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?