Pluralism in conservation: the metaphor of love

By Joern Fischer

In a recent blog entry, I pondered what to make of changing values and approaches in conservation biology. On the one hand, we have “classic” biocentric thinking by people like Michael Soulé and Reed Noss (e.g. this paper, or this one) who argue for the intrinsic values of biodiversity and emphasize human greed as a major problem to life on Earth. On the other hand, we have people like Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier who argue that we need to be pragmatic, who emphasize ecosystem services, and who argue that we must join forces with big business where it helps to achieve conservation outcomes (their recent paper is here).

On reflection, what troubled me so much about the paper by Kareiva and Marvier was that, to me, it felt like an attack on Soulé’s original vision for conservation biology; it felt to me like it argued that the new, pragmatic conservation science was superior to the old, dreamy conservation biology that Soulé had envisioned. My reading of this may not be what the authors intended, but to me, that’s how it came across.

I find this troubling because it causes polarization between two positions in conservation biology that probably can co-exist quite happily – if only they accept each other’s emphasis, and see that their own approach does not need to be “better” or the only one. After reading the paper by Kareiva and Marvier, I’ve found it quite difficult to work through this, because it sounds just so different from the original vision of Soulé’s – can we really have both positions co-exist? If so, how? Can we make the two fit together – or are they truly opposed paradigms that cannot co-exist?

Personally, I can’t imagine a lasting conservation science that is how Kareiva and Marvier paint it, pragmatic and dispassionate, and lacking interest in even engaging with normative arguments. But I do see the point in using not only biocentric arguments for conservation: after all, some nature is useful to people, and why not investigate the conservation possibilities arising from interdependencies between people and nature?

Here, I propose that conceptions of love can provide a useful metaphor to argue for balanced pluralism in conservation. In his seminal work “The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm defines motherly and fatherly love. In his words: “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved… Motherly love by its very nature is unconditional.” On fatherly love, Fromm suggests it is quite different, based on the principle: “I love you because you fulfill my expectation, because you do your duty…” (Fromm recognized, by the way, that motherly and fatherly principles were not necessarily related to people’s gender.)

What do these conceptions of love have to do with conservation? Well, perhaps nothing. But perhaps, we can use them as a metaphor to see differences in views on conservation “science” – and as a metaphor for how and why we can sustain pluralism in approaches in conservation biology.

Motherly love is unconditional and pure, just like conservation motivated by the intrinsic values of nature. It demands nothing in return; it’s not always practical; and it may break your heart – but it is pure and gives us a safe haven.

Fatherly love, on the other hand, expects good behavior. It demands, provides rules, is more strict, and love is only forthcoming if the potential recipient performs adequately. This is quite pragmatic, and there are important lessons we can learn from fatherly love: master the harsh realities of life, and you will succeed. This has parallels with conserving nature for its utilitarian values: we will preserve the wetland, if (and only if) it provides us with clean water.

Using this metaphor, what does a healthy conservation family look like? To this day, many of the world’s most humble people have maintained that the only kind of real love is that which does not expect anything in return. A family without motherly love is cold, but still, the pragmatic demands stemming from fatherly love can also be grounded in love.

We can have both. This was beautifully captured in an interview with Gretchen Daily in Nature in 2009. In the interview, she states: “I think it is going to be a long haul for biodiversity for its own sake. For me, ecosystem services is a strategy to buy time as well as getting buy-in.” The article continues to explain: “Such sentiment reveals that the ecosystem-services approach is not necessarily that different from conventional environmentalism. Advocates of both viewpoints believe that nature is intrinsically valuable, and they hope to preserve nature by appealing to this belief in others or, where it is absent, by creating it. The difference is that Daily works to convince others by showing them the profitable side of nature first.” (The full interview is here.)

I’m not sure that things are quite this harmonious in the conservation family at present as suggested here, but at least in principle, they probably could be. To put it bluntly, an intact conservation family will benefit from motherly love as well as fatherly love. This can’t be a debate about one being better or more important than the other, but we need to have respect for both kinds of positions. Many teenagers know they can learn from both of their parents – but to me at least, things get unpleasant when the parents start arguing.

There’s no need to dismiss conservation biology as Soulé defined it, just because we also want to be pragmatic. Pragmatism needs to be grounded in something that goes deeper, and to me, Soulé’s original vision is just as relevant today as it was 28 years ago.

6 thoughts on “Pluralism in conservation: the metaphor of love

  1. Thanks Joern for your post. I agree with you. A Hungarian ecologist, Juhasz-Nagy Pal, who was a very strong theoretical ecologist as well, highlighted in one of his essays, in the 70`s: in conservation biolgy, to be successful, we should include the ‘irrational’ domain, besides the rational one. Irrational does not mean antirational. If I am rational, I say, e.g.: ‘species x is threatened by the human related factor y’, ‘species x is declining with this and that rate’. If I am irational, I say: ‘I am worried about our future’, ‘I am afraid’ etc. These feelings are not easy to interpret from a purely rational perspective. They even may look kind of childish naivity. Moreover, conservation biologists, as humans and scientists should not forget to be humble (what is that? An other irrational approach…) and aware about the many traps represented by the pure rational approach.

    I personally am in the period of re-discovering the importance of belief, love and other irrational ways of connecting with nature and people (dont misunderstand, please:)). This also comes with openness toward arts, myths and yes, science. With these, I aldo discovered: I am more social, a wider range of people listen me and it is good to be like this. 🙂 Amen:)

  2. I think it’s important to clearly separate what we are speaking about.

    If we speak about the philosophical question of “what is the right thing to do, conservation or not”, I think we have to acknowledge that the two approaches are fundamentally non-compatible, and they may lead to completely different answers. ES is based on a utilitarian argument, while the other side seems to rely on a virtue argument along the lines of the duty to “preserve creation”. I would strongly object to the use of “irrational”, or “female” with respect to the latter though, this type of decisions are considered completely rational, and over history men have embraced these kind of decisions at least as often as women (think about social norms such as honor, religion, or human rights).

    In terms of convincing the public to take certain actions, it’s a different thing of course, here it might well be that a combination of carrot (preserve nature for nature’s sake) and stick (you will suffer if you don’t) does the trick (I often hear the argument that “of course WE wouldn’t need ES to decide to conserve nature, but to convince politicians they are great”). But that’s an entirely different thing, because here we speak about the psychological/political persuasiveness for others, not about how we arrived at the decision that action should be taken in the first place.

    @Tibor: “I am worried about our future” is a valid feeling, but I don’t see the evidence that this could serve as a sound basis for decision making. I think it’s fair to assume that people have been worried about the future as long as the human societies exist, but the time when things got better for most is when we started to think rationally.

  3. Hi Florian – indeed, thanks for your comment. It gives no evidence but can channel things. Just one example (may be not the best one…): we need evidences, no doubt. But still, most of decisions at political level (at least in RO) are not made based on evidences (i.e. they are not ‘rational’). They are even antirational. If we could plant that ‘I am worried about our future’ kind of irrationality with high ‘normative power’ into the minds and hearth of these guys, they would certainly see and value the evidences we (and our colleagues from other fields) provide them. But till then, acion, at least in its political sense, will be largely antirational – and damaging. See the post of Andra about the goldmine project in RO, e.g. I think we agree, just I was/am unable to express myself well.

  4. Ps: talking about rational, irrational, antirational, here is an interesting definition about what means rational by Robert Aumann: “A person’s behavior is rational if it is in his best interests, given his information.“ From this perspective, what is antirational for me, can be perfectly rational for somebody else, and things start to complicate.

    Click to access aumann-lecture.pdf

    • Hi Tibor, I think we agree that, to the end of activating people for conservation issues, or any issues at all, it may be effective to appeal to their minds as well as to their hearts.

      However, if it comes to the question of whether we or I SHOULD activate people to these issues, I feel it’s a different thing – humans have a pretty bad track record of basing decisions on feelings, including letting blood to cure diseases, burning witches, or going to useless wars. I think specially as scientists we have the duty to (rationally) reflect whether the action we are supporting is indeed in the best interest of society, which includes a conscious decision for which things we apply utilitarian arguments and for which not. I wasn’t sure whether you agree about that.

      About the Aumann quote: this is of course a completely economic statement, where rational is equated with maximizing individual utility. There are certainly other mindsets that allow a more “absolute” rationality, e.g. Kant. Anyways, even in a utilitarian mindset, what is rational to someone else may be irrational to you, but that doesn’t mean in turn that what is irrational to you is rational to someone else, or rational at all.

  5. Pingback: “Re-connecting people and nature”: wrong term, wrong goal? | Ideas for Sustainability

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