Students in classrooms with windows that open out to nature in all its glory may perform better on tests.

This is not fully established science, but Heather Tallis, an ecologist at the Nature Conservancy, is testing the idea in California and other states. She is using satellite data to image the sweeping California landscapes—mountains to deserts to inner cities—in the backyards of randomly chosen schools. And she is correlating the presence of nature to standardized test results. Her hypothesis, which may be disproved, is that students do well when they are surrounded by nature.

The study would be of great interest to parents, of course. And it also highlights a key debate raging through the conservation community: Does nature (biodiversity) have value even when it does not contribute to human well-being? If Tallis finds that seeing nature from school rooms does not help students, is nature still worth having around the school for its own sake?

The question is important in the era of global warming, which scientists say has already caused many species to shift their ranges and migration patterns. For instance, it could mean extinction for the pied flycatcher, a tiny black-and-white bird found in Europe. It has declined by 90 percent in the Netherlands because spring is coming earlier each year and the flycatcher chicks are missing the peak season of their basic food: caterpillars. Climate change could eliminate a quarter of all species if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

A new breed of scientists do not see value in preserving all such threatened species. Last week, some of these "New Conservationists" presented their philosophy at a Washington, D.C., think tank. They spoke of a future where nature and humans co-prosper, aiding things that would enrage traditional eco-activists: desalination, industrialized agriculture, nuclear power. The fixes would allow humans to prosper in cities using fewer natural resources. Our civilizations would, in effect, be "decoupled" from nature, and the wilds would creep back into abandoned countrysides.

"Decoupling will be the biggest driver that will determine how much nature we leave to nonhumans over the next century," said Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute.

The New Conservation stance has enraged dozens of conservation biologists, who view all nonhuman life as sacred, extinction as a "great moral wrong" and species as best protected by curtailing human growth. Their anger has been voiced in ecology journals, on the sidelines of conferences, in classrooms and even in the Kenyan wilderness. The debate has had widespread implications, with funding organizations hesitant to support conservation projects and students reluctant to enter the field for the wrong reasons.

The fallout led Tallis; Jane Lubchenco, an ecologist at Oregon State University and former administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and 238 other scientists to call for a truce this week in a commentary in the journal Nature.

"Unfortunately, what began as a healthy debate has, in our opinion, descended into vitriolic, personal battles in universities, academic conferences, research stations, conservation organizations and even the media," the scientists wrote.

Bumping heads over the bumphead parrotfish
A case study in the middle of this fight involves the bumphead parrotfish.

A squat reef-dweller with a cartoonish bump reminiscent of a permanent head wound, the parrotfish is found off the Palmyra Atoll south of Hawaii and other places. The species is threatened, but scientists have found that, if allowed to increase in numbers unchecked (sharks that feed on the parrotfish have been overfished by humans), it would harm coral reefs, habitats for fish on which people depend for food and livelihoods.

The coral ecosystem is of great value to humans; but is the parrotfish? The biologist Michael Soulé, who established the tenets of conservation biology in 1985, would say it is. In a landmark article that year, he declared a conservation philosophy that biodiversity is good, the extinction of organisms is bad, and nature has intrinsic value beyond what it can afford humans.

Conservationists following in Soulé's footsteps have focused on leaving nature pristine within protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park, where, theoretically far from human interference, biodiversity could flourish. But despite 6.2 million square miles under protection today, species loss has accelerated, particularly in the tropics. Meanwhile, the human footprint has grown, and humans now use half the planet's ice-free land. The rest remains unused simply because it is unusable.

Since 2011, Soulé's tenets have been vociferously challenged by New Conservationists led by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy (Greenwire, April 3, 2012). Kareiva argued that declaring "good" and "bad" values does not help nature and conservation must instead focus on "practical statements on what conservation should do in order to succeed."

"Only by seeking to jointly maximize conservation and economic objectives is conservation likely to succeed," Kareiva wrote. He christened this focus conservation science rather than conservation biology.

It could involve managing ecosystems directly important for human welfare and paying local people to protect them. And it could preserve altered ecosystems where some species are incredibly important, such as coral reefs. Others, such as the bumphead parrotfish, would be left to oblivion.

Kareiva's article provoked a firestorm led by Soulé, who has called New Conservation's inclusion of human welfare and acceptance of some extinctions a "great moral wrong."

The road to 're-wilding'
New Conservationists argue such trade-offs are necessary in this human-dominated epoch. And they support "re-wilding," a concept originally proposed by Soulé where people curtail economic growth and withdraw from landscapes, which then return to nature.

New Conservationists believe the withdrawal could happen together with economic growth. The California-based Breakthrough Institute believes in a future where most people live in cities and rely less on natural resources for economic growth.

They would get food from industrial agriculture, including genetically modified foods, desalination, intensified meat production and aquaculture, all of which have a smaller land footprint. And they would get their energy from renewables and natural gas.

Driving these profound shifts would be greater efficiency of production, where more products could be manufactured from fewer inputs. And some unsustainable commodities would be replaced in the market by other, greener ones—natural gas for coal, for instance, explained Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute. Nature would, in essence, be decoupled from the economy.

And then he added a caveat: "We are not suggesting decoupling as the paradigm to save the world, or that it solves all the problems or eliminates all the trade-offs."

Cynics may say all this sounds too utopian, but Breakthrough maintains the world is already on this path toward decoupling. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, according to Iddo Wernick, a research scholar at the Rockefeller University, who has examined the nation's use of 100 main commodities.

Wernick and his colleagues pored over data from the U.S. Geological Survey National Minerals Information Center, which keeps a record of commodities used from 1900 through the present day. They found that the use of 36 commodities (sand, ire ore, cotton, etc.) in the U.S. economy had peaked.

Another 53 commodities (nitrogen, timber, beef, etc.) are being used more efficiently per dollar value of gross domestic product than in the pre-1970s era. Their use would peak soon, Wernick said.

Only 11 commodities (industrial diamond, indium, chicken, etc.) are increasing in use (Greenwire, Nov. 6), and most of these are employed by industries in small quantities to improve systems processes. Chicken use is rising because people are eating less beef, a desirable development since poultry cultivation has a smaller environmental footprint.

The numbers show the United States has not intensified resource consumption since the 1970s even while increasing its GDP and population, said Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller University.

"It seems like the 20th-century expectation we had, we were always assuming the future entailed greater consumption of resources," Ausubel said. "But what we are seeing in the developed countries is, of course, peaks."

The developing economies of China and India would follow in two to three decades, Ausubel said.

Calls for a truce
Wernick and Ausubel's report challenges the traditional belief that economic growth hinges on unchecked natural resource consumption. It provides hope that human prosperity could coexist with conservation goals.

Traditional conservation biologists would not fully agree with this statement. While human welfare is important, nature too has its intrinsic value and ought to be protected, they argue. For instance, in the case of the coral reef ecosystem, biologists would support cutting greenhouse gas emissions from factories because that leads to climate change, which in turn harms corals.

The back-and-forth has left many other conservationists deeply shaken and some funding organizations apprehensive about supporting conservation initiatives. Tallis of the Nature Conservancy said students have expressed concerns over joining a fractious field.

"I've been literally in the bush in Kenya and heard a few people debating really aggressively about this issue in the middle of the bush," she said.

So, in a commentary, Tallis and 239 conservationists called for scientists from the two opposing camps to make nice and accept that all conservation approaches could coexist in different contexts.

Why an individual should care about nature is a very value-laden issue, Tallis said. It is not necessary to chose one set of values over others, she said.

"We call for an end to the fighting," Tallis and her co-authors wrote. "We call for a conservation ethic that is diverse in its acceptance of genders, cultures, ages and values."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500