Is conservation really better together?

Heather Tallis, Jane Lubchenco and their many hundreds of co-signatories have caught the attention of the media and conservationists around the world with their call for inclusive conservation. In their article, which appeared in Nature, they argue that recent debate about whether conservation should be based on intrinsic or instrumental values has become acrimonious to a level that is damaging for the conservation movement, and that part of the problem is the domination of a few voices, nearly all of them from male and from wealthy countries. They go on to call for “a unified and diverse conservation ethic; one that recognizes and accepts all values of nature, from intrinsic to instrumental, and welcomes all philosophies justifying nature protection and restoration, from ethical to economic, and from aesthetic to utilitarian.”

It is impossible to disagree that angry and aggressive arguments about conservation values are unhelpful, or that the conservation movement would be enormously better off if a more diverse range of voices could be heard, whether in the pages of academic journals or the boardrooms of BINGOs. Indeed, the work I do with the remarkably diverse students on the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership seeks directly to address these challenges. However, there are two aspects of the Tallis, et al. paper with which I do not agree.

The first is the way the article repeats, rather than directly challenges, the crude dualism presented by the ‘new versus old’ conservation literature regarding the values held by conservationists. According to this analysis one is either a ‘new’/instrumental value conservationist who believes, in Tallis et al.’s words,  “that protecting nature for its own sake alone has failed to stem the tide of species extinction, that conservation should be open to partnering with business to effect the greatest change, and that conservation support will be broadened by more directly considering other social objectives” or an ‘old’/intrinsic value conservationist who believes that “ethical arguments for conservation should be sufficient, that partnering with business is selling out to those who create the problem and that social considerations are already central to conservation”.

This description of the ‘sides’ in the new conservation debate suggests that each contains within it a consistent set of ideas about conservation values. However, there is no good reason to believe that conservationists divide neatly into new or old conservation on all these points. For example, I am persuaded by the argument in favour of conservation for instrumental values (i.e. to benefit people as an end in itself) but critical of the use of markets to get there. This position is neither ‘old’ nor ‘new’ conservation – it is a hybrid of the two. I am sure that many other such non-aligned positions exist, and it is disappointing that Tallis et al.’s article (which is specifically about listening to a diversity of views) does not more directly challenge the false dichotomy presented by the old versus new conservation literature.

My second point of disagreement with Tallis, et al. is about how useful their inclusive conservation ethic might be in practice. They argue that “[divergent] values need not be opposition…they can instead be matched to contexts in which each one best aligns with the values of the many audiences that we need to engage.” This is a very pragmatic approach that can certainly convince different stakeholders, but it seems to assume that hidden beneath conservationists’ arguments about value positions lies some core set of ideas on which they all agree. This is not right – values really can be in opposition, and conservation means very different things to different people. For example, in an analysis of the values held by young conservation scientists attending a research conference in Cambridge, my colleagues and I found four distinct value positions, and almost no points of agreement between them. As Martin & Richard say in their response to the Tallis et al. article, “when the authors call for ‘an end to the fighting’, they should not confuse inclusion with harmony. Nor is inclusion itself a guarantee of equal voice or equal representation.”

‘Conservation’ as it has been generally understood for the last century certainly has been dominated by voices and ideas from the developed world, mostly those of men. Over this period, scholarship and activism have developed, or revealed, far broader perspectives on why and how to do conservation. Tallis et al. are right to call for these voices to be heard, but their appeal for all perspectives to be folded into a single conservation movement under a big tent of inclusivity seems unrealistic, and potentially stifling of debate over what are real and meaningful differences of opinion within an increasingly large and diverse movement.

Is there an alternative? Perhaps it is time for different conservations, with their own values and preferred means of action, to go their separate ways. In this vision conservation becomes an encampment rather than a single tent – a parliament not a corporation. This might appear an admission of failure, but it could instead be seen as an inevitable and positive outcome of conservation’s growing scale and influence, and an opportunity for different (and sometimes contradictory) perspectives to be promoted unashamedly by those who support them. There are many conservations, and it is time to stop pretending otherwise.


9 thoughts on “Is conservation really better together?

  1. This makes me think of Aichi Biodiversity Target 1: “By 2020, at the latest, people are aware of *the values* of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably” (emphasis mine). Which set of values are “The Values”?

  2. I really don’t understand why we all need to agree. This is one of the most important issues facing human society, and we aren’t supposed to argue passionately about individual views? Of course it is imperfect, but it is human discourse. I’m more depressed that there aren’t more people yelling and shouting about what they believe is right. Say what you believe, as loud as you can, argue with everyone, try to bring them to your side but don’t be so stubborn that you can’t be convinced they are right…

  3. Conservation? That would be an ecumenical matter:
    Marvier, M. “A call for ecumenical conservation.” Animal Conservation (2014).

    I agree that we don’t need to agree. I do think that conservation is stronger when there is diversity – why can’t we have different approaches to different places? For example, I (like Chris) am broadly sceptical of the use of markets in conservation. But they are a less-bad route to conservation in southern Chile, where I have been working recently, because here there is a society and economy which is extremely market-oriented, where property rights and the political system work in particular ways that make markets a more effective tool for conservation than they might be in another country, with a different economy, political structure, and understanding of property rights.

    • Thanks George! I hadn’t read that paper. I think I prefer the encampment metaphor (full disclosure – that was Bill’s idea) to the ecumenical one, but the idea is very similar. That said, the last paragraph of the Marvier paper does still , in its call for an open-minded ‘practice’ of conservation, seem to underplay the possibility that some of these practices will be in conflict with others based on different value positions.

  4. Fascinating topic. Thanks for posting!

    I’ve recently completed my doctoral research investigating the relationship between social values and the conservation of Australian threatened birds ( so am very interested to see discussions like this.

    I completely agree that it is inappropriate to talk about ‘sides’. Like anything relating to human social behaviour, conservation issues are multidmensional in nature. We may all value nature and want to conserve it but we may also have very different attitudes about how and why we should conserve it. Not only that but we can hold several kinds of attitudes at the same time but prioritise them differently in different situations. In addition you have societal values and norms which directly influence what kind of action is acceptable and can be taken in any given situation.

    Soulé identified nine concepts of ‘living nature’ co-existing in the modern world, described as: ‘…not changing over time, but accumulating layer upon layer so that the most scientific conceptions can co-exist alongside with the most pagan, even within the mind of a single person’ (Soulé 1995, p.139). Further: ‘these many “living natures” reflect the polymorphic, fragmented nature of human occupations and preoccupations in a civilisation that encompasses an extraordinary range of subcultures, levels of affluence, contact with natural habitats and philosophical sophistication’ (Soulé 1995, p.141).
    SOULÉ, M. E. 1995. The social siege of nature. In: M. E. SOULÉ & G. LEASE (eds.) Reinventing nature? Responses to postmodern deconstruction. Washington, USA: Island Press.

    In my research, I found that the westernised nature and structure of Australian society has meant that scientific knowledge about threatened birds and their conservation is privileged and there is a dependence on the biological sciences to inform policy and practice experts. When scientists are deemed a more relevant source of knowledge regarding management of threatened species than landholders or Indigenous people for example, it signifies that experts, not members of the public, are principally responsible for its conservation. This is problematic because framing of threatened bird conservation issues as principally biological or ecological rather than social, infers that these are the accepted ways of understanding those issues and that specialisation in the biological sciences is required to contribute towards conservation decision-making processes. This serves to deny the many ‘living natures’ thought to exist within a society (Soulé 1995).

    So, I agree that we need many different kinds of conservation led by different kinds of people with different interests, so that all these living natures can be sustained. I like the idea of an encampment – it gives the impression of organisation so we’re all heading in the same direction, as well as the freedom to choose the path we take to get there.

  5. I think we even need to even look at the diversity of markets and how they can support conservation. Markets aren’t just about PES or ecotourism. Markets underpin local economies in areas of high biodiversity and at the very least we should be concerned about how these markets support or do not support well being. And I think as a community we need to do more to understand and partner with local market actors in trades that impact biodiversity, for instance in sectors such as bushmeat, fuelwood and fisheries. One example is working with fish traders on improved fish smoking technologies in areas that use mangrove wood. Strengthening property rights to trees has been shown to improve outcomes in forest cover and agricultural productivity. Yes stronger forest and tree rights to local communities can support charcoal or timber markets but these markets are not going away. Let’s keep an open mind about markets…

  6. Well, and then we get to the fact that there are Markets, and then there are Markets.

    I don’t think capitalized markets, which inexorably bend towards expanionism, are compatible with conservation in any meaningful or long-term way. On the other hand, market exchange is not at all necessarily antithetical to conservation, but (a) there is little conversation I’ve seen in the conservation community about opposing capitalized markets; (b) the current societal currents are still pushing strongly towards capitalization, and (c) many elements of markets fit only awkwardly, if at all, with the kind of pluralist considerations we’re talking about here. Farrell and Shalizi peg some of the limits of markets for complex problem solving in their piece on cognitive democracy: .

    Deliberative and deep democratic structures educate participants, creating (the possibility of) a virtuous cycle, increase buy-in and compliance, increase system understanding, and increase the possibility of exposing values to reality in a (more) collaborative atmosphere raising the possibility of determining instrumental approaches that may be wrong or ineffective, and having the backers of such able to admit it and move on to support other approaches.

    Part of the problem with this debate is that its practical stakes are, in my opinion, limited: even if a “consensus” were reached, there is no necessary means to implement it outside of journal articles–practitioners would have some ability to do so but themselves would be limited by sociopolitical governance and administration–and it is quite clear that the problem is not lack of information given to policymakers or businesses.

    In point of fact, any successful conservation pushes will create winners and losers, at least relatively speaking. Setting aside more land and potential resources (e.g. fossil fuels) to be untouched, or much more “lightly touched”, limits the “pie” to be shared and forces questions of either redistribution or continued inequality. The idea of the service or non-material economy is belied by the fact that if economic growth doesn’t signify the growth of *something*, it’s nonsensical, yet even growth simply in data/knowledge is definitionally entropy-creating (e.g. costs energy & resources).

    Capitalized markets abhor “enoughness”. I question any cooperation with business entities who are not willing to commit themselves, at least in the long-term, to principles of sufficiency (cf. Tom Princen).

    The abstract debate about values is less interesting and practical to me than brass-tacks conversations about power, political structures, possible winners and losers, and realities of limits and trade-offs (as many posters here discuss).

  7. There is a subtext to this petition that you may have missed. Many of the authors and signatories work for a single organisation – a US-based charity called The Nature Conservancy. Why that is important will become clear in a moment.

    The paper imagines a “divergence of values … between conservationists who focus on ecosystem services that can improve human well-being and those who focus on avoiding the extinction of species”. This conservationist, who ignores the needs of humans and is blindly biased towards non-human species, is a man of straw.

    Let’s dispose of the straw man immediately. People exist, certainly, who merely want to stop species from going extinct, but they have only a superficial understanding of conservation. They are certainly not the main source of protest against the corporate assault on nature.

    And so to The Nature Conservancy.

    The board of directors of TNC includes many people who work or have worked for financial and extractive industries (see below), that is to say industries that make money in part by destroying biodiversity. TNC claims that the inclusion of these people will help to protect biodiversity. Some US conservationists counter that it encourages the commoditization of nature. The response to that objection is a petition to call for an end to the schism in conservation.

    TNC’s sustainability initiative states, “Do you know the value of nature’s contribution to your business? – Corporations of all kinds depend on well-functioning natural systems to produce an array of goods and services vital to their operations and supply chains. Mismanagement of natural assets and the accelerating impacts of climate change can destabilize corporate supply chains and degrade the natural resources upon which businesses rely.” One has to remind oneself, when reading this, that the organisation has a mission to conserve biodiversity, not to manage commercial forests.

    TNC works with the Corporate Eco Forum, “a by-invitation membership organization comprised of large, global companies that demonstrate a serious commitment at the senior executive level to environment as a business strategy issue.” There is no ambiguity here: “environment” is just a strategy to improve business. Businesses are in business to profit. All corporations share the business model of economic growth. They are therefore predatory – on the environment or on our future, or both.

    The Chair of the board of TNC is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and chair of a company that provides financial advice.
    The President and CEO of TNC was the managing director of Goldman Sachs, an investment banking company.
    The vice-chair of the board is the retired chair and CEO of the largest electric power company in America.
    The treasurer is the chair of an investment management company.
    The secretary used to be the US Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs.

    The members of the board include
    • the former president of one of the US’s largest food and pharmaceutical chains,
    • a senior partner in an investment management company,
    • someone from Google Inc.,
    • the chair of a global growth equity investment firm,
    • an advisory director of Goldman Sachs,
    • the co-founder of a global investment management firm,
    • the founder, chair and CEO of a giant e-commerce company,
    • the founder of a $1.1 billion boutique investment management firm,
    • the senior managing director of a multinational private equity, investment banking, alternative asset management and financial services corporation,
    • the founder and chair of a “non-profit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists”,
    • the executive chair of a Hong-Kong based private equity, venture capital, and real estate investment firm
    • the retired chairman & CEO of one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world
    • the president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

    To balance this financial acumen with some conservation experience, the board includes:
    • an artist & conservationist
    • a scientist from Patagonia
    • a professor of environmental economics
    • the chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission
    • Gretchen C. Daily, who is currently on a leave of absence.

    In summary, the argument is not between intrinsic and instrumental values. Almost everybody thinks that humans depend on nature. But some think that the best reason to conserve nature is to make money from it. They do not get “depend”. They see “service”, commodification, and profit.

    The real argument is whether nature is there merely to provide services to humans, and in so doing improve (often short-term) well-being for (often elite) humans, or whether we should be trying to establish a sustainable relationship with nature.

    The “schism” that the paper identifies is a stratagem; it is designed to camouflage the corporate capture of conservation.

  8. Pingback: On the Conservation of Trolls | Thinking like a human

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s