Conservation within Capitalism: Environmental Conservation and the Business Landscape

It’s a pretty broad belief that conservation and capitalism exist at odds with each other. But we’re here to tell you that this is simply not true. In fact, conservation may be vital to the very survival of capitalism itself. Before we dive into the how and the why of it, let’s start off with a baseline of what environmental conservation is and why it’s important.

Environmental Conservation: What is it?

Environmental conservation is the fight to maintain our wildlands and ensure that there are sufficient resources for not just ourselves but all the other living organisms we share our planet with. An essential aspect to conservation efforts involve education of the public on the gifts given to us by mother nature.

The following are some organizations who have dedicated themselves to conservation efforts in the form of education and policy initiatives. Their work, though non-exhaustive of what environmental conservation encompasses, are just a few great examples of conservation in action and can help us better understand what environmental conservation is.

Sierra Club

The Sierra Club, founded in 1892, makes it their mission "to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.”

Through environmental legislation, this organization has worked to protect lands that we know and love like Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park from development through the National Wilderness Act, which the Sierra Club helped push for. They also use their efforts to address initiatives impacting climate change like renewable energy adoption and car emission standards.

Visit their website to learn more about this organization and what kinds of initiatives they’re leading.

The California Department of Conservation

Every state may address their conservation efforts differently, but here in California, we have the Department of Conservation, which is a government organization made up of five divisions: Land Resource Conservation, Mine Reclamation, California Geological Survey, Geologic Energy Management, and State Mining & Geology Board. Each division focuses on a more specific area of conservation like agriculture, mining land, and oil and geothermal activity.

Learn more about the California Department of Conservation here or discover what conservation governance your state has organized.

Earth Island Institute

Earth Island Institute founded in 1982 aims to “[support] environmental action projects and [help] foster the next generation of environmental leaders in order to achieve solutions to the crises threatening the survival of life on Earth.”

Earth Island Institute sponsors grassroots projects around the globe that address issues like urbanization, water and wildlife conservation, and climate change. Additionally, they legislate environmental issues and publish articles about environmental and social issues in the Earth Island Journal to further education on these current events.

For disclosure: our co-founder Will Amos is a Brower Youth Award recipient, a recognition by the New Leaders Initiative program of Earth Island Institute.

Visit their website to learn more about their current projects.

Why is it important?

By now you may be somewhat well-versed in what conservation looks like and what it aims to achieve, but you may be wondering “so what?” Or maybe you’re not. If you’re here and you made it this far, we may just be preaching to the choir. But it’s worth emphasizing that these efforts matter and conservation is important.

And while for many of us who live in well-developed areas and face essentially little to no shortage of resources when we want them, it is still important to stop and appreciate the gifts we do receive from nature. So if you’re wondering if conservation should matter to you, here’s a quick and easy way to figure that out:

If you like clean water, you should care about conservation.

Without conservation efforts that promote clean water and limit manufacturing emissions and runoffs, our water sources could very likely be negatively affected. And in case you weren’t aware, they already have in some parts of the country, let alone the world.

If you like clean air, you should care about conservation.

There’s a reason why we can step outside and not have to worry about breathing in smog and other pollutants (for the most part. Wildfire season is its own exception). The standards that our laws have held car manufacturing companies to in terms of the emissions have helped to ensure that our air stays clean and clear.

If you like having food to eat, you should care about conservation.

Things like overhunting, overfishing, and land development all serve as instances that harm most if not all of our food sources, whether it involves decimating land and sea animals’ populations at rates faster than they can reproduce, or taking away their homes so they have no place to live and no food for sustain them. And if our land and our water can’t sustain life, we can’t grow fruits or vegetables either.

If you have shelter, you should care about conservation.

All of the materials used to build your home, whether it’s a house, an apartment, or a cave, all come from nature. Without the resources we take from the Earth, none of us would have a roof over our heads.

If you use light or heat in your home, you should care about conservation.

You may be able to turn on the lights or turn on the heater with the flip of a switch (or a voice command), but all the energy that actually goes into making that happen are yet more resources that we get from nature. We’ve made great strides in normalizing the use of solar energy through solar panels, but many homes still rely on the power grid (which still relies in part on gas-burning power plants) and on gas to power their houses.

If you enjoy the great outdoors, you should care about conservation.

All of our wonderful landmarks and national parks wouldn’t exist without environmental conservation efforts. The reason why we can choose to go on a hike or go camping to explore the land around us is because people have fought to protect those lands and allow all the plant and animal species within those lands to thrive. And even if you’re a couch potato who despises the sun, you might want others to go enjoy the great outdoors so that there’s less competition for bandwidth and your internet connection won’t need to be throttled.

Really, all of the reasons listed above for why we should care about conservation is nicely summed by The Tragedy of the Commons, which describes a scenario in which shared resources are exploited by individuals who act in their own self-interest and ultimately deplete the resources, harming others as well as themselves. We see this with many of nature’s resources from water and oil to land and food sources. But all is not lost when it comes to the tragedy of the commons. In order to prevent or at least prolong the depletion of our resources, conservation efforts such as government regulation on common-pool resources and collective group arrangements have been put into action on scarce resources with some success. But without a conservation mindset, the resources we’ve come to depend on could become extinct, and we could (and will likely) be the reason why.

Conservation and Business

So now that we’ve hopefully sufficiently established the importance of conservation, let’s circle back our main question: how can conservation and business work together when they are seemingly so at odds?

Hierarchy showing the dependency of business on Earth's natural resources

Well, the important thing to realize is that conservation is actually essential for business. Our planet has a finite amount of resources. Without resources, we have no raw materials for making anything, and with no raw materials we have no manufacturing. Without manufacturing we have no products to sell, and without products to sell we simply have no businesses. Get the picture? So in order for businesses to exist at all we actually need conservation.

Not only are the resources needed to create these businesses important for a business to survive, but the consumers who purchase these goods are as well, and more and more people are ditching brands that aren’t sustainability-fluent. According to a recent study conducted by the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business 50% of the growth in packaged goods sales was through products marketed for their environmental friendliness. Even large corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are prioritizing their focus on sustainability even going so far as to leave the Plastics Industry Association because the organization’s sustainability goals were well below their own, and consumers were noticing. So if giant brands like these are having to adjust, the importance of conservation for the plant and for business clearly isn’t just hearsay.

Doing business sustainably means treating the planet sustainably. True sustainability looks beyond 3-5 year timelines. It looks beyond quarterly profits. For a business to be truly sustainable it has to consider and reflect on the value of our natural resources and the existence of those resources for the long term, meaning generations and generations from now. If businesses want to survive and to thrive, they need to keep conservation front of mind. Because without the resources that have so generously sustained us, there simply is no future in which our behavior as a society can continue in the same manner.

As Nelson Henderson said:

“The true meaning of life is planting trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”