At the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit that develops ecological-preservation solutions around the world, Peter Kareiva focuses on science-based approaches to conservation. As the organization’s high-profile Chief Scientist, Kareiva has also gained attention for his call to rethink the very field in which he works. This year, the New York Times called Kareiva “perhaps the most prominent critic of the conservation movement from within its own ranks.” His critiques of conservation encourage people to move beyond a traditionally gloomy approach to understanding how nature is changing in relation to civilization, with the goal to find more positive contexts for how the natural world and humanity can co-exist harmoniously.
I caught up with Kareiva, who is wonderfully jovial and intensely thoughtful, at the recent PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, where he spoke on the topic of resilience, the overarching theme of the event and a focus of his own research. Over coffee, we talked about how he believes conservation can be redefined in the 21st century, when urban life is the norm for most people on Earth and as mobile phones are enabling non-scientists to share data about the natural world in informal yet efficient ways. Here’s our lightly edited and condensed conversation.
SmartPlanet: I’ve read that you are interested in establishing partnerships with numerous collaborators outside of the conservation realm. Why is it so important to diversify and think in cross-disciplinary ways?
Kareiva: Conservation needs new ideas. Everyone needs new ideas. These days, it’s widely understood that progress is made by bringing in ideas from other fields. That’s a platitude, a generality. In more practical terms, though, conservation has had its way of doing its business, and the whole conservation movement is doing a reboot to be more effective. We work with corporations now. Technology is part of conservation.
The stereotype of conservationists is a cartoon: guys in Birkenstocks and beards who want to go live in a cabin in the forest by themselves. (Laughs.) We need those people to get data in the wild. But we also need people who live in cities and thrive on technologies to be conservationists.
SP: When you talk about “tech,” you’re speaking very broadly, right? Hardware, software, apps…
Kareiva: Yes — and sensors, using Google Earth, and the idea of working with everyday citizens using their cell phones to monitor the environment. There are so many amazing tools now. We partner with Google to get the information we gather to be more interactive. Also, I personally wrote a textbook on conservation science, and I rewrote it to be more interactive. In the future, we envision a global community interested in conservation, who could see data and pictures of what’s happening in their near area, could see climate change, and could contribute data. They wouldn’t be passive recipients of information.
SP: What about making sure the quality of information that’s contributed by non-scientists is up to scientific standards?
Kareiva: There are ways of checking on data. Some models already exist. The Breeding Bird Survey, for instance, totally done by volunteers, offers 30-40 years of valuable data. It’s a source of basic research.
SP: Could some of the new tech tools also be channeled into science education in the K-12 range?
Kareiva: Yes. They could. But the models could lie somewhere that aren’t technology related. I think of the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF Program, which offers paid internships for high school students. The kids work, they’re not taking classes. They collect data with our scientists. I’m inspired by those kids. One way this is a model: someone could create an entire curriculum that could be taught on cell phones — this could get kids participating in science; they could collect data and share it. A little innovation in education could go a long way.
SP: Turning back to interdisciplinary approaches to conservation, do you foresee working with artists to create more compelling ways to communicate environmental info in the future?
Kareiva: Well, it’s been a reach for us even to get social scientists involved! But we are. Actually, it’s an interesting point; when I was updating my textbook, I had a friend, a photographer, whom I asked to contribute images to the book. And readers were much more compelled by her photographs than by my writing. (Laughs.) This made me think, going forward at the Nature Conservancy, we’re building a bunch of new global innovation incubators that will assemble and disassemble teams, collections of people from different organizations to come together and solve conservation problems. We’ve raised private money for this, but we haven’t come up with a name for it yet. In the construct of that, for some of the issues we will address, like climate change, we’ve realized that artists may be essential; visualizations are important.
SP: What about the role of design in conservation today? Is the Nature Conservancy working with architects?
Kareiva: There is an enormous opportunity in the building industry — from improving carbon emissions to water issues, even to improving mental health of citizens, I believe. You know, we could meet U.S. goals of reducing emissions by creating greener cities — and these would be cities you’d want to live in. We’d have improved quality of life in these types of cities. In terms of building design and living design, everyone complains about cars. But the auto industry has done well about improving mileage, but the building industry has not.
The traditional conservationist will say nature is Yosemite. But cities are part of nature, too. We’ve had generations of hunting and gathering. We won’t, we can’t undo that. What inspires us is the 100,000 generations of hunters and gatherers. Take an urban kid out into nature…and they can only have a primal experience there. We can bring a little more nature into our cities. There are all sorts of studies, but only little bits and pieces, with evidence that shows giving kids to the surprise of nature — and it can be Central Park or the High Line in New York — and these kids focus better on tests and they get less depressed. They control impulses better, they can handle highly stressful situations better.
SP: So let’s talk about the idea of losing the gloom-and-doom attitude when dealing with climate change and conservation issues. You’re an optimist, aren’t you?
Kareiva: We have a grand tradition of pessimism, probably going back to Malthus. He was a gloomy son of a gun. Pessimism feels smarter. You feel smart to announce some oncoming gloom and doom. If you announce a happy future, people think you’re foolish. Our intellectual system rewards pessimism. People filter information. We confront the world, and we see the same information in different ways, some pessimistic, others optimistic.
We’ve gone through so many predictions of collapse since the time of Malthus [in the late 18th and early 19th centuries]. In my direct experience with data as a scientist, though, over the years I’ve seen that people have been wrong over and over with predictions of doom and gloom, in areas such as predicting the fate of salmon populations, for instance. Historically, we may be pessimistic; but actual data might not point to such pessimistic outcomes. Maybe I’m biased my way, as an optimist. (Laughs.) At least my way makes me wonder, what do you do with pessimism? It can inhibit solutions. So regardless of who is right or wrong, which one of us, the pessimist or the optimist, has the chance to make a bigger difference?
SP: So let’s turn to the topic of resilience — there is a huge interest in the concept and in finding practical ways to build resilience on a very large scale, and quickly. What’s the most important lesson in resilience theory you can share?
Kareiva: Intellectually, people are drawn to tipping points, thresholds, and recovery. The question is not about how we build resilience. I’d flip it on its head and say resilience exists. Why not ask, what might we do that ruins resilience? When I look at ecosystems and cities, they are resilient. I wonder, though, what are the pathological things we do to damage them, as opposed to what we can design to be resilient? Yes, resilience talk is exciting, because there’s a save-the-world aspect to it. And that is good.
Image: Thatcher Cook for PopTech/Flickr