Making Nature Useless? Global Resource Trends, Innovation, and Implications for Conservation

The panel at this RFF First Wednesday Seminar discussed the ingenuity enabling reduced natural resource use and the idea of “peak environmental footprint."


Nov. 5, 2014


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Evidence abounds of humanity’s creative ability to produce more goods and services using fewer resources. In many cases, our use of natural resources is declining, particularly when measured in terms of GDP consumption per capita or per dollar. In fact, consumption of some natural resources (certain croplands, fuels, metals, and water) has plummeted, even as we produce more and more from these resources. The panel at this RFF First Wednesday Seminar discussed this evidence and highlight the ingenuity enabling reduced natural resource use. Can we credibly envision a “peak environmental footprint?”

The answer has potentially profound implications for conservation. Conservation thinking currently stresses the interdependence of nature and consumption: save nature because we need it to produce growth, goods, and services. But what if, instead, the way to save nature is to make it useless? This is referred to as “decoupling” conservation from its consumption- and prosperity-based motivations. The panel also reflected on this change in perspective and its implications for conservation strategy. How much confidence should we have in the ability of innovation to make natural resources useless (in conventional consumption terms)? Even if decoupling is necessary and desirable, is it sufficient? Is there a role for governance, markets, and stronger relationships between the public and private sector? Panelists also discussed the Breakthrough Institute’s Nature Unbound, a new report released November 5.


Jim Boyd, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth, Resources for the Future


Jesse Ausubel, Director, Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University; and University Fellow, Resources for the Future

Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research, The Breakthrough Institute

Ted Nordhaus, Chairman, The Breakthrough Institute

Michael Schellenberger, President, The Breakthrough Institute

Iddo Wernick, Research Associate, Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University

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