December 11th, 2008
08:19 AM ET

Does a slowing economy mean more conservation? Not necessarily...

Program Note: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril returns this year to examine the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Lisa Ling travel to the front lines of this worldwide battle.
Watch Planet In Peril: Battle Lines Thursday 9p ET

We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

Editor’s Note: M. Sanjayan is a lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve species by “protecting the land and waters they need to survive.”

M. Sanjayan
The Nature Conservancy

This Christmas, in my family, the gifts will be thoughtful but fewer. My little niece, who becomes so inundated with presents that she starts playing with the boxes they come in out of boredom, will probably receive only a manageable amount this time around. As much as I would like to take credit for this obvious decline in over-consumption, my family has not acted purely out of self-restrain. What we couldn’t bring to do the economy has done to us.

The same has been true at work. When I log on to my organization’s carbon calculator and figure out my contributions to climate change, I generally score well (that is far less of an impact than an average family) in every category except travel. With about 22 work related trips last year, many across the country, or abroad, flying take a big chunk out of any accumulated karma I receive on savings made by walking to my office, or living in a small house, or driving a hybrid – a Prius -, or even on occasion hunting (fish, ducks, deer) my own food. But next year budget cuts have forced me to cancel about one-third of my trips – eight trips less– saving my organization about 10,000 dollars on air fare and 8,000 kg of carbon dioxide.

The economic meltdown that has taken a hefty bite out of our 401K plans has also had the unintended consequence of reducing our seemingly inexhaustible appetite for consumption. We are all buying less, driving less, flying less, building less, developing less, and re-using everything much more. We have finally taken a solid step towards sustainability by reducing our consumption of the resources on the planet. It is what every environmental group, whether directly or indirectly has been fighting for. The less we use, the less we contribute to habitat destruction or to climate change, and the more time we have to adjust to a crowded planet. Maybe our mission just got a reprieve?

So is that a good thing? And if so why aren’t environmentalists celebrating – or if they are, why didn’t anyone invite me?
I suspect for many of us the economic downturn also comes with personal uncertainties. Reduced income, job loss, or seeing friends out of work, take a heavy toll on our hearts (even as our mind rationalizes the reduced impact on the planet) and even though we in the conservation or environmental movement are motivated by more than a pay check – the money still does matter. We are first and foremost, providers, supporters, caregivers, and of course, humans, not martyrs.

Also, it seemed during the past few years that the world was finally approaching a crucial tipping point in terms of being willing to voluntarily consider alternate ideas for conservation. Ideas that would harness economic forces for the good of the environment. Paying for ecological services such as water and carbon. Investing in experimental technologies because it seemed like the right thing to do. And support conservation efforts through unprecedented amounts of private and public funding.

In a few short months all this has changed.

Private funding is drying up; governments are running huge deficits, and companies don’t seem to want to experiment on new ideas anymore. So while the forests, rivers, coral reefs, and the atmosphere of this planet may get a little bit of a respite, our ability to fundamentally change human society to live more sustainable lives, has also changed. Which is the bigger change is as yet unclear.

A colleague from China recently told me that when he visited some timber companies operating illegally in Asia, he found many shut down. When he asked, and remember this is in a very remote region of Asia, he was given the reason – “sub-prime mortgage crisis”. He was shocked to find out that what had started in America just a few months back was already having a great impact on illegal logging in Asia. What worried him now was that though temporarily shuttered if things changed in the West, once again these operations would be swiftly back in business. “The people’s attitudes haven’t changed” he told me, “they are just waiting to start again”.

What is clear is that in all likelihood the economy will eventually recover from the recession its currently in – civilizations do rise again even after the biggest of collapses. And that’s when the biggest environmental damages and insults tend to happen; when things roar back.

If the environmental movement can use this time to help fundamentally re-engineer how we treat our planet in peril (say by investing in green jobs, sustainable economies, valuing environmental services, innovating with new technologies), then we will emerge to a brighter future. If not we will be doomed to make the same mistakes of the past and we will forever play catch with habitat destruction and climate change.

I know we are all getting fewer presents this Christmas – I just want it to be for the right reasons. Not because we don’t have enough to give but because we are valuing things differently.

Filed under: Economy • M. Sanjayan • Planet in Peril
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