We couldn't save Cecil the lion, but can we save the planet?

We couldn't save Cecil the lion, but can we save the planet?
Conservation scientist Peter Kareiva is the new director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. (John Vande Wege/UCLA)

For someone bent on keeping the planet as a going concern, the Nature Conservancy is a formidable place to be. But its renowned chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, is leaving that job to come to UCLA. The potent stew of students, research and the urban laboratory of L.A. enticed him to become director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, where he can address all the topics that engage him, from fisheries to insect biology to the capricious human factor. He's now a Bruin, a mascot that represents the — extinct — California grizzly.

You prefer the phrase "conservation science" over "conservation biology." What's the difference?


We probably know enough biology to solve most of the problems; it's not biology that's eluding us, it's social science, economics, psychology, human behavior, how to reach people.

The Nature Conservancy is a large soapbox; why come to UCLA?


A couple of things about Los Angeles and UCLA: Cities are where the action is. Cities are taking climate action. Cities are innovative. If you can get cities right, you can pretty much solve our environmental problems.


Most people live in cities. Most creativity comes from cities. Most political power comes from cities. Even if you're interested in traditional conservation — Yellowstone and Yosemite — if you don't come back to [dealing with] cities, you're not going to have a constituency. I also like the irony: Most people in my career path go to Montana! You don't have much authenticity if you live in Montana and come to a city and try to tell people what they should do about the environment.

How do you approach something so dense and complex as saving the planet?


People's values are at the forefront of conservation psychology. I think we should start with what I call the endgame: What do we want the world to look like in 2050? Have that constrained by real information: There are going to be 9 billion people in the world. You have to work with that. And there's going to be climate change, and that's part of your palette. You paint the picture of what you want the world to be like in 2050. Then you say, "What are the ways of getting there?" There's no way to get there without new energy sources. The existing technology with existing infrastructure — it's not going to get us there.

It's not quite as divisive. It's intelligent discussion instead of so short term.

People nonetheless may feel individual actions are meaningless in the face of global problems. I asked Jane Goodall what one thing people could do to make the biggest difference, and she said, "Stop eating meat" — it saves energy, water, habitat.

The individual effect — it's a very American idea. It's not in the Asian culture, and it's much less in Europeans, where there's an emphasis on collective effectiveness. We have to give an answer like Jane Goodall's, but we also need collective effectiveness.

What is stopping collective effectiveness?

Cities are doing the most to support climate change at political levels, and national governments are doing the least, partly because the city is a community [with] huge opportunities to influence individual and consumer behavior. One of my favorites: the Don't Mess With Texas campaign. It targeted 18- to 35-year-old men throwing beer cans out of their trucks. It was shrewd because it didn't scold them; it understood their values — Texas pride — and cut littering by 70% in a couple of years. We have to identify people's values and use those to get the change we want.

Many people are moved by the plight of individual species; in the grander scale of things, is that too sentimental?

My kids are upset about Cecil the lion. Conservationists get into arguments about species value and how unethical it is to cause a species to cease to exist. I think everybody would agree, but they hold that value [at] different levels. For some, individual rights of the animal would be their top value. Individual animals' rights can be in opposition to species' rights. Human rights, species rights and animal rights are three fundamental rights and they're not always aligned.


You like market-driven solutions too.

They're not a panacea, but they can be more efficient than regulation. Suppose you want to save a species on the farmer's land. You can say don't do this, and make it a national regulation, but that would be hugely inefficient because that practice really isn't damaging the biodiversity [everywhere]. So we pay the farmer to set aside some of the land for a wetland or biodiversity. You're not punishing the farmer economically and you're doing the conservation. In the [Sacramento-San Joaquin River] Delta, farmers are paid to keep their lands flooded longer to [preserve] stopovers for migratory birds. It takes advantage of the fact that the farmer knows what's on the land.

Is the market really applicable for rare things like rhino horn? The superstition that they are an aphrodisiac is pushing rhinos to extinction.

One solution is to legalize rhino horn with farms that sell it [and harvest the horns without killing the rhino]. That destroys the financial incentive [for poaching]. Because it's illegal now, it commands a huge price. The reason poachers kill then now is because it's illegal; they have to go in and out as fast as they can.

What are some mythologies of conservation?

One is that nature is fragile. I don't think nature is fragile, but I also don't think nature is necessarily resilient. The better way to think about it is that change is inevitable. The world is undergoing inescapable change due to climate change and population growth. We cannot make conservation about keeping things as they were. Conservation should be forward-looking.

So is condor restoration, for example, not good use of resources?

Nobody denies that saving condors is a good thing, but it's very expensive. Part of the reason is that you have to get rid of the problem of lead in the environment. California's done that, but it took quite a battle and there's still lead in the environment. You're keeping the species on life support without treating the real problem. Condor restoration in the absence of getting rid of lead was a bad investment, [but] the species is iconic enough that it's probably worth it.

Why do people talk about doing everything to save the planet except population regulation, the source of so many of these problems?

The mistake is to talk about a global population problem. It's really about population growth in Africa and India. There's no way we're going to succeed in conservation in Africa if we don't deal with the population problem. The Nature Conservancy, as part of conservation programs, deals with reproductive health and birth control. We know from Latin America, where fertility rates have declined dramatically, that if you give women access to economic opportunity, jobs and education and birth control, fertility rates decline.

You've noted that traditional conservation isn't necessarily everybody's concept of conservation. How do you tailor the message?


That's why conservation is no longer [just] biology; it's as much anthropology and social sciences. [In] Nature Conservancy surveys, the Hispanic community is more pro-environment than any other in the United States. But they're thinking of nature as a place for social family gatherings. So to talk about conservation [only] as elephants and lions and wolves does not speak to the Hispanic community. To talk about providing beautiful parks and nature you can enjoy with family is much more powerful.

The Nature Conservancy has preserved more than 100 million acres of habitat, but you argue there's a toothpaste-tube effect: close off land in one place and feel the impact elsewhere.

The point of my 2050 vision is that you can't solve a conservation problem without paying attention to human problems. If you're not explicit about meeting those needs, your conservation plan is going to be undermined.

Some have faith that we can "tech" ourselves out of every problem, including this one.

The blithe techno-optimists are a little bit wrong because technology can solve a lot of problems but you give up things. Technology might solve our food or transportation problems, but the world it creates may not be a world anybody wants to live in. Technology carries risks and benefits. But rarely can we really predict all of the consequences of a new technology. Take something as simple as air conditioning. It's hard to imagine Florida being a retirement destination without air conditioning.

Is it foolish to use the word "optimist," and to ask whether you are one?

I'd say I'm optimistic if we can be smart, and being smart is challenging. It means getting away from the partisan stuff and solving problems instead of arguing about ideology.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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