When it comes to conservation vs sustainability, the differences between the two can be somewhat confusing.
Both conservation and sustainability seek to preserve resources and our planet for the future. Each approach pursues a planet upon which humans and nature can co-exist without threatening one another’s existence. However, conservation is a bit more nature-focused whereas sustainability keeps humans and economic growth in mind alongside the preservation of resources.
In order to truly understand the difference, we need to take a bit of a deep dive. Here’s our guide to conservation versus sustainability, their histories, and what you can do to contribute to both.
What is the difference between conservation and sustainability?
To understand the differences, we must first define these two important environmental approaches. According to the Cambridge Dictionary:
- Conservation is “the protection of plants and animals, natural areas, and interesting and important structures and buildings, especially from the damaging effects of human activity.”
- Sustainability is “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.”
Following these definitions, we can imagine conservation and sustainability in a Venn diagram; there are certain features that overlap while maintaining key differences. While both approaches are concerned with protecting nature from human activity, conservation seeks to preserve nature whereas sustainability attempts to cause little or no damage in the hopes of continued resource use and symbiosis between humans and nature.
To illustrate the difference, picture a forest. If it were protected through conservation, activities like logging or building would be banned. However, humans would still be able to use the forest for things like camping, hiking, and even regulated hunting in some cases. If the forest were used sustainably, activities like logging may take place, but it would need to be done in a strategic manner. As the trees were harvested, new trees would need to be planted, and a set number of years would go by before more trees could be harvested in that area again.
However, this doesn’t mean that sustainability can’t include conservation. In fact, sustainable conservation can be a part of sustainability efforts.
How does conservation relate to sustainability?
Sustainability is about assured human success for future generations. Therefore, conservation efforts don’t go against sustainable ones. In fact, when it comes to things like GHG emissions, conservation completely aligns with sustainability efforts.
According to UNEP, GHG emissions need to be cut in half every single year to keep global warming below 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels. Reforestation and conservation of forests is an important feature of carbon removal. Although we still need to reduce our carbon output, the conservation of trees and forests can help us achieve sustainability goals. In this way, conservation works alongside sustainability to save our planet.
So, what is conservation, and why is it important? To understand, we first need to take a look at the history of conservation.
Many attribute the beginning of modern conservation to John Muir, who is known as the Father of National Parks (although discussions surrounding conservation began as early as the 1600s). He believed in preservation and became concerned with the use of land for industrial and economic means. At the same time, President Roosevelt pushed for conservation, too, and thus laws surrounding conservation were enacted, including the establishment of the U.S. Department of Forestry in 1905.
Continuing into the industrial era, conservation grew to include efforts for cleaner air and water as pollution became an issue. This led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. Finally, archaeology and cultural conservation became key features of conservation efforts as we realized that environmental protection could not come at the cost of human history. Today, conservation efforts cover three main areas: cultural heritage, ecology conservation, and resource conservation.
As conservation has come to its modern state, there are a few principles that it stands by.
- Maintaining and restoring ecosystems.
- Protecting endangered species. Similar to the first point, conservationists work to protect species that have waning numbers through poaching and hunting laws, breeding, and other means.
- Managing resources responsibly. This is where sustainability versus conservation has its greatest overlap. Both conservation and sustainability seek the responsible use of sources and the prevention of wasteful use.
- Restoring and rehabilitating ecosystems. When we do not source resources responsibly, ecosystems are destroyed. That’s why it’s a major goal of conservation to restore and rehabilitate ecosystems that can be salvaged. For example, conservation efforts can help rebuild rainforests, which lose about a soccer field worth of area every six seconds.
While conservation has had decades (and maybe even centuries) of development, the sustainability movement is comparably new. It’s difficult to pinpoint when sustainability came into being, but there is one important point that brought sustainability to the worldwide stage—The Brundtland Commission of 1987. During this discussion of worldwide sustainable development, a definition of sustainability was formed: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This definition has helped form sustainability goals and strategies for countries and companies all over the world. As of 2018, over 100 countries have enacted policies surrounding sustainability.
In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals were created by the United Nations in order to lay out the major principles and objectives of sustainability. These 17 goals sought to provide a blueprint for achieving sustainability as set forth by the Brundtland Commission. Briefly, they support the following principles:
- Promoting ecological balance and resilience. Sustainability is about encouraging economic growth in a way that doesn’t destroy our planet. This includes protecting ecosystems and ensuring their resilience.
- Achieving social equity and justice. The human factor remains a core piece of sustainability. As we work to ensure responsible sourcing of materials, sustainability asks that we also ensure that the workers who source those materials are treated fairly and that the communities near factories, mines, dams, etc. are not negatively impacted.
- Ensuring economic viability and long-term prosperity. Growth is also important to sustainability, especially in countries that are just now seeing economic success. Becoming more sustainable should result in more prosperity alongside the conservation of our planet and resources.
- Reducing carbon footprint and environmental impact. Of course, the environment is an incredibly important principle of sustainability. As we protect workers and communities and promote economic growth, we must also reduce our carbon footprint—through reduction and offsetting projects—and pay attention to our environmental impact to ensure that we can continue to use the resources that the earth provides.
Conservation versus sustainability: Key differences
To understand the relationship between conservation and sustainability, we need to look at their key differences. While many of their goals are the same, approaches and strategies vary. We’ve put together a little chart to illustrate where they differ.
|To protect natural resources, ecosystems, species, and the natural world.
|To use natural resources in a responsible way while promoting the prosperity of humankind.
|It requires immediate changes, but the timeline is often long Because it focuses on more tangible changes, like repopulating endangered species and rehabilitating ecosystems, the timelines can be lengthy.
|It requires immediate changes in order to enact long-term benefits. In terms of carbon emissions, the Paris Agreement set a goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
|Protecting land through Wildnerness Areas and National Parks, repopulating endangered species through tracking, breeding, and anti-poaching laws, and other similar means.
|Creating laws and regulations surrounding industry, investing in climate tech and renewable energy, working with governments to reduce environmental footprints, encouraging companies to be more sustainable and to provide eco-friendly products, and promoting equality.
|Balancing the preservation of ecosystems and resources with human needs.
|Persuading governments and businesses to invest in sustainability, and convincing them that investments now will lead to prosperity in the future.
To put it simply, the main difference between conservation and sustainability is the human factor. Conservation wants to use human resources to fully preserve the planet while sustainability seeks to promote human prosperity alongside the prosperity of our planet. However, the two approaches complement each other; sustainability efforts will also promote conservation efforts, and through conservation, we are able to achieve certain sustainability goals. For example, reforestation efforts by conservationists remove carbon from the atmosphere, helping us to achieve our sustainability goals surrounding GHG emissions.
Why are conservation and sustainability important?
It’s no secret that humans are negatively impacting our planet. Our current practices result in air and water pollution, GHG emissions, and the devastation of species, all leading to potentially catastrophic consequences. For example, as much as 12% of GHG emissions are the result of deforestation, which is about equal to the emissions associated with car travel. To reverse this damage, we need both conservation and sustainability.
Both approaches are important in their own ways. Conservation protects endangered ecosystems and wildlife, ensuring that enough land remains pristine and free from deforestation, poaching, and infrastructure. These areas are important because they remove carbon dioxide from the air and ensure the preservation of certain resources.
Sustainability is essential because it includes humanity in its efforts. As we work to conserve areas of our planet, we also need to ensure that we have enough farmland to support communities and that our conservation efforts don’t erase human history. Our goals must ensure our continued success. What good is conservation if future generations suffer from it?
By combining sustainability and conservation, we can achieve the goals set forth by each approach while ensuring a better future for all. Reforestation combined with the reduction of carbon emissions, for example, might be the only way that we can reach net zero carbon by 2050. Rather than being separate, conservation and sustainability are two sides of the same coin, and both must work together in order to achieve environmental goals.