Creating the Next Conservation Movement — Or Do We Even Need One?

Creating the Next Conservation Movement — Or Do We Even Need One?
Reported by
Kelly Lombardo

Posted April 11, 2012


Over the last 5 years, there has been a substantial decline in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves environmentalists, and the environment consistently ranks as one of Americans' lowest priorities. Paradoxically, the depletion of global natural resources continues to accelerate as a result of the world's expanding population in conjunction with efforts to elevate the global standard of living. International environmental conservation movements have been restricted to diplomatic discussions, while the interests and activities of localized movements, such as those in China and India, remain in their own backyards. This conundrum motivated Creating the Next Conservation Movement, or Do We Even Need One? on Thursday, February 23, 2012. The discussion was the second part of a four-part series focused on the relationship between conservation and our increasingly urban existence, presented by Hot Topics in Green Science and Sustainability and The Nature Conservancy. Click here to view the eBriefing of part one of the series, Energy for the Next 20 Years: Protecting the Environment and Meeting Our Demands.

David Owen, staff writer for The New Yorker, moderated the discussion and introduced the idea of conservation as an issue from the past that requires revisiting. Owen intentionally kept the discussion topic broad and allowed the members of the panel to frame the direction of the conversation. Initially, each panelist gave a brief presentation encapsulating his or her specific interest within the overarching topic of conservation, which was followed by an open discussion among the panel.

Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, began by presenting contrasting images of the Earth: one illustrating the natural world as depicted several hundred years ago and one representing the current state of the planet firmly under the influence of man. He emphasized how pervasive our influence has been on the Earth, altering land areas through industrial and agricultural development, as well as the oceans through shipping and fishing. While these changes have allowed our modern way of life, they have also permanently altered the natural world. Regardless of our actions, Sanjayan believes there is little chance of the Earth returning to its pure, pre-anthropocene state. Consequently, to build a successful conservation movement, Sanjayan explained that we must first clarify our expectations and collective vision for the Earth's future. We can subsequently develop and implement a clear strategy to reach the desired goal, harnessing our future aspirations for the planet while preserving our current quality of life.

This image illustrates the dramatic and widespread direct modification of the Earth's ecosystems by humans, through agricultural and technological development. Land areas shaded in red and ocean regions shaded in orange highlight the most heavily affected regions. (Image courtesy of Sanjayan)

Ted Nordhaus, co-founder and chairman of Breakthrough Institute, emphasized the importance of technology in achieving our environmental objectives. Climate scientists project that by 2050, an 80% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide emissions, is required to prevent environmental destruction induced by global warming. Nordhaus explained that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is sensitive to several behavioral variables, including global population and wealth. The global population is anticipated to expand from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, causing an estimated 43% increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Concomitantly, global wealth is also expected to rise. If, on average, the global population becomes $6,000 wealthier per capita, carbon dioxide emissions will rise 67%. The combined impact of growth in global population and in wealth will lead to an exponential increase in greenhouse gases, thwarting attempts to reduce emissions by 80%. Given this outlook, Nordhaus feels that altering our personal behaviors would not be enough to counterbalance the escalating pollution, and radical technological advancements in green technology are the only viable solution.

Nordhaus elucidated the role of the United States government in developing and realizing clean, sustainable technologies. Though the U.S. government is one of the largest energy-consuming and carbon-producing entities in the world, their carbon footprint—the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the government’s activities—is insignificant compared to their contribution to innovation, according to Nordhaus. The government makes large investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, with the goal of reducing their future operating costs through innovation. As a direct and very demanding user of green technologies, the government is crucial to advancing carbon-neutral energy production methods, Nordhaus explained.

Michael Shellenberger, co-founder and president of Breakthrough Institute, elaborated on the importance of technology in meeting our environmental objectives. Within this century, the majority of the global population will have achieved a relatively affluent standard of living, incorporating electricity, sewage systems, and public heath systems into their daily lives. Though a humanitarian achievement, the elevation of developing nations from poverty places further burden on our natural resources and accelerates the emission of polluting greenhouse gases. Shellenberger argued that a reduction in the global population’s carbon footprint would not be enough to offset the impact of this rapid development on the environment. Recent techniques, such as raising the price of fossil fuels to discourage use of polluting energy production methods, have had limited success. Shellenberger agreed with Nordhaus's assessment of the crucial role of green technology in alleviating this environmental crisis. Currently, private sector companies are developing renewable technologies, such as next-generation wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams. However, independent businesses are unable to assume the risks that accompany the rapid and efficient advancement of green technology, with great strides only achievable through direct government assistance, according to Shellenberger.

Gernot Wagner, economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, echoed Nordhaus's and Shellenberger's conclusion that behavioral change alone will not meaningfully contribute to environmental conservation. While Wagner agrees that technological advancements are important, he feels that such progress will only be realized with the support of government policies. To elucidate this idea, Wagner explained that there are externalities, costs and benefits not transparent in prices, associated with our personal actions. For example, during a cross-country flight, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from an airplane may cause an estimated $20 in damage, referred to as the “social cost of carbon.” This cost is a monetary estimate of damage to society, caused by floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations, civil instability, and war induced by anthropogenic climate change. To compensate for this negative externality, individuals should pay for the damage they cause. In this example, Wagner suggested that the cost of the original ticket for the flight should increase by twenty dollars as compensation. Wagner explained that to achieve this type of evenhanded economic redistribution would require the implementation of government policy.

Wagner also described positive externalities, those that contribute to technological progress, associated with personal actions. Through their inventions, entrepreneurs provide the building blocks for further technological innovation while their failures prevent others from proceeding down unfruitful paths on which they would waste time and resources. While Wagner noted that pecuniary support for innovation is important, he remarked that government policy is crucial in obtaining financial incentives for these projects. Wagner explained that countries with the most successful technological innovations in the green economy are also the ones that embrace government policies enforcing firm control on the cost of fossil fuels.

While much of the previous discussion focused on direct methods to limit further degradation of the environment, Hazel Wong, internal consultant to the Nature Conservancy, returned the conversation to the direct development of a conservation movement. Wong explained that a major stumbling block for conservation movements has been the inability of the environmental community to communicate with the general population effectively. Approximately 36% of Americans consider themselves environmentally friendly, yet the vast majority does not make financial contributions to environmental causes. To gain support of the general population, the environmental community needs to speak to the personal values of the American people, which can vary considerably. While 40% of Americans feel it is important to protect nature for nature's sake, the remaining 60% would like to understand the benefits gained from their personal sacrifices. Wong believes that to build a successful conservation movement, the environmental community must understand the values important to these Americans, such as clean water, hunting, fishing, or hiking, and must inspire interest in preserving the environment based on these values.

Wong described conservation as a bipartisan issue in America, with those in favor of protecting the land, water, and wildlife represented in all political parties. However, while a large, diverse group of people support conservation, this support is not reflected in government decisions. Wong explained that uniting these supporters is a challenge the environmentalist community must overcome if they wish to achieve their goals.

Media available from panel discussion featuring:
Ted Nordhaus (Breakthrough Institute)
Sanjayan (The Nature Conservancy)
Michael Shellenberger (Breakthrough Institute)
Gernot Wagner (Environmental Defense Fund)
Hazel Wong (The Nature Conservancy)
Moderator: David Owen (The New Yorker)

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.


Presented by

  • New York Academy of Sciences
  • The Nature Conservancy

Creating the Next Conservation Movement — Panel Discussion, Part 1

Moderator: David Owen (The New Yorker)

Creating the Next Conservation Movement — Panel Discussion, Part 2

Moderator: David Owen (The New Yorker)


The Nature Conservancy is a charitable organization that works to preserve Earth's natural resources and beauty.

The Environmental Defense Fund is a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that advocates market-based solutions to environmental problems.

The Aspen Institute, of which Sanjayan is a Catto Fellow is an international nonprofit dedicated to fostering values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to providing a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues.

Books & Journal Articles


Leisher C, Hess S, Boucher TM, et al. Measuring the impacts of community-based grasslands management in Mongolia's Gobi. PLoS One 2012;7(2):e30991.

Leisher C, Brouwer R, Boucher TM, et al. Striking a balance: Socioeconomic development and conservation in grassland through community-based zoning. PLoS One 2011;6(12):e28807.

Balmford A, Bennun L, Brink BT, et al. Ecology: The convention on biological diversity's 2010 target. Science 2005 Jan 14;307(5707):212-3.

Kevin R. Crooks, M. Sanjayan. Connectivity Conservation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2006.

Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger. Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2007.

Tan T, Yu J, Lu J, et al. Biofuels in China. Adv. Biochem. Eng. Biotechnol. 2010;122:73-104.

Pathak H, Jain N, Bhatia A, et al. Global warming mitigation potential of biogas plants in India. Environ. Monit. Assess. 2009;157(1-4):407-18.

Yeh S, Lutsey NP, Parker NC. Assessment of technologies to meet a low carbon fuel standard. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2009;43(18):6907-14.

Michael Shellenberger

Reynolds L. The sum of the parts: Can we really reduce carbon emissions through individual behaviour change? Perspect. Public Health 2010;130(1):41-6.

Cordy P, Veiga MM, Salih I, et al. Mercury contamination from artisanal gold mining in Antioquia, Colombia: The world's highest per capita mercury pollution. Sci. Total Environ. 2011;410-411:154-60.

Burnham A, Han J, Clark CE, et al. Life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas, natural gas, coal, and petroleum. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012;46(2):619-27.

Gernot Wagner

Gernot Wagner. But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World. New York: Hill and Wang; 2011.

Busch J, Lubowski RN, Godoy F, et al. Structuring economic incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation within Indonesia. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2012;109(4):1062-7.

Wagner, Gernot, and Richard Zeckhauser. Climate Policy: Hard Problem, Soft Thinking. Climatic Change. 2011; 110 (3-4):507-21.

Zhao Y, McElroy MB, Xing J, et al. Multiple effects and uncertainties of emission control policies in China: Implications for public health, soil acidification, and global temperature. Sci. Total Environ. 2011;409(24):5177-87.

Hazel Wong

Owen A, Videras J, Wu S. Identity and environmentalism: The influence of community characteristics. Rev. Soc. Econ. 2010;68(4):465-86.

Clement M, Meunie A. Is inequality harmful for the environment? An empirical analysis applied to developing and transition countries. Rev. Soc. Econ. 2010;68(4):413-45.

Hoffa JP. Blue and green working together. New Solut. 2009;19(2):201-4.


David Owen

The New Yorker
e-mail | website | publications

David Owen has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1991. He's the author of more than a dozen books, the most recent of which are Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, and The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse.


Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger

Breakthrough Institute
e-mail | website | publications

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. Their 2007 book Break Through was called "prescient" by Time and "the most important thing to happen to environmentalism since Silent Spring" by Wired. Nordhaus's and Shellenberger's 2004 essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," which was featured on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, sparked a national debate and inspired a generation of young environmentalists. Over the years, the two have been profiled in The New York Times, Wired, the National Review, The New Republic, and on NPR. In 2007, they received the Green Book Award and Time magazine's 2008 "Heroes of the Environment" award. In 2011, Nordhaus and Shellenberger started the Breakthrough Journal.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus proposed "making clean energy cheap" in The Harvard Law and Policy Review, explained why the Kyoto climate treaty failed in Democracy Journal, and predicted the bursting of the green bubble in The New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. The two predicted the failure of cap and trade in the American Prospect, criticized "green jobs" in The New Republic, and pointed a way forward for climate policy in the Wall Street Journal. The two have written on intellectual property for Slate, counter-terrorism for Roll Call, the end of the war on terror for The Atlantic, and modernization as a new ecological theology for Orion. Nordhaus is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Michael Shellenberger is a graduate of Earlham College and holds a masters degree in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

M. Sanjayan

The Nature Conservancy
e-mail | website

Sanjayan's scientific work has been published in journals including Science, Nature, and Conservation Biology, and he co-edited the book Connectivity Conservation (Cambridge University Press, 2006). He frequently speaks at internationally recognized venues, including the World Forum on Sustainable Development, International Women's Forum, and TED Global 2010. He is a Catto Fellow with the Aspen Institute. Sanjayan's work has received extensive print media coverage—from Vanity Fair to National Geographic Adventure, Outside to The New York Times. In 2007, he was named and featured as one of Men's Journal's "Heroes of 2007." He is a frequent guest on NBC's Today Show and has appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman." He has also co-hosted documentaries for the Discovery Channel (Mysteries of the Shark Coast, Expedition Alaska), BBC (Wildlife in a War-Zone), and featured in National Geographic TV (Earth Report 2009). His newest effort, hosting a four-part series on energy for Discovery Channel (Powering the Future) is scheduled to air July 2010. When not at work, Sanjayan can be found either trekking in Africa or fly-fishing in Western Montana, where he tries to live.

Gernot Wagner

Environmental Defense Fund
e-mail | website | publications

Gernot Wagner is the author of But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World (Hill & Wang / Farrar Strauss & Giroux 2011). He serves as an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, teaches at Columbia, and graduated from Harvard and Stanford. He doesn't eat meat, doesn't drive, and knows full well the futility of his personal choices.

Hazel Wong

The Nature Conservancy

Hazel Wong is an internal consultant to the Nature Conservancy, helping the organization's chapters and partners across the country develop legislative and ballot campaigns aimed at creating funding for conservation at the state and local levels. Using polling, strategic message development, and political campaign tactics, she creates a groundswell of public support for conservation funding and policy initiatives. She has a Bachelor's degree in Communications from California State University–Fullerton and a Master's degree in Political Science from the University of Nevada–Las Vegas.

Kelly Lombardo, PhD

Kelly Lombardo is a postdoctoral research associate at Stony Brook University, examining the impact of climate change on eastern U.S. coastal winter cyclones. She received her PhD in atmospheric science from Stony Brook University, studying the modification of organized severe convective systems by the Atlantic coastal waters. Lombardo earned her MS in atmospheric science from the University at Albany, SUNY, where she analyzed observed convectively-coupled equatorial Rossby waves and explored their relationship to tropical cyclogenesis.


Presented by

  • New York Academy of Sciences
  • The Nature Conservancy