Can we balance conservation and development? Science says yes

For too long, dire messages and gloomy assumptions about the fate of the planet have lent an air of hopelessness to one of the biggest challenges facing society. Conservationists feel stymied. Businesspeople feel villainized. We have come to accept the view that preserving the planet and growing the economy are mutually exclusive.

But maybe this dichotomous view of human needs and conservation is itself the problem. What if advancing conservation and human development is not an either-or proposition? What if we can do better in both?

The World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum and other organizations have pointed to air pollution, climate change and water scarcity as some of the biggest threats to human well-being. These are environmental challenges that also intersect with threats to biodiversity.

By 2050, the world’s population is projected to be 10 billion. We’ll see accelerated impacts on natural resources that intensify this challenge and others, such as the already harsh impacts of climate change on both people and nature.

The question of whether we can advance both conservation and human development is the driving force behind a new study by 13 institutions, including The Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota. From the outset, we stepped back and reexamined the concept of sustainability from the bottom-line up, so to speak.

Taking an in-depth look with global systems models, we compared the status quo, business-as-usual path we are headed down today against a version of sustainability based on realistic and achievable changes in how we use energy, land and water. We discovered something some might find surprising – hope.

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