Our Conservation Resolution: Think Big

As the New Year begins, I have a resolution for the conservation community: It’s time to think big.


Historically, when nations thought about the conservation of ecosystems, it often turned into an intense debate about which areas of exceptional scenery and charismatic wildlife should be put into protected areas and which should be developed, mined, dammed, farmed. After much compromise and negotiations the U.N. system adopted global protected area targets of roughly 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of ocean areas by 2020.

Unfortunately, in an age of rapid population growth, consumption and urbanization, conserving these isolated areas will not ensure that earth’s ecological life-support system will survive. Creating pockets of protected land and sea is a step in the right direction, but if that’s all we do, these protected areas will become islands in a sea of cities, farms, wastelands and toxic dumps.

The reality is that nature is the foundation of every nation. The long-term health of nations requires much more than securing 10 to 17 percent of nature’s vitality. Forests and rivers supply water. Coral reefs give us fish. Microorganisms are essential for soils and our food crops depend upon pollinators.

Remarkably, as we explore space and search for life on Mars, we do not understand how much of our Earth needs to remain untrammeled and ecologically vital for humanity to continue to thrive. But we do know that without ecological vitality our watersheds will not recharge, our grasslands and soils will become infertile and our forests and oceans will be barren. What will all of us eat and drink?  Where will we live?

At this point, people undervalue nature and ecological processes. Fortunately, there are efforts underway to correct this.

A small number of nations and institutions (with CI heavily engaged) are developing methodologies to understand and to measure the services that nature provides for people and how to protect the sources — our reservoirs of natural capital — from destruction. To begin, protecting and securing the services of these ecosystems requires establishing a legitimate value (monetary or otherwise) for nature’s contributions to human economies and human prosperity. It also requires an understanding of the consequences of not protecting these ecosystems which are the sources of irreplaceable ecological benefits.

CI and partners have begun mapping and computing the value that ecological services provide to the nations of Botswana, Guyana, Madagascar, Brazil and Cambodia. More will follow. In Botswana, for example, we have estimated that the value of ecosystem services is equivalent to 48 to 80 percent of Botswana’s GDP annually. This is a big number, and the truth is that without the ecological values that nature provides, Botswana would not resemble in many ways the dynamic and healthy freshwater and wildlife paradise that it is today.

We cannot dawdle. We need a grand collaboration to map country by country and state by state, exactly where essential ecological services originate and the paths they follow to get to people. We also need to understand the macro picture: the interconnectedness of oceans, currents, winds, distribution of seeds and movements of fisheries.

The challenge in 2015 and beyond is to move quickly in gathering and analyzing ecological data and then sharing this data with governments and businesses so they are able to make wise choices about what to save and where to develop. The well-being of people and the stability of nations depend upon the choices we make.

I want to close with good news. Today, as never before, we are aware of these challenges. Sustainability is part of the curriculum of most schools. Governments and businesses are engaged and most importantly, young people are increasingly concerned about environmental issues and want to take action. According to the Deloitte Millennial Survey conducted in 2014, survey participants cited “climate change/protecting the environment” as one of the four greatest challenges facing societies around the world. In addition, more than 80 percent of millennials surveyed believe that the business sector could provide potential solutions.

This is huge, and I find it incredibly encouraging that young people understand that their lives and communities are inextricably linked with the health of nature. As consumers, voters and future leaders, they will soon be responsible for decisions that will determine what the Earth looks like in 50 or 100 years.

Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.