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Conservation Groups Turn to Big Business for Help

An environmental organization decides to work with big business, not against it.

By Natasha Gilbert of Nature magazine

Conservation organizations are looking for change. They are beginning to recognize that they have not met their founding goal of protecting nature from the effects of human activity. Earth's land and water have been increasingly walled off as protected areas, but biodiversity continues to decrease around the world.

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy (TNC), a prominent not-for-profit conservation group based in Arlington, Virginia, says people's need for energy, food and economic development should be viewed as drivers of conservation activity, not anathema to it. He will attempt to sell this new vision to more than 300 leading conservation scientists at the Conservancy's science meeting in in Olive Branch, Mississippi on 18 October. He tells Nature how he will go about it.

Why is conservation failing?

Conservation is not seen as an important activity by world leaders or the public. Everyone is for the environment -- at least, people don't say they are against the environment -- but it doesn't rise high enough on the list of things to worry about. We see it sharply now that everyone is worried about jobs, fulfilling energy needs and feeding the world. Conservation has become an afterthought. Until conservationists can make a compelling case that it is really relevant to the lives of everyone, it will continue to be the interest of the extremely affluent minority.

What would that "compelling case" look like?

When you look at the banking crisis, it was about investing in things that had no value. In contrast, a good economic case can be made that investments in natural infrastructure, such as flood plains and mangroves, are tangible investments that will last if you do it right. If we make the argument that we are not trying to protect nature but are instead investing in nature, and if we can show what the return on this investment is, it will be a better argument.

But this can't be just rhetoric. If we are talking about investing in nature, we might put our money in different places than if we were not concerned about the return for people. For example, we have for a long time been involved in habitat restoration of oyster reefs and marshes in the Gulf of Mexico, which protect coastal areas from storm surges. Investing in nature for the returns to people means we put our money into those reefs and marshes that shelter people, rather than those that don't.

What steps is the Nature Conservancy taking to reform itself?

We are not changing our mission -- our niche as an NGO [non-governmental organization] is the protection of natural systems -- but the way we think about that and our strategies are changing a lot. For example, we have just hired a scientist to head up our agricultural initiative to develop strategies -- including the use of high-production agriculture -- to feed the world, but, in a way, that sustains natural systems. This is a very different thing for us.

Last January, TNC began a US$10 million, 5-year partnership with the Dow chemical company, headquartered in Midland, Michigan. In courting big business, the organization is following in the footsteps of the other leading conservation groups, including the WWF, which has had a $20-million relationship with the Coca-Cola Company since 2007. What do you hope to get out of this partnership?

Our corporate relationship with Dow is just getting started. Our scientists will meet with their engineers and say these are the things we can scientifically evaluate about your environmental impacts. Our theory is that there are intervention points at which scientific input can potentially influence corporate practices and decisions. For example, where they open plants could feed back on Dow, because chemical companies rely on a steady stream of clean water. So we could make this link and recommend they invest in upstream habitat restoration.

How confident are you that Dow will implement the advice of TNC?

Fifty-fifty. This is why we need to develop outcome measures to assess the partnership. It's not enough for them to say they will use the information to make corporate decisions. We don't want to judge these corporate relationships by the amount of money that changes hands, but by what happens in the environment and to the people. At the science conference, we will start talking about developing these measures. The aim is that they will be the same for all companies. I am pretty confident we will have them within a year.

What do TNC supporters think of the organization's new bedfellow?

They had their reservations. But we have total scientific freedom to publish our analysis. That took a while to get. We can't be consultants. We are scientists, and we own the science.

This article is reprinted with permission from Nature magazine. It was first published on October 14, 2011.

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