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?




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

Rewilding the Wild Wood

It was a blustery afternoon in early spring, a few months after the Mole’s adventure in the Wild Wood. The short cold days of winter were gone. With them had passed the recollection of his fear on that expedition, when the Rat had brought him through the snow to the sanctuary of Badger’s house.

The Mole sat, now, in a comfortable chair in front of a cheery blaze.

‘Ratty’, he said tentatively, ’do you remember when you rescued me, when I was lost in the snow in Wild Wood?’

The Rat poked the coals ‘of course’, he said.

‘There were a lot of creatures in the wild wood’ said the Mole, ‘I saw them – or sort of saw them’, said the Mole cautiously.

‘Yes’, said the Rat.

‘I wondered what they were’ said the Mole in a small voice.

‘All sorts’, said the Rat, briskly. ‘Hedgehogs, shrews, squirrels, rabbits. Bats probably; voles’. He numbered them off on his fingers. ‘Lots of different kinds. Mostly pretty decent sorts.’ He hesitated. ‘And others, of course’. Continue reading

The natural life: reframing the separation from nature debate

An important theme in recent thinking about conservation has related to the question of whether people are becoming more separated from nature in various ways, and if so, what might be the implications. Several versions of this argument exist, including Richard Louv’s idea that a loss of contact with nature creates a kind of ‘nature deficit disorder’ among children, George Monbiot’s call for the re-wilding of human experience, and Michael Pollan’s critique of how factory farming severs links between people and nature that are mediated through food. Indeed, Peter Kareiva has said that an experiential separation from nature, as demonstrated through a decline in nature recreation “may well be the world’s greatest environmental threat”.

I have argued in a recent blog that there is a strange paradox in contemporary conservation practice which seems determined to create spatial separations between people and non-human nature, whilst lamenting the resulting emotional / experiential disconnection between the two. In this article, however, I want to focus on a deeper and more philosophical criticism of the ‘separation thesis’ – namely that a separation of people from nature is impossible because people are part of nature, and therefore cannot be separated from it. This line of criticism draws from longstanding arguments in philosophy about the relationship between humanity and the rest of life on earth, rejecting the dualistic view that humans and nature are two separate categories, and preferring instead to see society and nature as inextricably connected ‘socionatures’. This view emerges from academia, but is also a common feature of the non-western worldviews of many human groups around the world. Continue reading

Out of sight/site, out of mind: the challenge of studying what really matters in political ecology

According to Marx, a defining characteristic of capitalism is the way that the social relations involved in the production of commodities are obscured: he called this ‘commodity fetishism’, suggesting that we see commodities as ‘inanimate objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers’ (OED). So, for example, when we buy a cheap T-shirt or the latest gadget we can exist in a bubble of ignorance about the social and ecological consequences of their production. This allows us to carry on consuming, and capitalism to carry on churning out surplus value, without too many difficult questions being asked about things like labour rights or pollution.

Political ecology scholarship regularly, and rightly, calls attention to these hidden processes and seeks to shed light onto them. For example, a recent paper by Martin Arboleda argues that one cannot understand the dynamics of urban areas, with their towers of steel and glass and hyperconsuming citizens, without also understanding the connected dynamics that produce immense holes in the ground and gigantic livestock factories in distant rural locations, with all of their social and ecological consequences. The one could not exist without the other, and so to understand them, Alboreda argues that we must understand (and therefore conduct research in) both.

This is a compelling argument, but in practice it presents two important challenges. First, it isn’t always easy to know where to look for the concealed relations of fetishized commodities, precisely because they are so well hidden. Second, even where the concealed relations that go into the production of commodities can be uncovered, studying them in detail can be very difficult, requiring fieldwork in multiple locations and sometimes multiple languages. This work can also be fraught with potential danger, as the underbelly of capitalism can be reluctant to give up its secrets. Continue reading