What is conservation?

Last week I gave an introductory undergraduate lecture about conservation, which forced me to spend some time thinking about how to define what it is. This is more difficult than it perhaps should be – ‘conservation’ is a word that seems to make sense on an intuitive level (I feel that I know it when I see it), but stubbornly resists attempts to be wrestled into a clear definition. In the end I came up with a new definition, but was left wondering whether the scope of ideas and activities that fit within this definition have moved on beyond the usefulness of the term ‘conservation’ itself. This post is an attempt to explain why.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines conservation as ‘the action of conserving something’, which isn’t very helpful in itself, but does draw attention to the idea of conservation as being about action. This makes sense to me, although I suppose one could argue that the best way to conserve some things is inaction – i.e. not using them up.

Looking beyond the dictionary, most definitions of conservation adopt a particular position regarding what ought to be conserved and how that ought to be achieved. For example, one definition of conservation is ‘actions that directly enhance chances of habitats and species persisting in the wild’. There is nothing wrong with this definition, but it certainly isn’t one that captures all the actions that are taken in the name of conservation. It emphasises habitats and species, and persistence in the wild, which are suggestive of a particular set of actions intended to achieve these goals. This is one version of conservation, but somebody else might be more interested in conserving, say, genetic diversity of agricultural crops, and not care about whether or not they are ‘wild’ – a quite separate conservation (that is described in the work of Helen Curry). Both are legitimate perspectives, but they reflect differences of opinion about what ought to be conserved, and might entail different, and possibly contradictory, sets of actions.

These differences of opinion can get rather heated – Michael Soulé, writing about ‘The New Conservation’ recently argued that because New Conservation seeks “to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor” it is not conservation at all. For him this is a description of environmentalism, entailing a focus on human wellbeing, which he sees as separate from conservation, which for him is only about biological diversity – a very narrow view as seen from this side of the Atlantic, where protecting geological sites and natural beauty are generally considered to be part of conservation.

As a social scientist trying to understand and analyse conservation as a social phenomenon in all its many forms, all this is unsatisfactory. What I need is a broader definition that captures all the things that might be considered, by somebody, somewhere, conservation. This is analogous to the job performed by the term ‘justice’, which is a kind of super-category within which various different versions of justice (distributive, retributive etc.) are found. A suitably broad definition for conservation was proposed by Bill Adams last year in a talk he gave to the Cambridge Conservation Forum annual symposium. He defined it as ‘social practices that reflect choices about relations between people and nature’. This is certainly broad enough to capture differing ideas about conservation, but it is perhaps too broad, because it could be used to describe any choices about relations between people and nature, including completely anti-nature perspectives that nobody would think of as conservation.

After considerable thought, the best definition of conservation that I can come up with is: ‘Things people do to establish or maintain good relations with nature’. This seems to: capture the idea of ‘conservation as action’; exclude actions that are disinterested in or against nature; recognise that in some cases good relations already exist and don’t need to be created; leave plenty of room for different perspectives on the meaning of both ‘good relations’ and ‘nature’. I was tempted to go with the even simpler ‘things people do for nature’, but that would exclude purely utilitarian rationales that are based on looking after nature so that we can benefit from it ourselves (which some see as part of conservation, even if Michael Soulé does not).

So now we have a definition broad enough to include all things done in the name of conservation but narrow enough to exclude things done against nature. But this leaves me with a niggling doubt, because some actions that are taken to establish or maintain good relations with nature don’t seem to sit very well with the word conservation itself. To me the word conservation has a particularly backward looking and conservative connotation – it makes me think of fixing nature static in time, or trying to restore it to a condition from which it has been degraded. This backward looking interpretation is quite understandable, as the etymology of the verb to conserve is from the Latin ‘con’ meaning ‘together’ and ‘servare’ meaning ‘to keep’. In fact, there is a shared derivation with the nouns conserve and preserve – or jam, in other words. As a jam maker tries to conserve fruit by adding sugar and bottling it, so the word conservation seems to suggest bottling up a static nature in protected areas (an idea satirised brilliantly in this Far Side cartoon).

Far side

The problem is that conservation has grown beyond these limits. The word did its job well at a time when conservation actions were always intended to keep things the same or restore them to earlier glories. But these are the ghosts of conservation past. We now live in what Emma Marris has described as a ‘post-wild world’, in which all nature is affected by people, many see value in novel ecosystems, and processes like synthetic biology are creating completely new elements of nature that some will want to protect and support. So I am still thinking about my definition, and the word ‘conservation’ itself.  Is it fit for purpose to describe things people do that reflect these newly emerging perspectives on the meaning of good relations with nature? Or do we need to discard it – like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis – and find a new, more ambitious term suitable for the post-wild world?

An updated version of this article (including a refined definition of conservation) has now been published as an editorial in the October 2015 issue of the journal Oryx


10 thoughts on “What is conservation?

  1. Interesting exploration, Chris, though I must admit, I too am not quite convinced by your definition(s). I’ve always been partial to Meffe’s and Carroll’s (1997) definition as, ‘a response by the scientific community to the biodiversity crisis,’ applying the principles of multiple disciplines (eg ecology, economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy) to the maintenance of biological diversity (for which we, as humans, are most certainly a part!). I also have to admit identifying with Soule’s more passionate call to action describing conservation as a “crisis driven” discipline.

    • Thanks Chris, I enjoyed your essay. Nicole, from memory Meffe and Carroll’s definition referred to ‘conservation biology’ rather than ‘conservation’ per se. Conservation biology has a narrower focus than conservation, but hopefully (!) makes a valuable contribution. Cheers Ian

      • Thank you both for your contributions. Ian put it very well – I am trying to define conservation more broadly than conservation biology as an academic discipline, although I would hope that my definition does capture conservation biology as a part of conservation. For what it’s worth, I do think that the Meffe and Carroll definition of conservation biology is a good one.

        On a related note, a twitter correspondent suggested that my definition was biocentric because it excluded geodiversity. Again, this is not the intention – if you see geodiversity as part of nature, then that fits within the definition.

        I have been thinking about adding ‘that seek to’ into the definition, making “Things people do that seek to establish or maintain good relations with nature” to make it clear that not everything in conservation works out as intended!

  2. My feeling is that conservation is only a small ingredient in the human search for self governance or sustainability as it is fashionably called. Within my own environmental project the key players are conservation which builds habitats, preservation which slows down time, micro-management which serves as an insurance policy and abandonment which allows Nature to reply within the scope of “good relations”. As an entity Nature is brutal and conservation exists to protect us against its wild moods. As such conservation and micro-management work against Nature while abandonment and preservation work with Nature.

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  7. Before reading this article I thought i knew what conservation was all about. After reading it I realise I was wrong. Interesting topic that needs to be discussed further.

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