Can-Do Strategies for Conservation

World Enough and Time: Successful Strategies for Resource Management, by Robert Repetto, Yale University Press, 1986.

The Global Possible: Resources, Development, and the New Century, edited by Robert Repetto, Yale University Press, 1986.

World_Enough_Robert_RepettoEver since the publication of The Global 2000 Report to the President in 1980, which Jimmy Carter commissioned to be the most detailed study of natural resources ever compiled, those who burn the midnight oil in resource-policy institutes have struggled earnestly to sway the thinking of the powers that be. Typically, the analysts are divided into two groups: the technological optimists (I call them TOs) and the environmental realists (ERs). The former promote progress at any cost, advocating exploitation of all the world’s resources; the latter call for restraint and conservation, seeking to preserve something of nature’s wealth for generations to come.

Global 2000 seemed to be a boon to the ERs because it tended to legitimize their views. “If present trends continue,” it said, “the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically. . . .”  But their satisfaction soon turned to dismay in the face of biting attacks from the TOs, who decried the report as bleak pessimism, flawed in its conception, and a waste of taxpayers’ money.  The TOs said that accepting Global 2000’s conclusions would place a serious economic drag on society. The attack was effective: The powerful were vindicated and the TO worldview became a cornerstone of government policy.

In light of this rebuff, two new publications from the World Resources Institute may have a profound effect on the ER viewpoint. World Enough and Time and The Global Possible breathe sheer light and optimism.  They envision a grand future and point to bold ways in which humans can shape their world for posterity. Indeed, they so alter the usual thinking of the ERs that we may well have to change the acronym to Eos, for environmental optimists.

Not that these books are free of the inevitably dry prose and endless repetitions that characterize institutional studies.  They are, bot be frank, full of such things. Robert Repetto, who wrote the first book and edited the second, has done his best to give them some momentum, despite the inherent weightiness of the subject matter.  It is clear, though, that not even the denseness of the material could obscure the central idea of both books: that sustainable development is possible, and that we can manage resources so our children will have their rightful inheritance. Not only do the books tell us we can do it, they tell us how.

Global_PossibleThis is truly can-do environmentalism. Repetto spells out the possibilities: “Agricultural production can expand to meet all future demands . . . without exerting destructive pressures on marginal lands, water resources or ecological systems”; Economic growth can be sustained with markedly lower energy inputs . . . that do not imperil the climate or the natural environment.”

And so on: Forest resources can be stabilized. Nonfuel minerals can be supplied. Pollution can be markedly reduced. Cities can be made healthier.

All these things and more can be done, given the will of the powerful to do them. And it is clearly the powerful that these books are trying to persuade. The proposals presented here are aimed at motivating decision-makers in private organizations, businesses, the scientific community, international organizations, developing nations and – most important – the governments of industrial nations. These are the ones who can say “yes, we can.”

But there are certain imperatives: transition to a stable population with low birth and death rates; transition to high efficiency in production based on increased reliance on renewable resources; reliance on nature’s surplus without depletion of its resource base; economic transition to sustainable development and broader sharing of its benefits; and striking a global political bargain that recognizes the common interests of all nations.

Not all these possibilities, Repetto says, are expensive to achieve. In some cases they represent a low-cost approach. One example is the 3M Company of St. Paul, Minn., which saved 60 percent ($200 million) in annual operating and maintenance costs by reformulating products and redesigning processes to eliminate more than 90,000 tons of air pollutants, 10,000 tons of water pollutants, a million gallons of wastewater, and 150,000 tons of solid wastes each year.

Very little of what is presented here is new. These programs have been advocated elsewhere for many years. It has been suggested before that materials, credit, and technical support be given to help farmers restore degraded watersheds. Establishing comprehensive protected areas of rainforests to conserve genetic resources is not a new idea. It has been said that the educational and employment opportunities for women should be increased, both to improve their welfare generally and to contribute to a decline in worldwide fertility rates. And yet there is something in the enthusiasm and optimism – the vigor – of these books and their prescriptions for progress that is quite exciting. Hundreds of ideas are explored.

What Repetto and the contributors to The Global Possible have done is to take all the old, stale prescriptions and breath life into them. They have put them into a context that is believable, supportable, and feasible.

With The Global Possible and World Enough and Time, yet another institution has emerged to try to influence the thinking of the powerful.  With the brashness of can-doers, this time the ERs might succeed.


Mark Mardon, a director of the United Nations Association of San Francisco, is Sierra’s editorial secretary.


This article appeared in Sierra, September/October 1986.