An Exchange of Views in Animal Conservation

There’s an interesting debate underway on the pages of the latest issue of Animal Conservation about approaches to conservation.

On one hand is the opinion of Miller, Soulé, and Terborgh. These huge names in conservation biology take issue with what they call an “anthropocentric ideology” of conservation, the idea that “the future of conservation lies in managing nature for human benefit.” They cite many authors whom they believe subscribe to this ideology, and Animal Conservation includes responses from two of these authors, Michelle Marvier and Emma Marris. All three pieces are worth reading if you’re interested in where conservation is heading, but they include a lot of “he said, she said, I said,”  as is perhaps appropriate in such an exchange.

Miller et al. (2014) espouse the prevailing view in conservation: we need to preserve biodiversity because nature has the “right to exist with or without direct value to humanity.” They see most human economic activity as being at odds with this conservation goal. Our expanding human population depends upon a finite set of resources, a situation that is untenable. They therefore advocate a conservation strategy that minimizes this impact of humans on nature, one that addresses “the root causes of biological destruction, such as the paradigm of unlimited economic growth, unabated consumption and ever-increasing human numbers.”

In principle, I agree with much of this, but one statistic makes me stop and think: more than 72% of the earth’s ice-free land has already been affected by this human activity that Miller et al. (2014) suggest is incompatible with conservation. Are we supposed to give up on roughly three-quarters of the planet from a conservation standpoint simply because it’s been affected by human activity? Of course not.

Our garden outside Delhi is overrun with an invasive species. Does that make it worthless for conservation?
Our garden outside Delhi is overrun with an invasive species. Does that make it worthless for conservation?

And that, I think, is the view that Marris and maybe Marvier take. Yes, it’s certainly worth preserving biodiversity, and that will mean needing to conserve as much area as we can with minimal human impact. But expanding the areas in which we do conservation–to gardens, cemeteries, agricultural fields, grazing lands, industrial waste land–can only help. Such an expansion not only increases the total amount of conservation we engage in, but also increases the number of people who engage with the natural world on a daily basis.

Another difference in point of view between these authors is about how humans fit into nature. Here Miller et al. seem to want to have it both ways: on one hand, they suggest that nature exists as an entity separate from humans and must be conserved without regard for human benefit, but on the other hand acknowledge that many human cultures have deep “spiritual and cultural connectedness to nature” and that preserving biodiversity is therefore crucial to preserving these cultures. So this must mean that for some people, biodiversity must be preserved despite being irrelevant to their lives whereas for others it must be preserved because of deep cultural connections–a tacit acknowledgement that different people can be motivated to engage in conservation for different reasons. As Marvier puts it:

People are motivated to protect nature for a wide variety of reasons. Some want to sit in meditative repose in the cathedral-like silence of a forest. Others feel deeply that all creatures have an equivalent moral claim to existence. And some want to shoot animals and put their heads on the wall… Since all conservation is a human endeavor, it strikes us as enormously counterproductive for conservation biologists to reject the impulse to protect nature in humans whose rationales they do not personally share. We are certain conservation will be more successful if it embraces the full gamut of motivations and stops acting as the arbiter of moral purity.”

By suggesting that the only route to conservation is one that reduces all human impact on nature, Miller et al. ignore thousands of years of human interactions with the natural world, interactions that make it impossible to visualize a world without human impact and unnecessary, perhaps even harmful, for us to end all impact. As Marris puts it:

“[we] live in a world so changed by anthropogenic forces that to refrain from tinkering will likely doom many species…to extinction. To be sure, we must tinker with the utmost caution, but we must tinker, or we will lose many species, and their fates will be on our head as surely if we had gone out and shot them.”

In fact, the cultural diversity that Miller et al. agree needs to be preserved is exactly where we should turn to begin learning how to tinker with nature. This cultural diversity includes communities that have, over hundreds of years, developed methods of interacting with nature that defy the notion that everything humans do is harmful. Consider, for example, the beneficial effects of yearly fires set by indigenous forest-dwellers in Southern India, which prevent highly destructive fires that would otherwise blaze after several years of biomass buildup on the forest floor.

This coffee estate is a site of human activity. Does that  preclude any conservation potential?
This coffee estate is a site of human activity. Does that preclude any conservation potential?

Because conservation is something that needs to be done, and not just talked about or studied, it is imperative that we actually act. This is where I’m most optimistic about Marris’ goal of expanding conservation to habitats that have already been hugely altered by human activity. Miller et al. advocate making “hard social choices”—reducing population growth, lowering resource use, and ending human selfishness. But we need reasons to make these hard choices, and engaging with nature within our daily lives (actively participating in converting an abandoned plot into a garden, for example) might give us such a reason. Being told that our garden is worthless for conservation because it harbours an exotic species does not.

Indeed, it seems reasonable that pitting human development against conservation makes it less likely that people will make the hard social choices necessary for conservation. Marvier, again:

“The ‘surrender to development’ that we are charged with might be more aptly labeled ‘helping nature by also helping people’…Caring for people is essential to caring for nature. For example, a $26 million gift from the Peter Hawkins Dobberpuhl Foundation will protect a key migration corridor for elephants, but it will also help African cattle ranchers to improve their practices and access to markets so they do not suffer the dire poverty that pushes people to poach elephants for their ivory. Conserving nature ‘for people’ does not equate to ‘bad’ or ‘selfish’.”

If conservation is a sea, I’ve only just dipped a single toe into the water. But from what I know so far, I’m most excited about the possibility of working in the 75% of the earth’s surface that doesn’t quite fit into traditional conservation goals. I’ve been most inspired by Emma Marris’ 2011 book, The Rambunctious Garden, in which she advocates “moving away from a strict fealty to historical baselines” and looking for conservation value in every piece of land. I don’t agree with everything Marris says, and I haven’t read enough to know if I completely agree or disagree with Soulé or Terborgh or Marvier and their collaborators, how original all of their views are, and to what extent their different approaches have been successful in achieving various conservation goals. As I wade further into the literature and actually begin working in conservation, my views will no doubt evolve. But for now, I’m personally motivated to learn ways of bringing conservation into people’s everyday lives, and it seems unfortunate that the conservation establishment is discouraging people like me from trying to contribute. As Marris says in response to Miller et al.:

“We are all on the same side here, and I fail to see the use of these attacks on each other’s moral character. You say, ‘we need a broader conservation politic’. Well, that’s me. I am another voice in conservation. Let us talk together, be kind to one another and work for the goals that are so important to us all.”

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