Conservation 2.5 -- An Essential Upgrade for Human Survival

There is no question that we are living in a time of rapid change and challenge: social networking and mobile media, globalization and see-saw economies, extreme weather events, and our ever-growing human family are forces that are reshaping the ways we live, prosper, and communicate. Stand still or fail to adapt, and this world will whiz right past you.

This too applies to the conservation movement. For the past 25 years, since I co-founded Conservation International with a small team of committed champions in 1987, I have been witness to the changes taking place in our planet's operating systems. Its water supplies, arable soils, carbon sinks, pollinators, fisheries, reefs, and climate are all in a state of dangerous flux. But so too, is the way we manage these services; businesses, governments, and consumers are starting to shift their behavior, in a conscious need to sustain and adapt.

I liken this period to an upgrade in our stewardship of the planet -- Conservation 2.5, if you will. Allow me to explain.

Back in 1970s and 80s, during a period I liken to 'Conservation 1.0', it was a different era. Conservation and environmental protection wasn't top-of-mind. Companies didn't think about it, governments didn't prioritize it, schools didn't teach it. At that time, we felt it was vital to show that nature and humanity are fundamentally linked and to protect nature through parks and reserves. Our arguments focused on creating and protecting these beautiful natural areas for the sake of preserving natural heritage.

By the turn of the century however, it became evident that this strategy would not alone succeed, as extinctions rose and habitats degraded under the pressures of economic development and expansion.

When we talked about biodiversity loss and the importance of protected areas, when we emphasized the need to protect species in the places where they were concentrated, governments and businesses couldn't see how this related to the immediate challenges of their economic growth and their essential mission of taking care of their people or delivering profits to their shareholders. We realized that our motivation to protect nature must be driven by much more than our love of its beauty, biodiversity or our natural heritage.

So we adapted. We began to look at nature not as a static reflection of what life was like, but instead, as a critical component of our future. Our goal was to protect biodiversity and we pursued new paths that moved from parks into large-scale ecological zones and integrated economic development to ensure the stability of entire ecosystems.

At the same time, companies began to think about corporate and social responsibility, perhaps because of the advent of the Internet. There was more online discussion among communities, consumers and employees, and greater discussion about waste and environmental impacts. Companies began to think of environmental management in terms of their brand reputation, and this ushered in something like 'Conservation 2.0.' In this phase, we made meaningful progress in shifting how decision-makers think about managing our natural heritage and wealth, but again, with the forces of globalization bearing down and a narrow focus on protecting biodiversity, we fell short.

Today, I think we are collectively developing a way forward that will really work -- a 'Conservation 2.5' for the well-being of nature and people. In this operating system, the motivation for protection of nature shifts into an emphasis on the continued provision of ecosystem service delivery systems to people and businesses, or the flow of goods and services that our companies, governments, and families directly rely on to thrive. These services include our fruits and their pollinators, our coral reefs and their fisheries, plants and their medicinal benefits; our forests and glaciers and their clean waters; our mangroves and coral reefs that protect us from storms; our productive soils and nutrient cycles to cultivate food, and so much more.

What this has translated into is an increasing understanding that for a company or a nation to ensure long-term viability -- what they both want to achieve -- they need to be able to incorporate into their principles strategies and values an understanding of economic contribution of nature and her services to their own survival.

The good news is that today, companies are much more receptive when we tell them they need to do things right, because they understand that their future is completely dependent on how they take care of nature. They're saying: help us, show us. We have never before seen as many companies hiring sustainability officers so they can anticipate how they predict the flow of the products they sell. We have never seen so many companies concerned about instability of energy supplies and the need to maximize efficiency and reduction of waste. Additionally, social media is shining an ever-watchful light on corporate behavior and procurement.

Companies that make sustainability part of their DNA will thrive. Those that do not will falter. Collectively we have the power to motivate companies and governments to change.

If we can get decision makers to value nature's services, if we can help them understand that this is in their enlightened self-interest, then we can transition to sustainable development. It will take a huge amount of work, but there are big institutions out there that have huge energy which we can convert to work for us. I would not have thought we could do that 25 years ago. Today I think we can.

In founding Conservation International all those years ago we took a leap of faith. We jumped out on our own and built something against the odds. We're making the same leap of faith today. The next four decades are going to be a serious challenge as our population soars to more than 9 billion in 40 years and 10 billion by the end of this century. Demand for energy, food and water is going to double and we only have one planet to resource this soaring demand. Conservation is not a luxury for times of wealth. It is a necessity. We have to work together now to set ambitious targets to ensure that we don't have islands of success in a sea of destruction. So we cannot slow down. Now we must intensify our combined efforts.