Broadening your beam of compassion – reflections on ideas by Michael Soulé

By Joern Fischer

Michael Soule has been termed the father of conservation biology. In the 1980s, he was one of the first to define the discipline of conservation biology, and he was co-founder of the Society for Conservation Biology.

I was fortunate to meet him when I still worked in Australia. I was touched and inspired by a public lecture that he gave on Three Life-Affirming Movements.

Michael Soule explains: “There are three salvational movements, and all three are in the business of protecting life.  I call these three Animalism (domesticated animal protection), Naturism (fauna, flora and wilderness protection), and Humanism (human well-being).  These three sub-movements of the overarching life-affirming movement encompass all of earthly life, but with a few exceptions, most organizations in the compassion business focus on just one of the three.” (see here for further details.)

The last sentence of this statement is the critically important one. Fundamentally, those of us working to improve the welfare of animals, nature or humans are motivated by a unifying desire to cherish, protect and foster life. But we often don’t realize that, broadly speaking, we’re working towards the same overall goal.

How does this insight help? It certainly does not give us a formula for how to resolve practical decision problems that occur in a particular social-ecological system. How should we balance people’s desire for more material prosperity with the needs of other living creatures and nature? Is it not humanity’s desire for greater wealth that is continuing to erode the diversity of life on earth? The potential for conflicts between those focusing on human life, and those focusing on nature, is obvious.

But still, in an indirect way, a framing that sees these movements as different facets of an overall desire to affirm life can be very powerful to solve real-world problems.

In his talk, Michael went on to explain that we need to ‘broaden our beam of compassion’ – to encompass not only humans, but also nature; or in the case of some conservationists, to encompass not only nature, but also humans. Both worthy causes (nature and people) fall under the same umbrella of valuing life.

To me, this is one of those seemingly simple insights that is nevertheless very powerful. We are more likely to solve conflicts between people with different objectives if we can find common ground. Even if that common ground is vague, it gives a basis of trust and shared understanding to realize that, ultimately, we’re all in the same boat. All of us are human, trying to make sense of why we are, and trying to do things in our lives that we think are somehow meaningful or important. Once we sense that we’re all the same in this endeavor, fundamentally, we have a greater chance to find common ground when it comes to solving specific problems.

A farmer in Australia once told me that he felt a good focus when talking to farmers (who often are not very conservation-minded) was to get them to think about their children, and what kind of a world they wanted their children to live in. As Sting said ‘I hope the Russians love their children, too’ – and indeed, a desire to see our children thrive is probably universal to humans around the world. Most farmers then go on to realize they want their children to have nature around them; indirectly they realize that nature actually matters to them a great deal. Focusing on a common value – that kids are important – thus can be helpful to develop a shared understanding and find constructive solutions to conservation problems.

I don’t deny that there are serious conflicts between human welfare and nature conservation. But I think what kind of mindset we use to tackle such problems makes a fundamental difference in finding a resolution. If we realize that ultimately, the values of the various parties involved are not so different (e.g. fostering life on earth), we are more likely to develop trust and consensus than otherwise.

It’s healthy to scale up, see our own small place in the world, and realize how basically, we’re all much the same. Just different …


6 thoughts on “Broadening your beam of compassion – reflections on ideas by Michael Soulé

  1. I like this post! The big question to me is into which extent those many organizations are dependent / part of / on that monetary-economic system and social system which drives this planet to collapse. If it is a strong dependency then they should not be too efficient, overall, because it will undermine that system which created and maintained them. The policy makers are very important but what if they are also part / dependent / of this same machinery?

  2. I really like bringing compassion into this research “business” of ours, and I think it is bound to foster responsibility and healthy modesty in what we do as researchers. In the same way, and to continue your line of thinking about the interrelatedness of the fate of humans, non-humans, and the rest of the ecosystem, we should be more aware and honest about how oppression and injustice in all these realms are also interconnected.

    TH, just to contribute to your questions (and without necessarily sliding into conspiracy theory thinking), those dependencies exist and extend beyond simple project financing and into the very logic of the system, what some people have called “green capitalism.”

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