I've devoted most of my professional career to the conservation of biological diversity through the creation of parks and other types of protected areas. The concept of protecting nature traces to the 1872 creation by Congress of Yellowstone National Park and the National Park System. So extraordinary was this shift—from the ethos of subduing nature, to the selfless commitment to preserving nature for its own sake—that writer Wallace Stegner called it America's "best idea."
How do we achieve impact at a scale that meets today's enormous needs? Explore Bridgespan research, insights from leaders, and more on the Transformative Scale Resource Center.
In fact, the idea expanded dramatically during the 20th century. Government created new forms of protected designations (such as wilderness areas and wildlife refuges), and countries around the world adopted variations of these. Today, more than 100 nations have some form of protected area system. Given this history, the conservation of protected areas could be considered a successful example of achieving impact at a transformative scale: from one park in the United States to almost 10 percent of the earth's surface.
But in terms of conserving the world's biological diversity, the protected area approach has not scaled sufficiently at all. The rate at which species and habitat types are disappearing has accelerated. Protected areas contain less than 5 percent of the planet's species, and many habitat types—such as natural grasslands—have virtually disappeared. At the same time, the protected area paradigm is in its waning stages. We will likely create very few new parks in the years ahead, and a number of rapidly developing countries are removing existing parks from protected status.
While we should not abandon the protected area concept, we need to advance a new paradigm if we are to have any hope of ensuring that we can sustain all life on earth—including our own. I believe that we are on the threshold of conservation's "second curve"—a future that holds great promise, but is fraught with challenge and uncertainty.
Transforming conservation will require that we reframe the context of and rationale for environmental sustainability. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), produced in 2003 by more than 1,000 of the world's preeminent scientists under the auspices of the United Nations, provided the platform for such a reframing. The first of the report's 10 conclusions declared: "Everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a decent, healthy, and secure life." Such a profound insight led to expanding the prevailing orthodoxy of protecting nature from people—to including the precept of conserving nature for people.
Ten years after the MEA, there is abundant evidence that we are in the early stages of transforming the idea and practice of conservation. Several leading conservation NGOs have embraced the new idea. Conservation International's tagline is "people need nature to thrive." The new mission of my former organization, The Nature Conservancy, is to "conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends."
More significantly, the business community is realizing that sustainability is not simply an aspect of corporate social responsibility but a material issue affecting the bottom line. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development , composed of 200 global companies, has established the goal of "incorporating the costs of externalities, starting with carbon, ecosystem services, and water, into the structure of the marketplace." Bloomberg LLP provided start-up funding for the creation of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, which is devoted to "setting standards for use by publicly listed corporations in the United States in disclosing material sustainability issues for the benefit of investors and the public." Coalitions of conservation NGOs and business leaders have created other entities, such as the Natural Capital Coalition and the Global Reporting Initiative.
Similarly, some conservation NGOs have partnered with corporations to pursue the congruence of business and ecological sustainability. The Nature Conservancy and Dow Chemical have formed an initiative to "incorporate nature into global business goals, decisions, and strategies." And the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University is working with the Inter-America Development Bank to "integrate ecosystem services information into transport lending decisions."
As with the emergence of any new field or period of transformation, there is a lot of "noise" and very little coherence. There is also rising criticism from conservation traditionalists who fear the conservation movement will "sell out" to profit-driven enterprises and motivations. In fact, decisions we make about how public institutions and private enterprise use natural resources virtually never account for the true value of natural capital or ecosystem services; other parties or society at large bear the costs. Never has this miscalculation been more dangerous than now, when climate change has begun to undermine food security and human health.
We are on the threshold of a new curve, with the potential for truly transformational change in how we appreciate, account for, and sustain the earth's biological diversity. But it will require alignment between traditional adversaries; adoption of entirely new norms, behaviors, and practices in the for-profit world; and new policy frameworks that create incentives and ground rules for the private sector. The next 10 years hold the promise of ushering in an entirely new way of how we live on this planet.
Steve McCormick is cofounder of the Earth Genome Project, a start-up venture to create the first global, open-source database on ecosystem services and natural capital. He worked for 30 years for The Nature Conservancy, serving as president and CEO from 2000 to 2008, and was president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation from 2008 to 2014.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.