Editor's Note: In late 2010, the editorial board of Conservation Biology discussed many alternatives for marking the journal's 25th anniversary. Rather than evaluating the history of the journal, we decided to focus on potential future advances in conservation science and its application. Ultimately, we compiled two special sections and two additional articles. The first special section, edited by Kent Redford, includes nine essays by people outside the traditional community of conservation professionals that examine how the success of conservation can be increased in the next 25 years. The second special section, edited by Eric Dinerstein, includes eight essays on diverse topics that are likely to be emphasized by conservation professionals in the years ahead. A Diversity article by Josh Drew assesses how the historical strengths of natural history institutions can enhance research and engage the public in novel ways, and a Contributed Paper by Murray Rudd explores the extent to which there is consensus among conservation professionals on conservation strategies and the science underlying them.
On the one hand, the suite of articles illustrates that societal priorities and capacity are the principal determinants of whether contemporary biological diversity will persist. On the other hand, the articles identify where objective, rigorous social and natural science are most likely to increase the effectiveness of conservation actions once a value-based decision to act has been made. I thank our guest editors and contributors for making the time to contribute to the journal and provoke creative thought and discussion among our professional community.
Humans have long been fascinated with foretelling the future. In the Western tradition, societies believed that the future was coded in nature and was feasible to decipher. People believed that the future could be told from the cracks in the scapulae of sheep, the vein patterns on the livers of oxen, the seed arrangements in figs, the formations in which flocks of birds flew, the patterns in flames, or the lines in rocks.
Although contemporary societies now often scoff at these early attempts to predict the future, belief in the augury of priests has been transferred to that of science fiction and Hollywood script writers. The last decades have seen a spate of films that have lured audiences into believing the future they rendered. This future has proven so compelling, if not credible, that tens of millions of people around the world willingly pay to watch these films.
These two forms of future telling have in common the forecast of a single inevitable condition. Although societies want to know unequivocally what the future will hold, they have come to understand that the most prudent approach to understanding the future is not forecasting but imagining and evaluating a set of plausible future scenarios. Scenario planning is a disciplined way of organizing, focusing, and directing learning; thinking about the dynamics that are driving a system; and thinking about how these dynamics could lead to very different alternative futures (WCS & Bio-Era 2007). Scenarios may reflect either hypotheses or real sets of conditions or geographic locations (T. G. Martin, unpublished manuscript). Selection and evaluation of scenarios on the basis of objective, rigorous criteria reduce uncertainty in estimates of probable responses to alternative sets of conditions (T. G. Martin, unpublished manuscript). This approach to planning was formalized by the military, subsequently modified by the energy industry (Schwartz 1996), and is now applied by both not-for-profit and for-profit sectors, from education to transportation.
The practice of conservation has begun to include development and assessment of scenarios (Peterson et al. 2003) from land-cover change to climate change by organizations or programs from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.maweb.org/en/Scenarios.aspx) to nongovernmental conservation organizations (WCS & Bio-Era 2007). Thinking about the future is not limited to scenario planning, however. For example, governments, corporations, researchers, and practitioners engage in horizon scanning (e.g., Sutherland et al. 2011), which identifies emerging issues in a given field sufficiently early to conduct research to inform policy and practice. Nevertheless, it is our impression that the study and practice of conservation science largely have focused on the past and the present. For much of its history, conservation science fundamentally has been a backward-looking discipline, focused on what is happening now or has happened in the past. Our community must lift its eyes from observing the undesirable effects of human land use to preventing these effects. We must learn to look to, and learn from, the future.
Anniversaries are good times to reflect on where one has been and where one is going, and 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of Conservation Biology. As part of the celebration and reflection, we invited a set of people to answer three questions. First, what does conservation mean to you? Second, in what ways has conservation succeeded in the last quarter century? Third, what needs to be done to increase the impact of conservation in the next quarter century?
Because conservation will succeed only with the support of diverse segments of society, we solicited answers to these questions from a wide range of people, from writers of scripts for U.S. soap operas and Bollywood screenplays to multinational business leaders, experts on national-security and developing economies, artists, and politicians. We are pleased with the diversity of respondents. They include two leaders of faith communities, a high school chemistry teacher, an anthropologist in academia, an expert on social media, indigenous leaders and their collaborators, an expert on human development, and a philanthropist.
Several common themes have emerged in the essays themselves and in our correspondence with the authors as the essays were being written and refined. First, the name of our journal, Conservation Biology, is a term of convenience that reflects the origins of the discipline rather than its current practice, which currently encompasses all types of science (natural, social, physical) and both research and practice. The discipline emphasizes application of information in addition to, if not more strongly than, development of theory. This is not well understood by those outside our community.
Second, there is much confusion about what conservation actually means and how it relates to so-called environmentalism. To some conservation professionals there is a clear distinction, but the distinction is not universal within the community, and it is certainly not understood outside the community. Compounding this confusion is a lack of distinction between the people who conduct science or implement actions strictly on the basis of the best available science and those whose voices and actions may reflect both science and subjective values, including some advocates and activists.
Third, these distinctions are important as we conservation professionals begin to find new allies, another common theme in these essays. We have been slow to recognize that conservation is politics, and, as in all political endeavors, we need allies. The people who contributed essays to this section want to be allies, but only on terms that allow a mutual, respectful decision on goals and tactics. We must learn how to engage in such collaborations.
Fourth, motivations for conservation, challenges to conservation, and mechanisms to achieve conservation as suggested by authors in the section have changed little over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, we were struck by the consistency in motives, challenges, and suggestions presented by authors with diverse backgrounds and professions. Many point to social inequalities that have grown both within and among countries or regions. Conservation has been seen as a rich country's luxury, and many authors comment on the need for conservation initiatives to explore the potential, for example, of improved health care and payments for environmental services to reduce both resource consumption and poverty. Conservation efforts that include such dimensions can attain the support they need to succeed. But conservation can also be used to help the less empowered achieve some of their own objectives. Conservation is a multipurpose tool when in the hands of the skilled practitioner.
In the past, humans read signs in nature to help foretell the future. Now we must use our knowledge and skills to foretell the future of both nature and humanity. The future does not look good for nature and looks only mediocre for humans. We have reached a time of deep pessimism, particularly in the science and practice of conservation. The future is something that scares many people, if they have the luxury to think about it at all. Conservation has for too long been an inward-looking discipline in which professionals collaborate to develop ever-more precise measurements of declines in environmental status. We must raise our eyes, work with a broad range of partners, accept criticism, expand our time horizon (cf. The Long Now Foundation [http://longnow.org/about/]), and consider the myriad ways in which the future may unfold. If our community is to help create a world that contains rich biological diversity, then we need a positive, pragmatic way of thinking about the future that empowers innovation and optimism (Redford & Sanjayan 2003; Garnett & Lindenmayer 2011). We hope these essays will help set such a course.