Nature Needs Half: A Necessary and Hopeful New Agenda for Protected Areas

Originally published in the Nature New South Wales Journal

Article by: Harvey Locke, Founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, writer and photographer

Conservation targets should be based on what is necessary to protect nature in all its expressions. When, in 1988, the Brundtland report called for tripling the world’s protected area estate (which was then at 3 to 4 per cent of the land area) there was a strong belief that sustainable development would ensure the proper care for nature on the rest of the unprotected earth.

This has proven wrong. We therefore must materially shift our protected areas target to protect at least half of the world, land and water, in an interconnected way to conform with what conservation biologists have learned about the needs of nature. Instead we have set goals that are politically determined, with arbitrary percentages that rest on an unarticulated hope that such non-scientific goals are a good first step towards some undefined better future outcome.

This has been a destructive form of self-censorship. It is time for conservationists to reset the debate based on scientific findings and assert nature’s needs fearlessly. 

Boreal Forest Wilderness_Nature NSW

Boreal forest wilderness. McQuesten River valley, central Yukon Territory, Canada

It is well settled scientifically that humanity’s relationship with the natural world is in trouble. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Parry et al, 2007) stated bluntly: “The resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change, associated disturbances (e.g., flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification), and other global change drivers (e.g., land use change, pollution, overexploitation of resources)”. The human species has become so dominant that some argue we have entered a new geological age dominated not by the chemical and physical workings of the earth as they exist under their own motion from time to time but by us humans and they propose we call this new period the Anthropocene (Zalasiewicz et al., 2011).

This is not new. Our species’ troubled relationship with nature has been widely understood for 25 years. In 1988 the United Nations published Our Common Future, known widely as the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). It stated “As the century closes, not only do vastly increased human numbers and their activities have that power [to alter planetary systems], but major unintended changes are occurring in the atmosphere, in soils, in waters, among plants and animals and in the relationships among all these”.

A few years later the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”, which was signed by the majority of the living Nobel Prize winners in science at the time, said starkly: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992).

The concerned scientists identified the need to bring environmentally damaging activities under control in order “to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on” and stated that “We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species”.

> Read the full Nature Needs Half article

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