A little over 50 years ago, at the dawn of the global environmental movement, supporters were convinced that they were going to save the planet from pollution, overpopulation, and a vaguely understood threat called ecological imbalance. On the other hand, the society of the time, geared towards waste, saw nature conservation as a utopian alternative. The movement’s concerns were foreign to the vast majority. This was despite the fact that there were already international initiatives, such as the first United Nations conference on the human environment and the creation of non-governmental conservation organizations.
Perhaps we needed to face extreme situations for environmental problems to become part of the collective imagination. Although denial tendencies still circulate in the media and on social networks, concern for the future of nature is increasing every day. The Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents, the increasingly devastating intensity of hurricanes and typhoons, the voracious forest fires at different latitudes, the omnipresence of microplastics and the alarm sounded by the Covid-19 pandemic are some of the many catastrophic events that show we are entering the Anthropocene — a new geological epoch characterized by the deep impact left by human beings. The main manifestations of this epoch — climate change and the accelerated loss of biodiversity — put our future at risk.
Faced with such uncertainty, conservation begins to be seen as what it always was: a critical position regarding the way in which global society relates to its environment. More than abstruse practices, projects aimed at the maintenance or recovery of natural areas, the protection of endangered species, forest management, agroecological production, landscape design for climate resilience or the search for a regenerative economy, among many others, they are proposals that are opposed to appropriation models and of using nature in a way that irreversibly alters its functioning.
The dialectical confrontation of conservation with the economy based on extractive models and the accumulation of capital has led, over the last decades, to a growing understanding of its impacts on the environment. We now know, for example, that the ecological imbalance that we feared half a century ago is the consequence of processes that are deeply important to consumer society, such as the large-scale transformation of ecosystems and landscapes to obtain products that meet the demands of the global market. We have finally begun to assimilate — the hard way — the central idea of the 1972 report published by the Club of Rome, which maintains that development models based on the assumption of indefinite growth are not viable in the long term.
Understanding that humanity has managed to undermine its own quality of life through its actions raises a different reading of biodiversity conservation. While it is true that we have negatively affected the composition, structure and functioning of ecosystems to the point of triggering a sixth wave of mass extinction, it is plausible to think that, in the distant future, life will flourish again thanks to the stubborn ability of biological evolution. And yet, it is unclear whether our species will manage to survive the vicissitudes of the current environmental crisis. That’s why, we have come to the idea that rather than trying to save the Earth, conservation will now have to deal, to a large extent, with developing options that allow us to continue inhabiting it.
This is certainly a humbling lesson that reminds us that we are part of nature. For centuries, the “civilized” world insisted on seeing Homo sapiens as the apex of evolution and nature as something separate from us, in contrast to the many cosmogonies in which this alienation is a contradiction in terms. And this revelation means accepting that, if we want to have a future as a global society, we must make conservation a daily practice that guides its future. Paradoxically, this would be the most humane of our actions and the key to moving forward with dignity through the geological epoch to which we gave rise.
Naturalist and bird watcher since childhood, Luis Germán Naranjo has a PhD in evolutionary ecology and more than 40 years of experience as a teacher, researcher and coordinator of conservation programs. For the last 22 years, he was Director of Conservation for WWF Colombia, until his recent retirement. Luis Germán is a member of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences and a renowned ornithologist and science communicator.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition