Our planet has become very crowded, very quickly. According to economist and Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs, the world's population has grown by 4 billion, from 2.6 billion to 6.6 billion, in just sixty years. Over that same period, the population of sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 180 million to 820 million, while the population of Asia Minor has quadrupled, from 51 million to 220 million. Global economic activity has increased even faster, with gross world product having risen a staggering eight times since 1950 and a hundred times since the start of the industrial era.
All those people and all that economic activity have greatly stressed the planet's natural systems. In almost every region of the world, freshwater supplies, forests, arable land, and fish stocks are being depleted at an alarming rate. Deserts are expanding, endangered habitats are shrinking, and the oceans are becoming more acidic. And with world population predicted to hit 9.2 billion by 2050 — a nearly 40 percent increase — and world per capita income expected to rise 450 percent, the global competition for critical resources is predicted to have dire consequences. Unless, as Sachs writes in Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, we "break some bad and long-standing habits" and learn to manage our resources sustainably.
Recently, Philanthropy News Digest talked with Brett Jenks, president and CEO of Rare Conservation, a U.S.-based conservation group, about the organization's work, the dynamics of behavior change, and the significance of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
For the past decade, Jenks has overseen Rare's global effort to equip people in the world's most biodiverse areas with the tools and motivation they need to protect their natural resource base. Under his leadership, the organization has grown over 1,000 percent; expanded its work to five continents; formed worldwide partnerships with leading environmental NGOs; and received four straight Fast Company Social Capitalist Awards.
Philanthropy News Digest: I'd like to start by asking you about the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. After three months and the release of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf, BP was able to cap its damaged Macondo well in July and [last month] finally managed to plug the well for good. Beyond the economic toll on the residents of the Gulf region and the toll on turtles, sea mammals, sea birds, and other species, what concerns you most about what happened in the Gulf this summer?
Brett Jenks: It's clear to me the oil spill was a tragedy whose ultimate consequences we won't be able to assess for months, if not years, to come. But a spill like that, as devastating as it was, pales in comparison to the much less perceptible loss of habitat and species we are going to have to contend with once we realize what we've allowed to happen, in our lifetimes, to the planet's climate. For me, the oil spill is a symbol of our arrogance as a species, as well as the fact that we don't have a Plan B in the event something goes wrong when we drill that deep for oil. And my biggest concern is that people simply don't recognize or are unwilling to admit what is happening all over the world with respect to the loss of habitat, the loss of species, the loss of the natural resource base on which so many people's lives and the well-being of future generations depends. Sadly, I don't think we've learned very much from the spill, and I don't think it will lead to comprehensive climate legislation — or to a recognition of what's happening in terms of the global extinction crisis, the future scarcity of water, or climate change in general.
PND: Is Rare doing anything to address the after-effects of the spill
BJ: We aren't involved in any way with the spill. We're not a domestic conservation organization, we have no offshore drilling expertise, and we don't lobby. Instead, we spend every waking moment thinking about the small gains we can make with local communities in the world's richest habitats in the developing tropics. We work entirely abroad, in countries like China, Indonesia, Mexico, and Malaysia. Other groups are far better equipped to take on the government and the oil companies and industry lobbyists who spend all their time on the Hill. We want to work where we can make a difference, and that's what makes us an effective organization.
PND: Many of our readers may be surprised to learn that Rare has been around in some form for almost forty years. How did the organization get started? And how has its mission evolved over the decades?
BJ: Rare was founded in 1973 by David Hill, an avid ornithologist and former Flying Tigers pilot, in part because he felt people weren't as aware as they should be about what was happening in the developing world with respect to habitat and species loss. One of the first things he did was to hook up with Friends of the Earth and the Animal Welfare Institute to launch the "Save the Whales" campaign. As that campaign caught on and revenue from the sale of bumper stickers and buttons began to add up, Hill and his colleagues realized they were making enough to finance a number of other conservation projects. The focus back then — the organization's focus for the first fifteen years, in fact — was really promotion and marketing, basically fostering the kinds of conversations that today are so commonplace when we talk about the plight of certain habitats or species, whether it's whales, tigers in India, snow leopards in Pakistan, or smaller creatures in far-off places that few people have heard of.
What's changed at Rare, especially over the last fifteen years, has been a growing focus on the recognition that the environmental movement has succeeded in creating a desire for change. Where the environmental movement has fallen short, however, is in providing the means to make change happen. What we've focused on over the last ten years is to identify situations in which charismatic local leaders have been able to not only inspire a desire to protect the environment within their communities, but have also created the political, technological, and economic means to actually bring about that change. In short, our focus today is to identify what works at the local level and to replicate it in other places where species and critical habitat are endangered.
PND: Rare takes what I would call a tools-based approach to conservation work. Tell us about some of the tools in the Rare toolkit?
BJ: First let me say that, in providing a conservation toolkit, Rare works from a couple of assumptions. One is that any good approach to conservation needs to be based in local culture, local economies, local ways of dealing with the world; you can't just parachute in like Wile E. Coyote from the outside with a conservation-in-a-box approach and, presto!, expect change to happen. Everything we do is customized by and for our local partners, whom we train to be agents of change in their communities.
That said, the basic toolkit is pretty simple. First, we identify local leaders and provide them with a two-year-long masters program. They study for seventeen weeks at a university, in their language, and then spend the greater part of two years designing and implementing a campaign for behavior change in their communities.
The second is an apprenticeship, during which our local partners are taught how to develop a grassroots marketing campaign that reaches every member of a community with the message that they live in a unique environment, that there's no other place quite like it on earth, and that the species that live there — many of which are not found anywhere else on earth — are part of their cultural legacy and something to be cherished and protected. The goal is to create a desire among local residents to conserve something that is valuable and uniquely theirs. If you can link their pride in place to an area's natural resources, you begin to create the desire to conserve those resources.
The other tools we use revolve around creating the means to bring about change. So, for example, in Indonesia, which boasts seventeen thousand islands and where fishing is a way of life for millions of people, the coral reefs that support and sustain the natural resource base are of utmost importance to people's way of life and economic livelihood. It's their asset base, their insurance policy, and yet people there generally recognize that the reefs are being overfished. That recognition has to come first. That's the knowledge component.
The attitude component, as we call it — getting people to not only want to make a change but to develop the confidence that they can change — usually comes in the form of providing examples of other success stories. So, in the case of Indonesia, we try to identify other communities, in Indonesia itself or elsewhere in Asia, that have not only recognized they have a problem with resource depletion but have actually implemented concrete changes to better govern their resources. It might be that they have decided to create what's called "no-take" zones, which serve to allow young fish to grow to a mature size and spawn more, which creates a positive feedback loop and ensures that that a fishery can be fished on a productive, sustainable basis. If you can provide models like that to local fishermen, local cooperatives, municipal leadership, pretty soon everyone is thinking about what they might do to replicate that success.
So, again, it's sparking a desire for change, which involves marketing and outreach and getting everyone on the same page with a clear, compelling message and call to action, followed by a technical assistance phase involving skills building. It may sound simple, but it's actually quite complicated.