The difference between Australia and Germany in conservation

By Joern Fischer

Moving from Germany to Australia, and then years later, back to Germany,

has been rather interesting in many ways. One of those is related to what is deemed worthy of conservation efforts. This difference, in fact, does not only exist between Australia and Germany: it exists  between ‘old’ cultures and frontier societies around the world.

In conservation terms, the difference looks something like this. In old cultures, people have long established traditions of which ‘nature’ is deemed worthy of conservation. In Europe, this includes a lot of cultural landscapes and farmland biodiversity. By contrast, in frontier societies, ‘wilderness’ is what is being valued. Systems largely untouched by humans (though usually inhabited by indigenous people for many thousands of years) are what is deemed worthy of conservation.

This seemingly simple fact accounts for a lot of differences we observe. Most tropical ecologists, for example, operate in frontier cultures: tropical rainforests are not typically part of long-evolved agricultural societies. So they value, primarily, untouched, primary rainforest. The same is true many Australian conservation biologists, who might care about woodland birds, for example. Farmland birds don’t even feature on the radar of conservationists in Australia: they are considered ‘junk birds’ by bird watchers and scientists alike. How different in Europe: where many species of the highest conservation concern, are in fact birds living in farmland (and occasionally on retired motor vehicles from the German Democratic Republic …).

With this difference also comes a different understanding of what the role of humans is in conservation. Frontier cultures tend to value wilderness, and thus tend to see people as separate from nature, or a threat to nature. By contrast. old cultures often see people and nature linked, as we witness, for example, in our work in Romania.

Why should we care? Because our mental models make a big difference for how we go about finding solutions to pressing conservation issues. So, next time someone proposes a very different solution from you…. perhaps it’s because they have a different mental model of what it means to conserve biodiversity?

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5 thoughts on “The difference between Australia and Germany in conservation

  1. Hey Joern!

    My only concern would be that I think there’s the potential when making such arguments to conflate differences in values, with differences in priorities, as based on the context within which conservationists find themselves.

    In frontier cultures you may find vast tracks of remaining wilderness being rapidly converted to agricultural/forestry systems which have no cultural or ecological precedent. In old cultures (ie Europe), the vast majority of remaining extensive wilderness areas may already be protected, and there exist many threatened taxa associated with cultural landscapes.

    These two circumstances differ dramatically with respect to the processes which threaten biodiversity, and therefore with respect to the types of priorities that are needed by conservationists trying to effectively combat such threats. But we can’t safely infer an underlying difference in the conservationists’ values, based on context specific differences in their exhibited priorities.

    For instance, imagine if Białowieża National Park was going to be clear-felled. Many European conservationists would be up in arms over the potential loss of this magnificent “wilderness” area. But I don’t think their values would have shifted in the slightest, only their priorities.

    Perhaps we just have to be aware that conservationists who work solely in situations representing a fundamentally different context to our own, can be unaware of the legitimate need for different priorities in different regions.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Adam — you’re right! Your wording ‘legitimate need for different priorities’ describes the situation perfectly!

  3. Pingback: The cost of being internationally relevant « clearasblog

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