Expert Voices

Conservation 3.0: Protecting Life on a Changing Planet(Op-Ed)

Eastern chimpanzee. (Image credit: Andrew Plumptre/Wildlife Conservation Society)

Jon Hoekstra is chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This article first appearedon Hoekstra's WWF blog, Science Driven. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Rising demands for food, water, energy and other natural resources are straining natural ecosystems' ability to produce what people need, as well as putting the plants and animals with which we share the planet at risk.

So, how can nature be saved at a time when people need it most?

It's time to start developing Conservation 3.0. Like software, Conservation 1.0 and Conservation 2.0 are serving society well, but the challenges of the 21st century require some critical updates. In the future, nature will look different than it did in the past. So, too, must conservation.

Consider the profound changes we are witnessing. Agriculture, fishing, forestry, water diversions, mining, energy production, transportation and urban development are literally transforming the face of the planet. Human enterprise is even changing the atmosphere , climate, ocean chemistry and fundamental nutrient cycles. Species are going extinct at rates not seen since the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Humans are degrading natural ecosystems to a point in which the sustainability of clean water supplies, productive soils and abundant natural resources that have supported so much human development may be compromised.

Conservation 1.0 — setting aside parks and preserves — provides a place for nature. Think national parks and other nature preserves that have been the mainstay of conservation, ensuring that species have the essential habitat they need to survive. But Conservation 1.0 also sets nature apart from people. Some have called it "fortress conservation" because it forces a mutually exclusive trade-off between conserving biodiversity and meeting human needs. By mid-century, human demands for food, water, energy and other natural resources are projected to double. If conservation relied solely on walling off nature, it would be doomed to failure.

Conservation 2.0 recognizes that nature provides many essential benefits to people — clean drinking water, wood, fish and productive soils to grow crops, etc. It motivates broader investment in protecting nature by connecting the dots between nature and human well-being through food security, water security, health effects and cultural values. In these ways, Conservation 2.0 can demonstrably meet vital human needs. But passive provisioning based on nature's current productivity may not be enough to meet projected human demands.

To save as much nature as possible, society must develop Conservation 3.0. Those next steps will deliberately manage nature —maybe even engineer it in some ways —in order to maximize nature's ability to supply food, water, energy and other natural resources for the growing human population. At the same time, Conservation 3.0 still supports biodiversity. There are already several good examples of what Conservation 3.0 might look like:

– In Mozambique, conservation scientists are helping coastal communities create marine-protected areas that serve as "fish banks," improving food security by protecting the most productive nursery habitats for fish. These areas also protect marine biodiversity but aren't necessarily selected for that reason.

– Across Latin America, many cities are establishing water funds that pay for watershed protection and improved management of stream-side habitats in order to maintain clean, reliable and affordable water supplies for their citizens. The watersheds are selected for their water yield, but also include vital habitat for montanebiodiversity.

– Along the Gulf Coast of the United States, oyster reefs are being engineered to protect sensitive coastlines from wave erosion and storm damage. The reefs are designed much in the way a concrete breakwater might be designed, but they are constructed with living oysters that improve water quality as they filter feed and provide nursery habitat for economically valuable species.

The more nature can provide for people, the more it will be valued and protected as a societal priority. Conservation 3.0 will build on many of the tools and tactics developed for Conservation 1.0 and 2.0. But instead of tracking how little is lost, Conservation 3.0 will measure success by how much nature can deliver.

Jon Hoekstra is chief scientist for World Wildlife Fund. This article first appeared as "What is Conservation 3.0 and Why Does it Matter?"on his WWF blog, Science Driven. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on

World Wildlife Fund (WWF)