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.