Photo: Hitchster (Flickr)

It’s hard to talk to ecologists these days without drowning in doom. But a new review paper from members of the Wildlife Conservation Society suggests that amidst all the bad news, there’s still an opportunity to avert a sixth mass extinction and allow huge swaths of degraded land to recover.

The trick is to make it through what the authors describe as “the bottleneck”—the winnowing effects of climate change and habitat loss that are driving species numbers down. The paper identifies two trends which could open up opportunities for our ecosystems to rebound in the future: increasing urbanization, and slowing population growth. If these are combined with a political shift toward sustainability, conservationists may be able to revitalize landscapes on a scale that’s currently hard to imagine.

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There are a lot of “ifs” here, though.

Fears of population growth outstripping Earth’s resources have been part of our collective nightmare since 1968’s The Population Bomb. (The idea made a recent return on the big screen, too.) But while the population has been growing every year, the rate of growth has been dropping since ‘60s, in part because of falling birth rates in more urbanized countries. New research cited in the paper suggests that while it’s possible human numbers could crack 12 billion in 2100, it’s also possible that they could stabilize at seven billion, or lower. Demographers have predicted that this drop will be tied to the vast migration of humanity into urbanized areas.

Lower population numbers, the authors suggest, will lead to lower levels of consumption and energy use; add in voluntary resettlement programs which offer cash incentives for rural people to move into cities, and you can open up a lot of potential land for reintroducing lost species.

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“In the near term period, where pressures are still going up, I think conservation approaches around protected areas and legal regulations around hunting and poaching are really important,” lead author Eric Sanderson told Earther.

But in the near future, demographic trends might offer an opportunity to refocus toward even more ambitious sustainability goals and conservation measures, Sanderson and his coauthors argue. A big part of their vision involves factoring in the costs of environmental destruction through things like carbon and pollution taxes. The problem with modern society, Sanderson points out, is that since nature isn’t typically considered an economic actor, it ends up subsidizing its own destruction.

A world where pollution is properly penalized is a world that’s more likely to be ecologically stable, especially if population numbers remain more or less steady. And if land isn’t being swallowed up by development, it’s easier to set it aside for wilderness.

But while it’s easy to say all this, it’s much hard to get societies to make the necessary shifts, a reality outside experts contacted by Earther criticized the paper for glossing over.

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“What’s hardest to wrap my brain around is the ‘how,’” ecologist Priya Nanjappa of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies told Earther. “Even if consumption is reduced over time, we are creating so much waste, globally, in our current era that we are not able to properly manage…. I’m curious of the authors thoughts on how we address the messes we’ve already made on our way to the best case scenario.”

Nanjappa added that the pressures of the “bottleneck” mean that even if things get better in the future and we reach what the authors call a “breakthrough” of transformative recovery, there’s almost certainly going to be some loss. “If the ‘breakthrough’ is about recovering survivors, doesn’t that imply a need to focus on those species or habitats that are most likely to survive the bottleneck? That could require some potentially uncomfortable decisions.”

Environmental historian Steven Stoll had a more fundamental issue with the paper, telling Earther its treatment of capitalism as “a sign of human progress” that will inevitably lead to better environmental stewardship ignores some harsh realities. For instance, the huge number of people who live in grinding misery in some of the world’s largest cities. To assume that will inevitably change is “a fantasy,” Stoll said.

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“I agree that despair is not productive,” he continued. But progress and social equity aren’t guaranteed, and Stoll thinks long-term urbanization isn’t going to be of much help to ecology without mass labor movements that can challenge capitalism.

To that end, it’s vital that everyone, urban and rural, has a voice in whatever comes next. “The pathways that lead people toward appreciating biodiversity will vary greatly among people of different ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Najappa said. “Those differences need to be part of the conversation.”

It’s still hard to imagine a future in while human societies and the natural world reach some sort of balance. Even if demographic trends are on conservation’s side, Sanderson acknowledged, it will be politically difficult to force through the necessary economic and social changes, with powerful economic interests standing in the way.

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But, as he also pointed out, nobody knows what the future holds. While the shift through bottleneck could wreck global civilization, it also might not. Despair gets us nowhere, and the trends that seem inexorable—like population growth and increasing consumption—simply aren’t.

A better world is possible, if we’re willing to fight for it.

Asher Elbein is a journalist and short fiction writer based in Texas.

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