By Joern Fischer
Apparently I’ve been asleep for the last 10 months or so. I just read a paper by Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier in BioScience, entitled “What is conservation science?”, which somehow had slipped my attention when it came out. I trust that to some readers of this blog, this paper is still news too — and importantly, there are a couple of responses out to this paper, one by Reed Noss, Roderick Nash, Paul Paquet … and the “father of conservation biology” himself, Michael Soulé.
The discussion in BioScience on this is fascinating, and says an incredible amount about what has changed between 1985 and now — 1985 being when Michael Soulé’s landmark paper “What is conservation biology?” came out.
In 1985, Soulé proposed that conservation biology would have to be an interdisciplinary science; one that drew on the natural sciences and the social sciences; and one that was a mixture of art and science because often, we lacked quantitative evidence for what to do, but still had to act. Soulé proposed four functional postulates, and four normative postulates — or core values — which conservation biology would need to build on.
Those original four values were: diversity of organisms is good, ecological complexity is good, evolution is good, and biodiversity has intrinsic value irrespective of its usefulness to people.
Kareiva and others have ambitiously tried to write their own, updated version of a “landmark” paper, by re-focusing what conservation biology (or conservation science, as they call it) is and should be all about. With phrases such as “Some realism is in order”, and “Although we share Soulé’s nostalgia …”, Kareiva et al. make it clear that what they want is something more practical, more real, less dreamy and more modern.
This sense of “let’s get real” strongly comes out throughout the paper. Evidence-based science is seen as the way forward, and instead of normative postulates, Kareiva et al. offer “practical statements”. Among those are calls to work with corporations since those make a major difference to the world, like it or not; and to focus on synergies between human well-being and conservation, e.g. by focusing on ecosystem services rather than intrinsic values of biodiversity.
This paper is such a stark contrast in vision of how and why to conserve biodiversity compared to Soulé’s original paper, that it is almost hard to believe that we are talking about the same discipline. And this is why I think something truly interesting is going on in “conservation science/biology” at the moment. I see it as a field that is actually very divided but only midly aware of the depth of its internal disagreements.
In their response, Noss et al. highlight that probably the biggest flaw in what Kareiva et al. propose is that they fail to acknowledge that the overall systems we live within are inherently unsustainable — the very corporations that are supposedly helping to achieve conservation goals are essentially symbols of a growth-oriented economy that cannot be sustained in the long-term.
My personal view is that, of course, Soulé’s original vision for conservation biology was unlikely to remain constant. And one issue where I find myself agreeing with Kareiva et al. is that it is indeed worthwhile to consider conservation outside protected areas, and to consider not only the intrinsic values of nature (and therefore our moral duty to protect it) but also recognise that there are practical or utilitarian values.
Yet, I find it telling that instead of engaging with moral arguments, Kareiva et al. pride themselves of pragmatic realism; coupled with an apparent belief that “better evidence” will ultimately save us. This proudly pragmatic, almost overtly positivist view of the world is infinitely more narrow than the rich set of metaphors Soulé proposed, including conservation needing to be a mixture of science and art, requiring facts as well as intuition. As I have argued elsewhere, more evidence is unlikely to save us, and one of the most important things we need to do is to actually reflect on what our core values are. Highlighting the benefits of nature to people is useful and worthwhile, but we need a deeper, not just a more detailed, understanding of conservation and of global change — it’s not simply a numbers game where we just collect more evidence, talk with corporations, and then somehow sustainability will emerge. The problems of reconnecting people and nature — as Kareiva et al. acknowledge in passing — lie far deeper.
So — which conservation science do we want? A dreamy, idealistic one, doomed to fail because it argues for conservation against human welfare and lacks hard numbers? Or a pragmatic, rational version, that tackles the problem from within the systems we have, including the corporate world and growing global demand for more “stuff”?
It is easy to think of who today’s leaders are in conservation science, and it is easy to classify them. And it is easy to see that most current leaders in the field are much closer to the second version — favouring a precise science that gives us rational answers for what to do where, so those in charge can get on with it, and so that everybody is better off.
As far as I’m concerned, I remain deeply skeptical about this trend. To me, it feels like today’s mantra of (I think uncritical) “realism” is not the conservation science I signed up for — to me it lacks reflection and it lacks understanding that one cannot pursue something inherently normative without having thought about one’s values. Whether we agree with Soulé’s original normative postulates or not — at least he realised that values would have to be part of conservation biology, like it or not. The brave new world of conservation science seems to have lost touch with all things normative, preferring “realism” and “pragmatism” — but potentially ending up just as a modern version of undirected positivism.
People will disagree with this, and debate on this would certainly be welcome. As a disclaimer, I do believe that a stronger evidence base is worthwhile; but I do not believe that the primary emphasis on working within existing systems and power structures, making use of quantitative facts, is anywhere near sufficient on its own. We need to find ways of combining realism with deep reflection. Yes, we should work within existing systems to move things forward. But not instead of addressing underlying causes, and challenging systems as a whole, but in addition to. To do this, we need tools, we need facts, we need numbers — but we also need an an active interest in morality, and reflection on the normative underpinnings of our work.