What is the future of conservation

In a forthcoming article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution entitled “What is the future of conservation?” Daniel Doak and colleagues rail against what they term ‘new conservation science (NCS)’. Doak et al., never quite get round to providing a clear definition of what NCS is. Rather they describe NCS through a series of the problems with ‘traditional’ conservation science they claim are made (somewhat tenuously in my opinion) that NCS makes and the NCS remedies to these posited problems with traditional conservation approaches.  In short they claim that NCS claim (see, it is already getting tortuously tenuous) that traditional conservation:

a) Ignores the well-being of the poor and therefore causes suffering.

b) Is based on the myth of pristine nature.

c) Wrongly assume that nature is inherently fragile.

d) And finally, that NCS claims that “conservation for biodiversity’s sake” is failing.

Doak et al., then suggest that NCS suggests the following “remedies” (more tenuosity):

a)      The primary objective of conservation should be to protect, restore, and enhance the services that nature provides to people.

b)      To succeed, conservationists need to ally with corporations… to maximize biodiversity without compromising development goals.

c)       Conservationists should increase their focus on urban areas and on landscapes and species most useful to humans, because human benefits should drive conservation efforts.

Doak et al., make some very good points about the limits to, and problems with, applying human-welfare based ethical arguments for conservation. They also nicely state that NCS is not some value-free, objective from of science, but deeply embedded in certain normative and ethical perspectives. The paper highlights the danger of assuming that conservation is a means of increasing human well-being and therefore that a “human-welfare” approach will ensure conservation. Moreover, their concern that normatively driven, technocratic view of human-nature relations is becoming the dominant conservation premised on its supposed scientific subjectivity is indeed troubling. As a warning they state that NCS “seeks not a subtle shift in the methods of conservation, but a stark change in its fundamental goals and methods: ‘Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.”

The following is not a defence of NCS (I am not yet even convinced that such a thing exists), but rather a response to the binary choice that Doak et al., suggest conservation science has to make between keeping traditional conservation science’s ‘non-human’ based ethics and NCS’s ‘human-welfare based ethics.

To Doak et al., conservation is faced with a stark choice relating to the goals and rationale for conservation of nature, with ethical arguments related to the intrinsic value and rights of nature as one choice and conservation as means “first and foremost the promotion of human welfare” as the other. However, I believe that to state that the human-welfare rationale for conservation is based on the assumption “that people’s core motivations are deeply self-serving” (as Doak et al do) is a mischaracterization. Human-welfare centred ethical arguments for conservation encompass concerns for others, including future generations, and can only be considered “self-serving” in the narrowest sense.  In fact one can frame human-welfare arguments for conservation in terms of the ascription of intrinsic value to human life in much the same way as Doak et al., describe the ascription of intrinsic value to nature, with many of the same problems of relating these values to economic calculus and its implied consequentialist ethical framework.

Humans can, and do, ascribe intrinsic value and use value to nature, both ascriptions of value, should be considered ethically valid, mutable and important. In many ecosystems, particularly human-dominated ecosystems and their frontiers, understanding and balancing these sets of ascribed values is key to conservation efforts. Indeed Doak et al., note that “the need to weigh tradeoffs between conservation impacts and economic gains is a central legacy of the conservation movement”. Yet they appear to suggest that these two equally valid, and potentially conflicting, ethical concerns regarding human-nature interactions should be separated, with conservationist focusing primarily on non-human concerns and economists primarily on human-welfare. This seems problematic to me for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is both divisive and alienating to imply that conservationists, or anyone else, must choose between a non-human or human-welfare centred ethical framework when making judgements regarding how humans should interact with our environment. It is clear that many people (myself included) hold both concerns simultaneously. Moreover, a disciplinary separation of these concerns is likely to lead to choruses of the deaf, with neither side hearing, understanding or learning from the other. Human and non-human concerns regarding human-nature interactions must be addressed simultaneously, there needs to be a space for this to happen, if that place is not conservation science, where is it?

Secondly, while it is true that there cannot always be win-win situations regarding conservation and human well-being, there are likely situations where such positive outcomes are possible. Finding such outcomes requires the active engagement of conservationists, biologists and ecologists, who can explain the impacts of a human activity on ecosystems and, in turn, the consequences of those changes on long-term human well-being. In the absence of conservationists engaging with issues surrounding conservation and human well-being many potentially useful management options and conservation opportunities may be missed.

I believe, the question should not be whether conservation should be driven by primarily non-human or human concerns, but rather how conservation science can contribute to understanding these potentially conflicting value systems in the context of the unremitting pressure on nature by human activity. To do so require not a rejection of one ethical framing in favour of the other, but an open and frank discussion of the multiple values inherent in the conservation debate and how those values shape and drive conservation science. Conflicts between the rights of, and responsibilities towards, human and non-humans in conservation efforts are inevitable, a single coherent ethical framework is required that addresses all such normative concerns when making the case for conservation.

I would be happy to hear other thoughts on how to tackle these ethical issues in conservation science.


P.S. A version of this post was (very nicely) rejected from TREE, so TREE’s loss if your gain (or possibly vice versa).

5 thoughts on “What is the future of conservation

  1. Pingback: “New conservation” … yet more debate | Ideas for Sustainability

  2. Pingback: Old conservation, new conservation, true conservation | theoretical ecology

  3. Pingback: New paper: Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability | Ideas for Sustainability

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