Separate yet connected: the spatial paradox of conservation

Contemporary conservation practice includes two important strategies: trying to separate people and nature in space (in order to protect nature), and trying to reconnect people with nature (to promote human wellbeing and support for conservation). Both of these strategies are widespread and accepted approaches, and many conservation organisations and practitioners support doing both at once. But isn’t this a bit odd? Rather than trying to separate people from nature and then reconnect them, wouldn’t it make more sense not to separate people from nature in the first place?

Before tackling this big question, let me describe in more detail the two conservation strategies I have identified.  First, conservation’s efforts to separate people from nature in space. This strategy is most obviously exemplified by the creation of protected areas, which is a spatial tool designed to reduce (often to zero) human presence and influence in areas considered important for biodiversity. Protected areas have always been and remain the dominant strategy of the modern conservation movement, which seeks to achieve a global protected area coverage of 17% of terrestrial areas and 10% of marine areas by 2020.  In recent years, several new innovations in conservation have emerged that seek to further the agenda of separating people from nature. For example, biodiversity offsetting allows damage to the environment caused by human activities in one location to be offset by protecting nature somewhere else. This approach is rapidly finding its way into official government policy in countries like the USA, Australia and the UK, and is a requirement for large projects funded by major international donors such as the IFC. Similarly, the idea of land sparing suggests that food production needs can best be achieved without losing rare species at the landscape scale through the spatial separation of high-yielding agriculture and high-biodiversity conservation areas. Each of these new ideas involves some form of spatial fix for conservation – designating places for people and places for nature in order to achieve conservation and human development goals.

The second strategy concerns efforts made by conservation to (re)connect people with nature. This area of activity has emerged from increasing evidence that experience of nature is important for human wellbeing, and a concern that if people are not connected to nature in the future then there may not be enough supporters to keep the conservation movement going (as Peter Kareiva has said, “If conservation is not relevant to city dwellers, what hope of success do we have?”). Reflecting these concerns, major initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the UK National Ecosystem Assessment have sought to measure and quantify the value that people place on experiencing nature in their daily lives and feed this information in to policy decisions, and many conservation organisations have tried to promote opportunities for people to experience nature through things like urban biodiversity projects.

So, to return to the main question: are these two sets of activities contradictory? The answer to this question depends on two others. First, are conservation’s efforts to separate people and nature actually to blame for a lack of connection between people and nature, and second, what is it that conservation is trying to conserve – biodiversity itself or people’s relationships with it?

To answer the first of these questions, we need to know why people have become disconnected from nature (if indeed they have). In some cases people have been physically evicted from their homes or prevented from carrying out their usual nature-based livelihood activities in order to make way for protected areas. These ‘conservation refugees’ certainly have reduced opportunities to engage with wild nature, and conservation activities are quite clearly to blame. Other hypothesised drivers of nature-disconnect include over-protective parents not allowing their children to play outside (hence ‘last child in the woods’), the appeal of video games and other indoor activities, and the loss of green spaces within which people can exercise and connect with nature in their local area. None of these can be blamed in an obvious way on the conservation movement, and are more likely a result of broader patterns of urbanisation and the spread of digital technology.

On balance it seems that conservation often does have some role in disconnecting people and nature – particularly in rural areas where protected areas are most often established – whereas other processes may be more relevant in urban areas with their distracting technology and lack of green space. Still, new conservation innovations such as biodiversity offsetting and land sparing may extend the disconnecting influence of conservation itself into farmland and cities in the future, so this balance may change over time.

The second question is about the underlying purpose of conservation. Is it all about saving biodiversity, regardless of how people relate to it, or do social relationships with biodiversity count for something? If the former, separating people and nature in space may be the most efficient way to conserve biodiversity (whilst still allowing people to grow food, have jobs, etc. elsewhere), even if it undermines social relationships with nature. Some version of these relationships can then be re-built through nature documentaries, urban wildlife gardens etc. In this view the location of protected areas and offset sites should be determined only by their biodiversity value, and should not be influenced by their location in the world. If the latter, separating people from nature in space makes no sense, because this will undermine the affective relationships they have with nature in the place where they live. In this view protected areas and offsets sites, if needed at all, should be located close to the people whose opportunities to experience nature are most diminished by the processes that led to their creation.

In my view, most of the contemporary conservation movement is coming down on the side of a biodiversity-first strategy, in which it is seen as sensible to separate people from nature so that nature can survive intact, and then to convince people to love nature from afar. This is effectively a one-two combination of ecogovernmentalities designed to create ideal conservation subjects who are detached from nature in their daily lives but are happy to donate to, and promote, its protection somewhere else. I find this approach dispiriting and paradoxical, because for me the personal affective relationships that people have with nature in particular places really matter, and are part of what the conservation movement should be trying to protect. I support the idea of campaigns to (re)connect people with nature when they have been driven apart by urbanisation or new technology, but for conservation itself to promote this disconnection is rather depressing. I would rather live in a world with a bit less biodiversity enjoyed by a lot more people in their daily lives than one in which rare species survive but most people hardly experience nature at all, other than through the TV. Unfortunately, most of us already live in this latter world, and much of the conservation movement seems to be in favour of it.


7 thoughts on “Separate yet connected: the spatial paradox of conservation

  1. Pingback: WORLD ORGANIC NEWS | Separate yet connected: the spatial paradox of conservation | Thinking like a human

  2. I enjoyed your blog post.
    I would emphasize another situation: where people’s everyday activities actually create and maintain biodiversity, higher biodiversity than wilderness. For example the millions of traditional farming families [3.5 million in Romania alone whose farming creates mosaic landscapes ideal for biodiversity.
    Separating these people from nature destroys biodiversity, livelihoods and food security.

  3. In Kenya, the rural people who live among the wildlife are not motivated for conservation because they experience the nuisance of elephants destroying their crops. It is the urban population that is campaigning for conservation. So sometimes the problem is not being disconnected from nature, but being too connected to it.

  4. You highlight an interesting dichotomy. Of course, some of both approaches is a possible option. Societies need to decide on the appropriate balance, and finding that might not be easy (reflecting mjehartog’s comment about elephants, for example).

  5. Pingback: SustainabLINKS April 30, 2015 - Achieving Sustainability

  6. An interesting post. I recently read the following article which seems to reaffirm the strategy you mentioned, of conservation as predicated on the separation of humans and nature (

    There certainly seems to be a distinction between ‘which’ humans are separated and ‘which’ are being re-connected with Nature. Problems with spatial separation of people from protected areas are being promoted in articles and through the work of organisations such as Survival International. Is/will this now act to re-connect people with an alternative notion of nature that includes closely-affiliated local/indigenous groups who inhabit such areas – who also should be included under conservation.

    This type of human –> human re-connection with nature would seem to be disruptive and contest Conservations ‘biodiversity first’ paradigm, do you see any potential consequences/further contradictions of this for the spatial paradox that you mention? …Might this in future reflect a public engagement with nature that seeks to undermine a biodiversity first paradigm?

  7. Pingback: The natural life: reframing the separation from nature debate | Thinking like a human

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