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?




Conservation and the final frontier

A few weeks ago I settled down to watch a BBC TV programme called The 21st Century Race for Space, hosted by celebrity physicist and one-time pop star Brian Cox. I had spent all day thinking about conservation at work, and was looking for a bit of escapism. In the programme Cox spent a lot of time ogling large shiny spacecraft in even larger hangars in the Nevada desert, putting on space suits and visiting simulated mars colonies. It was like a Top Gear special all about space rockets.

One of the striking things about the programme was the people that Cox was able to talk to. He had 1:1 interviews with Dennis Tito (the first space tourist), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon and owner of Blue Origin, a ‘spaceflight services company’), and Richard Branson (founder of Virgin and owner of Virgin Galactic). He tried to get Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and owner of SpaceX) but had to settle for some guy who had once met him at a party.

These billionaires are revolutionising space innovation by moving it from being the exclusive preserve of state organisations (such as NASA) to the hands of private enterprise. They have extraordinary ambition – not just to advance our civilisation into space, but to make money while doing so. Bezos in particular spoke with fanatical zeal about the opportunity to provide a whole new canvas for human innovation and economic growth off our planet. Scholars of capitalism would recognise this as the ultimate spatial fix – capital seeking new frontiers for expansion in space (outer and virtual) once the possibilities on Earth are exhausted.

I found all this very interesting, but what really got my attention was when the subject unexpectedly turned to conservation. Several of the interviewees described their plans as part of a conservation strategy – both for biodiversity on Earth in general and human survival in particular (their arguments are very usefully summarised in this article from which I sourced some of the quotes below). This idea of ‘conservation through space travel’ builds on some thinking put forward by Stephen Hawking recently when he said “the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive. With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious”. Continue reading

PristinePark2.0™: the future of offsetting?

A group of smartly dressed executives stands on a viewing platform, looking out over a verdant forest teeming with wildlife. A waiter glides among the party topping up glasses of champagne, while another offers elaborate canapés. A man steps forward and claps his hands.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as Chief Executive of Conservation plc, may I welcome you to this exclusive viewing of the wonderful place that we call PristinePark2.0™. You have been carefully chosen to have the first opportunity to visit this paradise, and to purchase a stake in it. But first, let me tell you our story. Continue reading

The rise and fall of biodiversity

All around the world, biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate. From an all-time peak in 2003, it has lost an incredible 40% in just over a decade. Although it is clinging on in certain places, the situation seems to be dire. How much longer can biodiversity survive?

This story sounds familiar to conservationists who are bombarded daily with depressing news about the biodiversity crisis. But in fact these statements have nothing to do with declines in the diversity of life on earth – they are about the use of the word ‘biodiversity’ itself. The statistics above are taken from Google Trends, a tool monitoring relative interest in general google search terms over time. Entering ‘biodiversity’ into this service reveals a steady decline between 2004 and 2008, followed by a fairly steady state since then.


So what is going on? Why did ‘biodiversity’ become so popular in the first place, why has interest in it been declining since 2003, and what might all this mean for the future of the conservation movement? Continue reading

Weak yet strong: the uneven power relations of conservation

Over the summer I have been lucky enough to go to various meetings and events (particularly the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Madison, US and the Cecil Summit in Oxford) that have exposed me to unfamiliar examples of conservation practice around the world. A consistent theme running through much of what I have learned is the importance of the power relations between conservation and other actors, and how much these affect conservation thinking and practice. This in itself is not surprising, but what has really struck me is that there are two different, and seemingly contradictory, narratives about conservation and power in circulation.   Continue reading

The myth of win-win in arguments for conservation

The last few years have seen an intensification in the long running debate about the underlying rationale(s) for biodiversity conservation. In Georgina Mace’s terminology, is conservation about nature for itself, nature despite people, nature for people, or people and nature?

Some argue that there is no need to make choices here – conservationists should simply select the appropriate tool from the menu of rationales available to them to fit their particular needs. For example, a recent paper by Richard Pearson argues that different rationales should be applied to justify conservation depending on the spatial extent and biological level of the thing to be conserved. So, arguments about the benefits to people from pollination services apply well for populations of honeybees at the local scale, whereas arguments about existence value apply well to charismatic species that are globally threatened. Continue reading

Conservation impact evaluation: the right answers, but only some of the right questions?

It seems that impact is everywhere at the moment. Is our research having impact? Is our teaching having impact? Are conservation actions having the intended impact? These are very important questions, but they are also very difficult to answer, particularly when the things we hope to affect are complex processes that are terribly difficult to untangle (the policy making process, the career development of alumni, or the trajectories of socioecological systems).

Last week Professor Paul Ferraro from Johns Hopkins visited Cambridge as the Humanitas Visiting Professor in Sustainability Studies. Paul is a world leader in analysing the impact of conservation interventions, and a strong advocate of quantitative analysis that properly accounts for things like selection bias in treatments (e.g. the location of protected areas is non-random and this should be considered in impact evaluation). He is in the vanguard of a growing industry of people doing similar work, which increasingly fills the pages of the conservation science journals. To me, this research is fascinating and provides important insights that often challenge widely-held assumptions about things like the relationship between protected areas and poverty. Continue reading