The three most dangerous narratives in conservation

Emery Roe, an American policy scholar, first developed the idea that ‘narratives’ – stories about the world and how it works – are used in policy making processes to cut through complexity and justify a particular course of action. We are a storytelling species, and people find it easy to understand and get behind a compelling story with strong internal logic and a beginning, middle and end. Once a narrative has taken hold they can be very difficult to shake off, at least until an even more compelling ‘counter-narrative’ arrives on the scene. A classic example from resource governance is the ‘resources will be over-exploited unless they are in private ownership’ narrative, based on Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Tragedy of the Common’s article. It took decades of careful scholarship, and ultimately a nobel prize for Elinor Ostrom, to demonstrate that this narrative was compelling, influential, and wrong.

There are numerous narratives circulating within the conservation sector. Some are inspiring, some are innovative, some are misleading. However, there are some that are, in my view, potentially dangerous. These narratives sound convincing – that’s why they have become established – and they are significantly shaping conservation research and practice in the world today. They are not entirely false, but their ‘truth’ has become accepted as orthodoxy to the extent that they slip by almost unnoticed, without proper scrutiny. This leads whole areas of conservation activity down particular paths that I fear will not lead to a desirable destination.

The first dangerous narrative holds that “decision makers only care about money”. This belief underpins the tremendous lengths that (most of) the conservation sector has gone to over the last few decades to repackage and represent the value of nature in monetary terms. Alternative plausible arguments about the value of nature are set aside because they are thought to have no currency with those whose opinions matter (note the double-meanings of value and currency in this sentence and you can see how embedded monetary language is in English!). Some have argued that initial efforts to estimate the economic value of nature’s contribution to humans, such as Costanza et al’s 1997 paper in Nature, were intended only as a metaphor to grab the attention of money-obsessed decision makers. However, over time the metaphor has taken over the world. It has metamorphosed into a whole suite of instruments that seek to bring this notional value into being in the real economy – payments for ecosystem services, carbon taxes, biodiversity offset markets, and all the rest.

Of course these market-based approaches can have a positive impact, in some places and some of the time. However, there is plenty of evidence that decision makers, at all scales, are motivated by lots of different things. The monetary value of nature is one, especially in calculating costs and benefits of development. But it is not always the most important. Decision makers, like other people, can be motivated by beauty, rarity, risk, sentiment, ethics or principles.  Interestingly, I have heard a number of talks by senior conservation leaders over the last few years who have spoken of the power of taking politicians or captains of industry out to the field to learn about conservation (and sometimes poverty) issues. These speakers have emphasised the power of personal and emotional connection that comes from such visits, and the importance these leaders place on things like securing the future of the world their own children will inherit. Assuming that decisions always boil down to money is over simplistic and potentially counter-productive, particularly given the risks of monetary arguments for conservation actively crowding out alternative perspectives.

The second dangerous narrative holds that “X bad thing would have happened anyway, so anything to minimise the damage is a win for conservation.” This line of argument is particularly prevalent in the field of offsetting – both for biodiversity and carbon. From this perspective, losses of biodiversity caused by development, or carbon emissions caused by human activity, are a fact of life that cannot be altered. Once this is established it becomes logical to seek to minimise the harm of these activities, rather than to reverse them completely. In their brilliant paper on how offsetting reframes conservation, Elia Apostolopoulou and Bill Adams explain how by deploying this argument “offsetting ties conservation to land development and economic growth”, recasting conservation as an ally of development rather than its opponent. This shift seems subtle at first glance, but actually “implies acceptance of the inevitability of biodiversity loss”. As a result, the narrative normalizes biodiversity loss and supports strategies that adapt to this loss, instead of opposing it. There may be a strong case to say that this is the best we can do, but anyone promoting the “it would have happened anyway” narrative needs to understand where it leads.

Finally, the third narrative holds that “we can’t possibly change X, so we’ll have to change Y”. This narrative is a close relative of “it would have happened anyway”, in that it also encourages us to accept profoundly undesirable human activities as inevitable and off limits for intervention. A good example of how this narrative is deployed comes from thinking about human diets and sustainable farming. In various articles (e.g. this one), we are asked to accept as a given that ongoing increases in things like human meat consumption are fixed and certain. From that starting point, a chain of logic is presented to arrive at the conclusion that the only way to provide this meat without losing biodiversity is through the radical reshaping of global landuse and the agricultural system to create giant feedlots that can intensively produce meat on limited land while sparing more for agriculture. This logic may be sound given the assumptions (however unpleasant the consequences), but with the radical change that such articles call for, wouldn’t it make sense to at least take a look at those assumptions once again? Yes, tackling rising meat consumption will be difficult, but would it really be any more difficult than reorganising the entire global food and land allocation systems so that enough meat can be produced without losing biodiversity? I can’t help imagining a parallel (and equally plausible) study that starts with the opposite set of assumptions – i.e. ‘we can’t change global land use so we’ll have to change meat consumption’. It’s all a question of which hypothetical levers are to be pulled by the researcher, and which are considered to be locked in place. I would prefer to see all such levers placed into the “maybe we should think about pulling this?” category rather than accepted as fixed, as well as a lot more clarity from researchers about how they choose which policies are up for grabs (choices by which they wield considerable power).

So there you have it – my three personal conservation narrative bugbears. There may well be even worse narratives out there (please share yours below the line!), but these are the ones that I hear time and again and that most frustrate me. Each forecloses alternative ways of thinking, and in a sense each limits conservation’s potential to bring about truly transformational change. If we can’t see beyond money, and we can’t imagine alternatives to what seems fixed in place, how will conservation ever make more than a trivial difference for, and to, life on Earth?

 

 

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23 thoughts on “The three most dangerous narratives in conservation

  1. The ‘no jobs on a dead river’ narrative to demonise agriculture, in particular irrigated agriculture, and justify ignoring the socioeconomic cost of shutting down irrigated agriculture to improve river health. It assumes the only way to get better environmental outcomes is to impose hardship on rural communities. The logic is also that jobs in agriculture and local service industries and food processing must be sacrificed in order to have healthy rivers. So logically, no jobs on a healthy river either. This binary thinking closes off a myriad of other solutions, and alienated the very people who need to be on side in conservation, the land users.

  2. Several people on Twitter have offered excellent ideas for other dangerous narratives that could have been featured in this article. I’ve copied them here so more people can see them:

    Stephen Woroniecki: Nice article. I was surprised to not see something like ‘Humans and nature are separate, and the best way of protecting the latter is to reinforce that separation’

    Niki Rust: For me: 1⃣”We can’t change how many kids people have in rich countries so we’ll ignore the issue & pretend it doesn’t matter”, 2⃣”There’s nothing wrong with rich white conservationists taking jobs off poor locals”, 3⃣”Locals can’t be trusted to look after their wildlife”

    Karen Wong: Nice. I’d add the overpopulation narrative as a threat for conservation vs the role of consumption patterns. I’m always amazed by the amount of people who truly think that by not having kids they’re helping more the planet than by changing their luxurious consumption patterns.

    Louise Glew: Interesting piece. My three: 1. “Approach X works in place Y so is a silver bullet everywhere” , 2. “We can’t possibly measure that, so we won’t measure anything that could remotely proxy for it.” 3. “Ecosystem services are the only way conservation affects people”

    Michaela Roberts: Good discussion on the diffuculties of balancing conservation messages. If I might add my own dangerous narrative: “Local People” don’t care about/understand the biodiversity on their doorstep and foreign “experts” are the best people to come in and show them how.

    • Advocates of monetising nature will often say ‘Traditional conservation has failed to halt the decline of biodiversity over the past 50 years, so we have to do something else’

      • Scott H identified a dangerous narrative ‘Traditional conservation has failed to halt the decline of biodiversity over the past 50 years, so we have to do something else’
        One reason it has been dangerous is that it promotes the simplistic idea that past biodiversity conservation efforts did not take into account human needs, costs, etc. This leads to a neglect of lessons from the past, and promotes the harmful new-paradigm-each-week affliction. I discuss this problem of false histories and neglected histories in biodiversity conservation in a new paper in Ecology and Society https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol23/iss2/art40/

  3. I am also thinking about the “I recycle, therefore I can drive and fly and eat meat and … without thinking about the consequences.” The recycling culture is great, and we need that, but for many people it stops there.

  4. One that most “conservationists” here would probably disagree with. “local people clearing their forests for agrilculture are stupid and irrational beings”. . In Madagascar, a famous singer would assimilate it to “spitting while laying flat on the back”, which is the he English equivalent of “cut off the nose to spite the face”.

  5. Great blog. Always good to challenge assumptions about what we can and can’t aspire to change. So many frustrating examples of “We can’t possibly change X so we’ll have to change Y”. I’m not sure how many people believe decision-makers only care about money. If that was the case we wouldn’t be charging towards Brexit. I think there is a stronger case to suggest that, in the final analysis, many decision-makers only care about power. If that is the case we need to mobilise more voices to speak up for the natural world, but it may always be the case that for most people there are more immediate concerns such as jobs and healthcare. I think that is why so many conservationists have moved towards trying to turn the environment into a currency that can compete with these priorities. If that is doomed to fail, we face an uphill struggle. But then, nobody said it was going to be easy.

  6. Great post, Chris! Smart and thought-provoking. With nice pointers to extra reading. On sabbatical this year and want to use the time to learn more about ideas like these on the SS conservation cutting edge, so thank you, this provides a good start as does your recent work. May get in touch for more suggestions. Kathy H from SSWG board

  7. “We’ve tried ‘love’ and it doesn’t work.” No we haven’t ever looked at the love of ecologies with any serious intent. Love; nurturing and devotion ~ fluminism, the proliferation of diversity and abundance in the everyday-ness of our lives. It can be deliberately nurtured in our culture. Egalitarian ecoliteracy is an example of that kind of ethic of care.

  8. Thanks Chris for this stimulating piece. However I think one of the dangerous narratives in conservation is the rise of voices AGAINST natural capital and monetising of nature as a tool to protect and preserve the environment under the current economic system. Scott H posted above that ‘Traditional conservation has failed to halt the decline of biodiversity over the past 50 years, so we have to do something else’ which is right but he doesn’t say why he disagrees with this.

    The danger in dismissing natural capital approaches is that this plays in to a binary approach to problem solving. The environment is part of a complex system which like it or not is bound up intrinsically with human development and wellbeing. Solving the issue of reducing the scale of our impact on the biosphere will necessitate a range of solutions.

    Natural capital one might argue is the only adaptive approach to our current economic system, which isn’t going to change radically very soon. Of course we need to be innovative and find new ways to live and do business with each other, and there are many organisation around the world doing great work exploring these transformative pathways

  9. Reblogged this on Web of Life and commented:
    My reply to Chris:
    Thanks Chris for this stimulating piece. However I think one of the dangerous narratives in conservation is the rise of voices AGAINST natural capital and monetising of nature as a tool to protect and preserve the environment under the current economic system. Scott H posted above that ‘Traditional conservation has failed to halt the decline of biodiversity over the past 50 years, so we have to do something else’ which is right but he doesn’t say why he disagrees with this.

    The danger in dismissing natural capital approaches is that this plays in to a binary approach to problem solving. The environment is part of a complex system which like it or not is bound up intrinsically with human development and wellbeing. Solving the issue of reducing the scale of our impact on the biosphere will necessitate a range of solutions.

    Natural capital one might argue is the only adaptive approach to our current economic system, which isn’t going to change radically very soon. Of course we need to be innovative and find new ways to live and do business with each other, and there are many organisation around the world doing great work exploring these transformative pathways

  10. Pingback: Another Dangerous Narrative In Conservation | Web of Life

  11. We have an “and it all ends happily ever after” narrative of bringing species back from the brink of extinction here in New Zealand. These stories follow the beats of a fairy tale exactly, with heroic scientists and valiant small birds fighting together against all odds to rescue a species. And even though no-one ever uses the “happily ever after” words in the ending of the story, the narrative form of the fairy take is so ingrained into our culture that the public assumes it. And the public then assumes that we can use these same conservation actions that work on small forest dwelling passerines on other, equally endangered species.

  12. Love this piece and the thinking and comments that have ensued. I’d love to survey conservationists on their ‘top three dangerous and top three effective narratives for conservation’. I’d love to explore something like this further with you Chris. The nature/human divide still resonates with me as a challenge and I believe that such perceptions can be driven from the accumulation of the dangerous narratives mentioned in your piece. Driving behavioural change continues to be an important factor to tackle human driven threats to conservation – such work can also help change assumptions over time with evidence of success in such campaigns.

  13. In my opinion, one is the anthropocene narrative that places humans, a general homogeneous entity, as the cause of environmental destruction. Two, is the nature:culture separation narrative that dissociates biodiversity conservation from the local communities livelihoods. Three, is the positivist objectification of nature, claiming that knowledge is attained exclusively by logic analytical reasoning, dismissing the relational and emotional dimensions of human-environment interactions.

  14. Thought-provoking and timely reminder! These narratives have more implications on poor nations with rich biodiversity, where little knowledge often turns to dangerous things. The best example I can share from this region is that ‘human-wildlife conflict is natural and existed from times immemorial’.

  15. Thanks for this – worth looking at metaphors underpinning these narratives – what happens when you change ‘development’ for ‘settlement’ – Lakoff & Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.
    The artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison talk about each place being the story of its own becoming…

  16. Great post! As an applied ecologist working within the ecosystem services framework, I particularly responded to your first narrative. I think the ES concept is an exceptionally useful approach to engaging human communities with nature protection, but it has been misunderstood/misinterpreted so many times, and the easiest approach (ie economic analysis) has dominated. This doesn’t mean that monetary value is the core purpose of the concept, but it has unfortunately clouded many people’s views.

  17. Pingback: 20th June 2018: A world of wounds? – Natural storytelling

  18. Here’s a simple one Chris – ‘if you’re not with me, that means you are against me’. Conservation driven by dogmatic ideology fails both humans and wildlife. Meet up one day and time to widen this discussion beyond ivory towers of academia (nothing personal, but Bill Sutherland will know what I mean),
    best

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