If you want to see wild nature, your options are declining. Within a few decades, orangutans, Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, Chilean flamingos, Amur leopards, and many other well-known species will likely disappear from the wild. The problems are not limited to large, charismatic animals. Untouched wild places have now shrunk to one-sixth of the Earth's land surface. Virtually all of the world's fisheries are distressed, and oceans have been depleted of predator fish, marine mammals, and birds. Tropical forests may still be dense with trees, but thanks to excessive hunting they no longer contain all the key animals needed to sustain their value to the Earth.

Wild nature is in deep distress, and whatever their occasional protestations, the international institutions charged with Earth's care are not managing it with an eye on "sustainability." Rising to that challenge will test the limits of diplomacy and development. It will also demand strategies in the private sector to rescue conservation from development and poverty alleviation from ecological degradation.

Global losses in biodiversity and wild places are not the stuff of environmental alarmism; they describe our world today, as detailed in volumes of hard scientific evidence. The long-term impact can be calculated in economic terms, but in truth, it represents much more. In the foreseeable future, most of the world's population will not know nature in any direct way. The cultural traditions and languages of peoples dependent on large natural ecosystems will disappear. Great animal assemblages and unique ecological events like those that have inspired humanity through the ages will vanish. As the world grows economically richer, it is becoming biologically poorer.

All these impending losses have a human origin. Economic expansion, population growth, urbanization, and development lead to greater consumption. In turn, growing consumer demand fires competition for fresh water, energy, arable land, forest products, and fish. And globalized production permits the harvesting of nature at ever more rapid rates.

Untrammeled development has resulted in increased demand for flood control and urban water availability at the expense of wild rivers and the rural poor. Hydroelectric projects, energy exploitation, and road, rail, and port development have stripped natural systems of their biological resilience and geographic integrity, delivering instead modern agriculture, dams, mills, factories, and aquaculture. Economic progress has spent down our natural endowment, and few have paid any heed to the long-term resource costs of growth.

Conservation in a world of use is hardly a new challenge. European and American industrialization depended on the exploitation of natural resources for growth, and later developing countries joined the modern ethic of consumption. Today many call for even more development at an even quicker pace, not least to alleviate the grinding poverty of the billion-plus people who try to survive on incomes of less than a dollar a day. Poverty reduction is a noble cause and legitimate priority. But unless the mechanisms of development in the twenty-first century incorporate a greater regard for conservation than did their predecessors, the habitability and natural variety of the world we live in will increasingly be put at risk.


If development has ignored conservation, conservation has paid too little attention to development. Economic policymakers have concentrated on growth, developmentalists on the distribution of the benefits of growth, and conservationists on the costs and consequences of growth for nature and the environment. The result has been an agreement to disagree, with the growth, development, and conservation communities proceeding down separate paths. In practice, the concept of "sustainable development" has proven less a viable middle ground than an empty rhetorical vessel.

Conservation science falls into two basic categories: threat assessment and the analysis of small populations of animals. The former has led to familiar alarms about the disappearance of the wild, the latter to attempts at protecting its remnants. Together they have inspired the creation of various kinds of protected areas, the success of which has been a principal calling card of international conservation organizations. The focus of the conservation community has been on setting aside ecologically important marine and terrestrial areas, reducing the overharvesting of wildlife, lessening the pollution of fragile lands and waters, and protecting long-term ecological processes.

Fitful cooperation between scientists and intergovernmental organizations has yielded some important conservation-related achievements over the years, including the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Atmospheric Nuclear Test Ban, the partial ban on the use of the insecticide ddt, the Biosafety Protocol, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the creation of a list of World Heritage Sites. But these occasional victories have not added up to broader success, and over the last decade conservation has maintained only a tenuous grip on the global political agenda. As the World Summit on Sustainable Development convenes in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late August, conservationists struggle to hang on to the little ground they have gained rather than advancing toward major new accomplishments.

The anemic official conservation agenda has been shaped by international political and economic institutions designed for other purposes. Debate over economic development, financial stabilization and adjustment, the global commons, global climate change, and the protection of biodiversity has been controlled by national governments, the UN, and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Three decades of Earth summitry -- from Stockholm in 1972, to Rio in 1992, to Johannesburg in 2002 -- have been produced, directed, and attended principally by official government delegations. Private nonprofit organizations -- which generate much of the innovation, human capital, and advocacy on behalf of global conservation -- carry on in the shadows without full standing in international political forums. So the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work on conservation issues serve as sherpas and pro bono advisers to global environmental summitry, but never as full participants.

The costs of this public-private separation have been high. Ten years ago, as the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development ended, many thought the prospects for conservation were bright. The Rio summit yielded a Convention on Biodiversity (COB), principles for sustainable forestry, a Framework Convention on Climate Change, and a generous if overblown set of goals called "Agenda 21." Some global business leaders came forward to advocate profit-enhancing "green" technologies and responsible global citizenship. The Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances emerged as a model for future efforts, based as it was on strong science, globally agreed-upon standards, and aggressive action by relevant industries. With the Cold War over, new green leadership in Europe, and an environmentalist U.S. vice president, speculation turned to the possibility of a peace dividend, a development dividend, and even an environmental dividend in the new world order. Conservationists hoped for a new set of regimes covering global ocean fisheries management, climate change, and biodiversity, and perhaps even a real global dialogue about what "sustainability" means and requires.

But the 1990s proved to be difficult and disappointing. Protectionists invoked a cartoonish environmentalism to justify their objections to free trade, reducing the environment to a nontariff trade barrier. Nationalists diverted the COB away from conservation toward a generally fruitless dispute over private-property claims to nature; still without the United States as a party, it remains underfunded and torpid. And even in older, well-established, government-to-government environmental bodies, decision-making continued to be hindered by the need for an unreasonably high level of consensus (e.g., the three-quarters majority required to change the International Whaling Commission's regulations), with the result being paralysis rather than good governance.

Whose fault has it been? Practically everyone can claim a share of the blame. Developing countries have shied away from their post-Rio obligations, even though collectively they will contribute much future growth in global fossil-fuel consumption and natural resource use. Countries with tropical forests have been reluctant to strengthen agreements on tropical deforestation. Some African countries regularly try to end the ban on trade in elephant ivory, and some have joined Japan in its dissent from the international whaling regime. Trade in endangered species continues to horrify, even with CITES in place. Logging companies, global energy interests, and wildlife-product markets are but a few of the self-interested actors that stand in the way of effective collective action. And the multilateral development assistance community, pressed by global poverty, has not accepted the burden of adjustment to sustainability.


So long as national governments and the intergovernmental system are solely responsible for global conservation policy leadership, better results cannot be expected. Private society -- individuals, companies, civic institutions, and conservation NGOs -- must share in the design of a sustainable future. Conservationists must embrace a new agenda, led by a coalition of actors in civil society, including leaders from the global corporate community.

Conservation politics has always been problematic. The international system depends on strong principles of national sovereignty and voluntary cooperation, but nature and science do not fit within political boundaries. Sovereign actors and their designated international representatives debate how to manage the Earth's future in bilateral relationships, alliance regimes, the UN, and the multilateral development and finance system. Sometimes this architecture promotes conservation -- such as through the International Council of Scientific Unions and the World Conservation Union, whose forte is networking and convening scientific specialists -- but often it does not.

Private conservation organizations that operate within and around such global networks, meanwhile, are engaged as only one of many stakeholders in the debate over global resource allocation. Their claims to standing are weak because they are independent of any real process of political legitimation, and opponents scoff at their professed devotion to the public good. Yet the global commons is nothing if not transnational, and the NGOs can speak for planetary collective interests in ways that other actors cannot.

Conservation organizations deliver social services and resource management capability at the fragile ecological frontier, such as in the upper Amazon, the Congo basin, and central Sulawesi. They demand transparency in the public policy debate and help provide scientific legwork and publicity for global biodiversity assessments. They maintain communication with the most isolated nations (such as Myanmar and North Korea) when conventional diplomacy does not. And they engage the private sector on behalf of preserving the natural endowment all people depend on for long-term survival.

Relying on the formal international system alone to defend the environment risks a tragedy of the global commons: collective inaction because no country has much of an incentive to favor conservation except when national interests coincide. Losses in coral reefs, ocean fisheries, and transboundary habitats all testify to the limits of a system driven by national prerogatives and resistant to strong global regimes. Even World Heritage Sites and regionally or globally important biological and cultural phenomena, such as the North American migration of Monarch butterflies or the unique seasonal transformation of Cambodia's Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, are defended mainly in the breach, except by NGOs. China and the smaller Mekong Delta countries will not speak up for Tonle Sap; Canada, Mexico, and the United States will not defend the Monarch butterfly.

The resulting drama features an interstate system that does not adequately defend the integrity of global biodiversity and a bevy of NGOs willing to fill the gap but unable to find political traction or adequate funding to do so. The official global conservation funds that do exist -- such as the Global Environmental Facility, administered by the World Bank, the UN Development Program, and the UN Environment Program -- are disbursed state-to-state, or occasionally through small grants. National governments are naturally reluctant to cede control over such a transnational mechanism to actors in civil society, and they are especially wary of international environmental organizations whose sense of diplomacy and tact is often lacking.

Yet precisely because of their differences, NGOs and governments can play complementary roles. The conservation community can contribute to global political economy and society and enrich the intergovernmental system's effort to design a platform for sustainable development. Before this can happen, however, certain issues have to be faced squarely -- poverty foremost among them.

The Johannesburg script reads like the North-South dialogue of a generation ago, with international equity, development assistance, technology transfer, and concessional trade dominating the conversation. In preparation for the summit, advocates of poverty alleviation denied the tradeoff between economic growth and environmental protection. Reprising the "growth with equity" and "basic human needs" perspectives of the 1970s, they focused on the need to alter the distribution of existing resources and future increments of growth.

Developmentalists promise that this approach will provide environmental dividends in passing, because poor people will grow more concerned with long-term sustainability issues once they are less concerned with their immediate livelihood. From this perspective, in fact, poverty alleviation and sustainability end up looking like much the same thing.

This focus on development leaves the conservation community in the role of Cassandra, pointing out unpleasantly that not all natural resource use is conservation and good things do not necessarily go together. Without careful planning and revised goals, economic growth will end up having a negative impact on conservation. Freeing the tropics from infectious diseases will also free fragile lands for human settlement and lead to environmental degradation. Development will produce few environmental dividends early on, and if we wait too much longer, much of what needs to be protected will already have been destroyed.

Still, if conservationists simply criticize development and poverty alleviation without offering realistic alternatives, they will consign themselves to perpetual irrelevance. If they cannot connect short-term human betterment with conservation for long-term sustainability, they will lose the opportunity to influence the future of global public policy. The challenge for conservationists is to show how poverty can be alleviated with minimal additional damage to wild places and wild creatures. Conservationists are well positioned to make such a case, although it will require a focus on the rural poor and more realistic expectations about dramatic changes in aggregate economic performance on the ecological frontier.


Rather than becoming unthinking enemies or simple fellow travelers of development, conservationists must identify specific places and modes of poverty alleviation where sustainability can be defended. In practice this will mean supporting well-designed development-assistance programs targeted at out-of-the-way rural places, especially where poverty and conservation collide. Such programs will end up helping individuals and small communities rather than triggering major shifts in global poverty indicators. Moreover, they will often have to be routed around governments rather than through them, since state capacity in the hinterland is quite small and often rigid.

Conservationists need not walk away from current partnerships with national governments and the interstate system. Nor can they pretend to represent the poor in general or offer a panacea for the future. What conservationists can do is take the challenge and promise of global civil society seriously and propose their own agenda, convergent with but not dependent on the international system of governance, development assistance, and economic growth. The new conservation agenda will be private, scientific, and grounded at the site of conservation needs; it is likely to revolve around elements such as the following.

The politics of place. Conservation happens in the field, not in the corridors of power. It is not a public relations campaign, and neither poverty alleviation nor conservation can be conquered in Washington, New York, or Brussels. Sustainability requires impact on the wild and the people who live and work there. The acid test of a conservation organization should therefore be its connection to the field and its long-term commitment to working in partnership with those who need sustainability most: the long-forgotten rural poor of the fragile frontier.

Moreover, efforts need to be focused on the principal areas of conservation importance. Thanks to more than a decade of analysis of "biodiversity hotspots," "critical ecoregions" and "the last wild places," the conservation community's threat assessments are pretty comprehensive. But only some of the principal sites of conservation importance coincide with large or growing human habitation and poverty. These are concentrated in South Asia, Southeast Asia, equatorial Africa, the Russian Far East, and the tropical Andean hinterland. Marrying rural poverty alleviation with conservation at the local level in these areas can yield true sustainability while providing an important source of foreign exchange to hard-pressed locales.

Wildlife health surveillance. The globalization cliche that we are all connected should not be dismissed. Scientists warn that vast clouds of dust and pathogens transported across continents may link the future of the Sahel to such costly problems as citrus canker and red tide in Florida. Phytophthora, a family of pathogens responsible for the nineteenth-century Irish potato famine, is reappearing in California as Sudden Oak Death Syndrome thanks to international trade in nursery plants. Other invasive plants and animals transported through trade threaten the $8 billion restoration of the Everglades ecosystem. Cruise ships around the world flush ballast water with unknown "hitchhiker" organisms that can cross national borders without approval or known impact.

Field conservationists today provide a biodiversity surveillance system essential to protecting a changing and highly connected Earth and its inhabitants. If it had not been for the scientific wildlife surveillance capability at the Bronx Zoo, for example, the recent outbreak of the West Nile virus in the United States would have escaped early detection and correct diagnosis. The same conservation surveillance capability will likely provide any signals that chronic wasting disease among elk and deer or brucellosis in bison might jump to beef cattle, and in general provide an early warning system to catch future crossings of the wildlife-human disease frontier.

Tracking the state of the wild. Beyond keeping an eye on the disease frontier, conservationists must help identify and quantify such important but difficult concepts as the growing "extinction debt," whereby the biotic capital of the planet is depleted without immediately obvious consequences. Increasing evidence points to the danger of our fishing down the food web, harvesting lower forms of prey fish, and impoverishing the seas by diminishing the prey necessary to ocean biodiversity. Similar extinction debts appear to be deepening in the terrestrial biosphere. Global ecological surveillance cannot depend entirely on the vicissitudes of publicly funded science; the conservation movement must inform society regularly and rigorously about the state of the wild.

Scientific sustainability audits. A new concept of "sustainability science" is on the horizon, whereby the international community will benefit from clear scientific assessment of various human possibilities in an increasingly fragile biosphere. The conservation community can contribute mightily to this idea by conducting concrete conservation audits of projects and programs undertaken by the development community.

The protection of global heritage. Cultural and ecological sites of global importance have struggled with inadequate funding and the reliance on national agencies for protection. Conservationists can help address this problem by explaining why protection should extend not only to grand architectural sites but also to unique ecological phenomena of great value to human society. They can explain why in Cambodia, for example, it is important to preserve both Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap. During monsoon season, the drainage of Tonle Sap reverses and its volume expands fourfold; it symbolizes sustainability and culture and is both a biodiversity wellspring and the breadbasket of Cambodia. Other ecologically and culturally unique sites abound. By supporting and embracing the World Heritage Site concept, conservationists can add value by working in sites that demonstrate long-term human sustainability in action, such as the ancient rice terraces of Asia, Balinese water temples, and the traditional monsoon water-harvesting systems of southern India.

Endowing conservation rather than governments. Last year in Science, conservation scientists wrote that "nature's decline" could be halted in coming years with an estimated annual global investment of about $30 billion. Providing substantial stewardship of additional protected areas would cost an order of magnitude less. Even if this estimate is slightly off, it mocks the idea that long-term conservation is too expensive to implement or so costly as not to be worth the candle. Raising a private endowment fund on this scale and disbursing it globally through an independent foundation and a prestigious science board would allow the conservation community to escape the sometimes crippling constraints of government-to-government mechanisms. Even more could be achieved if private sources of conservation financing were paired with public funding, through bilateral and multilateral assistance.

Mainstreaming the Convention on Biodiversity. The private conservation community has assisted the COB with ideas, management planning, writing national COB plans, implementation, and support. But the scale and scope of this support has been limited, because funding for it has depended on public entities. Conservation organizations must secure funding for national biodiversity assessments through regional development plans and private support for national academies of science. The conservation community, moreover, can and should help mainstream the COB in international agencies and in countries where conservation activity occurs.

Creating global conservation alliances. Sometimes the conservation community works together, but not often enough. Conservation organizations are starting to collaborate more effectively, but they need a strong agenda and a higher degree of mutual trust. A collaborative global agenda could include a worldwide conservation mapping-and-action exercise that establishes various organizations' relative strengths and brands the activity of conservation itself rather than individual organizations.

A conservation code of conduct. The Sullivan principles, a private code of conduct for firms wishing to adhere to progressive human and civil rights standards, made a real difference in the ethics of investment in South Africa during the late apartheid era. Today, numerous business and industry leaders and associations are already engaged in an interesting dialogue on corporate social responsibility. To take advantage of this beginning the conservation community needs to work with the private sector to develop a stronger statement of corporate conservation ethics. The UN Global Compact and other multilateral efforts on corporate governance are insufficient, and a pragmatic partnership between leading conservation organizations and the private corporate world could make a dramatic impact on the behavioral canons of economic growth and development.


In sum, the public agenda cannot be surrendered entirely to public institutions. Conservation opportunities exist beyond the Johannesburg summit and the constraints of the interstate system. But if global civil society is to contribute more to a sustainable future, it must come together in a more organized and decisive way. It is high time for NGOs to claim a greater role in the conservation debate by forging novel pragmatic alliances among themselves and with the corporate sector. Just as government can deliver what private society cannot -- public safety, national defense, the rules of the international system -- the conservation community can deliver what government cannot: science-based conservation along with poverty alleviation at the furthest redoubts of the human-nature frontier.

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