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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