2030 E: Anthropocene
Overview. The full realization of what conservation is in the Anthropocene is starting to emerge. Only through radical innovation and serious intervention in natural systems can healthy ecosystem functioning be preserved. Conservation has merged with broader climate crisis response and environmental justice movements to remain relevant.
Context/Drivers. Destructive climate change is now seen as inevitable as current impacts intensify and are costlier. We are now clearly in a period of unprecedented, disruptive and unpredictable change to natural systems. The world’s nations are tightening emissions restrictions and managing down the fossil fuel industry, and bringing out innovative clean energy and climate adaptation solutions. Some experiments with geoengineering to slow climate change are underway. Many coastal areas, facing inundation, are abandoned to revert to natural buffers. Most cities are approaching the retreat as a means of giving communities a better life in a safe, livable, healthy location. A new breed of activism characterizes the increasing seriousness of various justice and climate grassroots efforts.
We have accepted that pristine nature no longer exists on the planet, neither on land or in the oceans. Advancing climate change and other stressors have led to the endangerment of a number of iconic species. There is nothing anyone can do to stop the melting of the ice and tundra or the dustbowlification of the grasslands. Deep mourning for losses in the natural world is coupled with a renewed commitment to heal it. A crisis mentality allows for challenging old ways of working in all sectors and fields.
Urbanization has accelerated as rural life becomes increasingly costly and difficult. All of North America is multi-cultural and more diverse, with whites a minority. People are changing their views of nature now that we have the ability to alter it at will with genomics and synthetic biology. More things from fuel to various organic feedstocks are grown in fermentation tanks and not in fields. Synthetic meat is beginning to see uptake. We are clearly able to mold nature more to our needs, and we do.
Strategies. Conservation that contributes to carbon sequestration and other climate action goals becomes paramount. Conservation organizations are deeply involved in the transition to clean energy. Integrated planning on water, land and energy is the norm. A key task has been working to lessen the negative impact of climate adaptation and mitigation measures, e.g., siting of renewable energy, green infrastructure, and smart approaches to biofuels that don’t result in further land being put into monocultures.
Active intervention in ecosystems is now common, especially where species are important to human activity. Assisted migration and assisted gene flow are widely practiced to keep populations of species viable. Leaving a place to evolve on its own under Anthropocene conditions often means that it drifts seriously from its historical baseline and not to a richer state. Against the objections of some wilderness advocates, active forest management addresses new pests/pathogens, temperature increases and changing precipitation patterns. More forests are thinned to prevent devastating fires that ruin the soil and release huge amounts of carbon.
We design landscapes with a feasible mixture of historic, hybrid and novel ecosystems, some of which have been engineered for greater resilience. We set our own goals, since returning to a historic state is usually not possible. A pragmatic mindset avoids setting unattainable goals, which only sow cynicism and frustration, or wasting limited resources on species that can’t survive outside zoos or refuges. The primary goals are to support humans by strengthening ecosystem functions, since clean water, air, and arable land are increasingly scarce. Green infrastructure solutions to flood control and sea level rise are widespread. Urban conservation becomes a key part of reclaiming the place that most people live in as healthy, and aesthetically pleasing, while addressing problems of heat and extreme rain.
The conservation value of a piece of land is now time dependent, e.g. some of it will be under water in 50 years. There is less buying of land and more incentives for private land owners to implement practices compatible with good ecosystem function. Innovation in water management, agriculture, climate mitigation and conservation produce creative new solutions.
Major Players. Major conservation organizations have engaged with the fight against climate change and other underlying drivers of habitat and species destruction (e.g., population growth, unfettered growth-at-all-costs capitalism, etc.). All work to appeal to a new generation of activists. Overall they learn to be better at trying new things and taking risks. Against this crisis backdrop, many see the need to move past petty arguments that divide them.
New startups and big tech spinoffs shake up the field with new business models and a lack of dependency on traditional funders. They disrupt the activities of big established players who can’t change fast enough and are locked into funding that makes it difficult for them to shed their elitist, privileged image. Successful organizations empower the new generation and encourage entrepreneurialism. Government agencies have the hardest time keeping up.
Working in an integrated way on diversity and equity issues creates better alignment with broader environmental and climate justice movements. Classist, neocolonial approaches are increasingly called out and challenged. Radical activists are bent on breaking the system to change it.
Science. New and more severe threats (like the spread of fungal disease throughout amphibian populations) have required new tools and techniques with larger interventions. Genetic improvements to species to help them adapt to changing climate or new pathogens are developed and introduced into the wild. Gene drives that selectively eliminate invasive species across an entire landscape are in use. The creation of entirely new species using synthetic biology technology is also possible and there are experiments with replacing key species in decline with new ones. A few extinct species have been brought back in demonstration experiments. Rewilding efforts continue with engineered species often substituting for extinct historical ones.
Drones, swarms of microsensors, and other advanced observation and measurement technologies have become important tools for conservation, especially in monitoring changes taking place and effectiveness of conservation strategies. Management of large data sets is a critical capability. Modeling and visualization have increased exponentially in power and resolution due to progress in underlying computing technology.
Regulation/Policy. Significant updates have been made to species-oriented regulation to reflect the new realities. New regulation makes it easier to incent good behavior by private companies and the public. States are the laboratories for new regulatory approaches that are later taken up at the Federal level.
In this crisis mentality, there is more invocation of the public necessity doctrine to force reluctant private land owners to take conservation action.
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