Changing values and approaches in conservation science

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.


15 thoughts on “Changing values and approaches in conservation science

  1. You and your colleagues’ comment (or ‘rant’ as you called it) in TREE Vol. 27, p. 473 (2012), although not directly related to this topic, holds the key for me here – creativity and reflection. Never forgetting extant literature. Further exploring some shelved, dusty, gems. Understanding values, across all hierarchies of needs, and time-frames. There’s room for the dreamers, and the realists, that is diversity. And then you hit the nail right on the head – complementary approaches.

  2. Brilliant commentary Joern
    Once again you’re throwing light on a dichotomy in conservation science that is both basic to its practice but so deep rooted, slippery and subtle that most conservation scientists rarely take time out to reflect on it.

  3. Excellent piece Joern and I share your concerns about the increasing role of ‘evidence’ in conservation. You might be interested to read a couple of relevant posts on the blog I share with Bill Adams – this on evidence based conservation (with links to a paper we’ve just published on the subject) and this one on the direction of the conservation movement and whether it should do more to challenge the systemic problems that undermine sustainability I would really welcome your views on this work!

    • Great — thanks for the links! If for some reason I don’t get back to you within a few days, it means it slipped my mind … in that case, please do remind me! — J.

    • Hi Chris, I have now read your blog posts, and have printed your Oryx paper though not yet read it. In general, I think I agree with just about everything you say in a general sense. You, like me, observe a few tendencies that (I’d like to think) run deeper than what seems self-evidently “reasonable”. Whenever something is self-evident it’s probably worth asking “why?” in particular! In concrete terms, I agree that the notion of “more evidence is needed” is far too simple and ignores the messy reality of policy processes (as well as issues as to what counts as evidence); and I agree that conservation can’t do without a more general look towards sustainability. I started being interested in “just” conservation, but increasingly began to look at people, systems, policy, sustainability. Sustainable development, to my mind, must the the over-arching framework within which conservation takes place.

      What excactly it is (sustainability, sustainable development) depends on the context, but in general, I’d say it must include respect for all life on Earth, both at present and into the future.

  4. As a scientist deeply engaged in creating data on which to base natural resource management decisions, I certainly support the idea of evidence based practice. There is clearly a role and need for it, if for no other reason than just on the basis of efficiency. But as Joern reflected, the utility argument for conservation – we should keep wetlands because they are cheaper than building sewage treatment plants – is to me ultimately a dark path. In the end, technology will get cheaper, and at some point that wetland will be the more expensive way to treat sewage, especially if one considers the opportunity cost of not building coastal homes on the site. In the absence of an inherent value for nature, where does that leave us? The ecosystem services argument ultimately can only devalue nature and lead to its loss.

    • Thanks Chris, for your thoughts! Personally, perhaps I don’t go quite as far as you. I think some important battles can be won via focusing on the utility of nature for people. I think, among other things, recognising this utility could even be a means to reconnect people and nature in more meaningful ways. But from my perspective, this can’t be the whole story, and it can’t be the ultimate foundation on which to build a discipline such as conservation biology. To “save life on Earth” demands deep respect for life and its diversity, and that is what I feel is missing in the brave new world of “show me the evidence”. (We largely agree, I guess…). Again, thanks for participating in the discussion! — J.

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  6. Well laid-out, Joern; thank you. In my experience as a conservation activist, when folks speak of “working with the system” and “realism over idealism,” and “pragmatism” … it’s all plugging leaks in the ship with bubblegum. The system is sinking under the weight of far far too many people in the world for any ecological/biological problems ever to be “fixed” without a major human population reduction. And unlike a few decades ago, no one is even talking about overpopulation! Consequently, I would rather, and do, stand for “hard line idealism” in favor of the natural world. We are losing to ourselves and I prefer to go down with dignity while fighting for the natural world, of which people are no longer a part. Tragic but true. “I would not wish to be young in a world without wild places to grow up in,” Aldo Leopold. I often wonder if my and Michael Soule’s generation is the first to find ourselves saying “I’m SO glad I’m old and won’t live to watch the end of the natural world at human hands.” Thus, I side with Soule.

    David Petersen
    Durango, CO

    • Thanks David, for your comment. On the positive side, I think there are quite a few younger people who feel much the same way — it’s just not entirely clear to these people what to do with their idealism. Importantly, I think it’s important to be “idealistic” and pragmatic at the same time. We do need fundamental changes, and (for the time being) nothing is going to change that. But still, we can make useful adjustments without a full revolution, too. I don’t see why we need to choose pragmatism OVER idealism, which is what this new brand of conservation science appears to imply. To my mind, we need to get on with the show, now, pragmatically, but also keep in mind that fundamental change is needed. Good to get people’s thoughts on this, so again, thanks for commenting! — J.

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