A friend of mine, Mark Halle, argues that the world of conservation is going nowhere and that a new vision is needed to take it out of its maelstrom. I agree and firmly believe that solutions are often not found in defensive postures but in the offensive realm.
Three things will determine the future of conservation, but I must add that mine is only one view among many.
Firstly, everything we want changed involves, at the first instance, the mind or consciousness, and this becomes more important when we consider the rate at which globalisation is taking place and the shift in the global middle class that has occurred in the last two decades. The global income shift from the West to the rest of the world is both an opportunity and a threat. Any shift in income share is usually proceeded by an unsatiated desire for goods and services. But some of the goods and desires impact on species and ecosystems. Shifting mindsets, though, also present an opportunity, as we have found that people with higher incomes can also vote with the power of their money.
Different societies and identities have located or embedded in their cultures different value triggers. These require innovative persuasion strategies rather than simply plugging out methods from conventional settings. Persuasion tools in Western societies may be wholly inadequate or out of sync with non-Western societies.
The flip side of the people equation is that poverty and desperation push people, out of necessity, to claim more goods and services from nature in a manner that is often inefficient and unsustainable.
Persuading people on both sides of the spectrum requires creative strategies that operate, on the one hand, at the level of mindset and, on the other, at the level of conservation, especially in Africa, which cannot sustain itself without tackling broader economic and development issues. And the scale of the income shift from the West to the rest of the world is also impacting on local conservation, given the transnational nature of much of the demand for species products like rhino horns and lion bones, and so on.
Secondly, we should not treat technology as a panacea; however, technology futures are cause for some optimism, as a new wave of technologies will fundamentally shift the relation between the environment and the economy. This is because implicit in many of these technologies are environmental considerations. We do not know half what these technologies can offer, as they are just starting to enter commercial application and are probably a decade away from pervasive adoption. It is likely that, with these technologies, we will do more with less and save more of our natural environment. Some technologies can replace nature with a synthetic replica of biology. Already, biotechnology, with the help of three-dimensional printing, is being employed in the production of artificial rhino horn, which is as good as the real thing.
Conservationists have a certain degree of ambivalence towards technology. But a twenty-first-century economy is going to be technology rich, and our world, as a result, will be dominated by information technology, big data and artificial intelligence, giving human existence greater sentience and intelligence. How may we, as conservationists, embrace the good aspects of technology and be more nuanced and strategic about the use of technology? On the one hand, we may have no option but to use technology to help advance conservation and, on the other, we may want to influence society to invest in and rapidly deploy technologies that meet both ecological and economic needs.
Conservationists have a certain duty to build a strategic understanding and approach to technology to advance new innovations in conservation practice. If we do not do that, we could be missing out on a whole suite of new solutions that we may have thought not possible.
Thirdly, we are beneficiaries of today’s economy but, at the same time, we casti- gate the economic model for what it is doing to nature. We cannot have it both ways. The modern economy is driven by consumption, which, in turn, is a product of manufactured wants for which there is always easy money – so to speak – to feed it. I mean the expansion of debt and at least three decades of low interest rates globally have enabled cheap credit expansion. This, together with a global savings glut – both corporate and individual – is driving the low inflation targeting that central banks are predisposed to. The banks, in turn, want to hand out loans to households for greater consumption and to enable each household to fulfil the dream of owning a house and a car.
If it is the evil of consumption-led growth that we do not want, what is the alternative? Conservationists have to be part of this debate, not bystanders. The main point of the economic debate I am putting forward here is that this will not be solved by more natural capital valuation or some abstract pursuit of programmes focused on ecological infrastructure. This is just tinkering on the sidelines. Conservationists have to pursue a more heterodox economic paradigm but will have to work with other mainstream economists who are interested in thinking through a new economic model for the twenty-first century. This model should focus not only on solving the challenges of wealth disparity, but also on saving nature and future employment, as human labour in the future will face increased competition from automation and robotics.
Dealing with mainstream economics requires immersing in its articulation rather than creating an adjunct economic discipline that we have so far thought would answer the problems that main- stream economics has thrown at us. It is clear that the traditional model of environmental economics is not working. Something new is needed but it has to be from the inside, not from the margins of the field.
The challenge conservationists face is not to recreate pristine nature; this is idealistic and a unrealisable utopia. The challenge is to reduce further species loss, continue to reduce impacts on ecosystems, make more nature available and ‘rewire’ nature with the aid of technology where nature has been lost.