5′ = 0.0833°). From Figure 1 of EC Ellis and N Ramankutty (2008) Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment  6:8, 439-447. [click image to enlarge]


WRITING in the fall issue of Breakthrough Journal, Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier attacked an environmentalist movement they described as self-righteous and puritanical, insisting “conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness — ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science — and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.” The essay largely retreads Kareiva’s talk for the National Academy of Sciences’ Distinctive Voices program, and it offers a few prescriptions for the future:

  • deliberately integrate nature into urban and agricultural development: “development by design”
  • stop “scolding capitalism” and work with corporations
  • stop elevating biodiversity and choose a kind of environmental utilitarianism: “enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor”
  • give up the ideal of a pristine, pre-colonialist American landscape
  • view nature as garden rather than a wilderness (which doesn’t exist)

Last week, Greenwire profiled Kareiva with lengthy enthusiasm, and Andy Revkin summarized the argument over at his NY Times blog, Dot Earth, describing it as “a refreshing call for new approaches from a community stuck on what I’ve called a “woe is me, shame on you” tune for far too long.”

Kareiva meant to rile people into debate, and he has succeeded: Breakthrough and Revkin have collected and published some of the responses from the conservation community (see links, below). Several are impassioned and irate.

We at EcoTone are curious about how ecologists are responding to Kareiva’s challenge. ESA hosted a conference on “Emerging Issues in Ecology” at the end of February that raised many of the same concerns about a need for new strategies, and a new conservation paradigm — one that might be more open to ideas like assisted migration and urban ecology. It seems these ideas are in the air.

Here are our initial, gut reactions. What’s yours?



Kareiva et al’s argument is stuffed with distracting hyperbole and I want to hurry past the temptation to nit pick through their long essay. For me, Kareiva’s talk is more persuasive than the essay, (which is interesting because it covers much the same ground, in much the same language) particularly on environmentalism’s bad reputation among the rest of the American population. I was struck by the almost universally offended and hostile comments on Revkin’s post, and by the Greenwire story’s casual reference to angry Nature Conservancy members.

Does Kareiva have the right attitude to change attitudes? In a way, he is perpetuating the negative spirit he wants to change, turning all the old tools of the environmental movement back on the old guard to make them [us] feel guilty about our privileged, first -world, tree-hugger convictions. I got the impression that combat and antagonism is his general modus operandi. I wanted to argue with him whether I agreed with him or not.

I think he is right that Yosemite and other great parks are the churches of environmentalism* — that the conservation movement relates to wilderness and wildness with reverence and religious fervor. Is this bad? Can the movement survive without that intense commitment? I would guess that most conservationists are already in favor of mixed-use agricultural lands, sustainable urban development, and generally bringing more nature into our heavily populated areas. They’re onboard with outdoor education for urban youth. Convincing them to embrace exotic species and GMO, and to say goodbye to endangered species and sacred wild spaces, will be a harder sell.

*(But I’m not convinced that solitude is as essential as he paints it, which is good, because you’re unlikely to find it at Yosemite or Yellowstone. Maybe this is a generational difference, or a gender difference, I don’t know. Abbey, Muir, and Thoreau have never been my personal idols.)



While it will be interesting to see how The Nature Conservancy absorbs and reacts to Kareiva’s arguments, I’m more interested in seeing how the overall ecological community reacts to some of what he proposes.  I think it’s healthy to take a step back and reassess long-held assumptions or ways of doing things.  But I do worry that some of what Kareiva suggests could also serve as a “cop out” for those entities interested in pursuing activities that put short-term gains ahead of more sustainable solutions. Whenever someone “rocks the boat” in this manner, it can be hard to see past the “agitator” but I do think that what he and his colleagues are suggesting is timely and relevant for the conservation, environmental and ecological sciences communities to hear, consider, and debate.



  • Kareiva, Lalasz, Marvier. “Conservation in the Anthropocene.” Breakthrough Journal, Fall 2011.
  • “The Breakthrough Institute was founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in 2003 on the premise that the complaint-based, interest group liberalism born in the 1960s and 1970s was failing to achieve the broad social and ecological transformations America and the world need.”
  • Revkin. “Peter Kareiva, an Inconvenient Environmentalist.” NY Times Dot Earth blog, 3 Apr 2012.
  • Voosen, Paul. “Myth-busting scientist pushes greens past reliance on ‘horror stories’.” Greenwire Tuesday, April 3, 2012
  • Responses and rebuttal at Breakthrough: “Conservation in the Anthropocene: A Breakthrough Debate.” (undated).
  • Revkin. “Critic of Conservation Efforts Gets Critiqued.” NY Times Dot Earth blog, 10 Apr 2012.
  • The “Kareiva critique” cited near the end of the Greenwire story: “if the idea that Earth is already spoiled further permeates the general mindset, monetary contributions to and efforts for conservation may seem futile to the general public, whose support is vital to conservation. Already a doom-and-gloom discipline, conservation science may want to obviate this pessimism by focusing on the reality that not every place in the world has been severely affected by anthropogenic activities and that these places can serve as models for the structure of and interactions within natural communities.”  Caro et al (19 Oct 2011) Conservation in the Anthropocene. Conservation Biology 26(1): 185-188. DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01752.x