Conservation of nature has been a major theme in the modern U.S. environmental movement; but biodiversity continues to face threats, and conservation itself has been challenged. What ideas inform various positions on conservation? Below you’ll find an overview suggesting theme relevance, sample related axes, and an opportunity to take sides on this topic.
Biological conservation has been at the heart of American environmentalism for years. In many ways, people often associate environmentalism with the preservation and promotion of natural landscapes, and indeed, organizations such as Conservation International and fields such as conservation biology are prominent among many environmentalists. But, given challenges to effective conservation and debates around its place relative to other uses of natural resources, there are important ideas worth considering—ideas among those discussed as a part of EcoTypes.
Conservation resonates strongly with all three EcoTypes themes; let’s consider each in turn. For starters, the Place theme, by asking “What world do we want, and what would be the place of nonhumans vs. humans?,” fundamentally challenges us to consider our desires for, and obligations toward, the nonhuman realm on Earth. And there are differing answers! On the nonhuman pole, reflecting wild Aesthetics, biocentric Ethics, and pure Nature, the place of nonhumans is central and unassailable, whereas on the human pole of crafted Aesthetics, anthropocentric Ethics, and hybrid Nature, nonhumans have a place (or not!) in the larger context of a humanized world. But conservation seems to lean toward the nonhuman pole of Place, for understandable reasons.
The EcoTypes Knowledge theme is crucial to conservation too, in several ways. First, contemporary conservation has been built on scientific research in fields such as island biogeography, and even the application of new technologies for monitoring and managing species has gained interest. More fundamentally, though, the old vs. new Knowledge poles suggest quite different orientations toward biological conservation: on the new pole, for instance, mainstream Science and philic Technology approach conservation in ways that stress continued innovation, whereas on the old pole, the ideal Domain, sacred Spirituality, and past Time suggest an approach closer to conservation’s etymological roots in conserving things that modernity and progress have missed. Though the two poles seem to come together in fields such as ethnobotany, the tension between old and new approaches to Knowledge remains in both philosophical and practical questions related to conservation, with old Knowledge arguably playing a deeper cultural role in informing the spirit of conservation.
There could even be some relevance to the EcoTypes Action theme. Though most discussions of conservation involve government-scale action—e.g., that following passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973—or the efforts of international organizations such as the IUCN, many people want to know, for instance, how to make a bird-friendly backyard, or how to choose marine conservation-friendly seafood. But overall, the nonhuman Place and old Knowledge EcoTypes themes seem most central to how many people approach biological conservation.
Different takes on environmental topics may reflect differing takes on more fundamental environmental ideas. Below are a few of the EcoTypes axes related to this topic; these and other axes contribute to the larger theme-based patterns summarized above.
The EcoTypes Aesthetics axis may initially sound like it has nothing to do with conservation…until we admit how many people are drawn to wild places as beautiful. Are we choosing sites for conservation solely based on their biodiversity value, or—much like forested areas have historically been prioritized over wetlands—is beauty more our guide?
The EcoTypes Ecosystems axis has clear connections to conservation. Is conservation about maintaining ecosystem stability, or is it about managing ecosystem dynamism and change in ways beneficial to species? To conserve often implies the former—but if stability is not inherent to ecosystems, what does this mean for conservation?
The Ethics axis reminds us to reflect on why we are doing conservation: is it to honor the inherent value of nonhumans, or are there practical and even philosophical justifications for prioritizing human benefits of conservation? These two ethical approaches may lead us in differing conservation directions!
There is perhaps no more significant concept suffusing conservation than the EcoTypes Nature axis. To many—say, those who support Nature Needs Half—conservation is saving nature, pure and simple. But what sort of nature?: the Nature axis reminds us that nature means many things across the pure to hybrid spectrum.
Biological conservation often assumes a past orientation to the EcoTypes Time axis: indeed, the term is related to other past-oriented notions such as conservative. Think of restoration ecology, an important conservation practice that attempts to recreate lost ecosystems and habitats. Is this past orientation necessary? admirable? helpful?
Take sides on this topic! It’s best if you are randomly assigned to a side, or pick a side you disagree with, as the point here is to try on a different approach than you may have, and to consider how differing takes on EcoTypes axes and themes may result in differing positions on environmental topics.
Following this tab are three positions—by no means comprehensive, but this gets us beyond the back-and-forth of a pro/con two-position debate. The first position is the default one, in some ways supporting what those interested in environmental issues have learned as the best way to approach this topic. Then there are two more positions that challenge this default position and/or each other. In each case you’ll find some details to get you started, and guidance on how each position may relate to EcoTypes axes and themes (do review the general material above, and feel free to explore other connections not noted here). The last tab lists all publications cited in the position summaries.
You could approach these three positions as a traditional debate, with each side attempting to win. Or, you could approach these three positions as starting points for environmental engagement around their creative tensions, hopefully to get to deeper, more meaningful, possibly complementary disagreement.
Have fun! Remember to fully try on your position, whether or not you personally agree with it. It is easy to say “Each has a point,” and indeed each position presented here is worth serious consideration. But as you’ll discover there are important differences, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to make up your own mind in light of these differences.
Position One: Nature Needs Half
The default position is clear, and arguably intuitive: the best way to achieve conservation is to set aside large tracts of natural landscapes, and protect them from human interference. Though originally in the U.S. conservation also implied a more utilitarian-oriented approach to managing natural resources (Hays 1959), its more common understanding relates to, for instance, the U.S. national parks or wilderness movements.
You will defend this longstanding position via a more recent movement, typified in the Nature Needs Half coalition. Built in part on the “Half-Earth” efforts of a famous biologist and conservationist, E.O. Wilson (2016; 2017), the coalition proposes a clear goal: set aside half of the earth for conservation, and allow economic, settlement, and other human uses of remaining landscapes. This position has been developed in terms of current protected areas and resultant priorities (Dinerstein et al. 2017)—and has generated considerable discussion and controversy, as you will see in the next position (make sure to read those references too, as some bolster yours!). But, to hold to your default position, you can be helped by reminding us that Nature Needs Half already has many supporters across the biology, conservation, and environmental community.
It will help you to clarify and promote the EcoTypes axes and themes that best support Nature Needs Half. Consider, for instance, the pure Nature or past Time axes; or consider (as summarized above) the nonhuman Place and old Knowledge themes. These larger ideas resonate with, and will support, your Nature Needs Half proposal, as will related references such as Aldo Leopold’s famous Sand County Almanac (1949) and its land ethic essay, or Keeping the Wild (Wuerthner et al. 2014), a pure-Nature rejoinder to the hybrid-Nature notion of the Anthropocene. One recent call call by scientists in line with nonhuman Place was titled “Protect the last of the wild” (Watson et al. 2018).
Yes, there are questions and complexities, as you’ll see in the next two positions, but the broad-based compellingness of this position may argue for itself: conservation means saving nature, and one good compromise is to save half of the earth. Consider links in the summary above, and related resources, as you argue persuasively for our duty to save nature as central to conservation. Attempt to minimize deflections from positions two (argued primarily via the human Place pole) and three (a strong defense of hybrid Nature), and keep your audience focused on conservation as caring for the beauty, fragility, and needs of nature.
Position Two: Conservation Must Pay Attention to People
Recently a position has been advanced called “new conservation,” and it strongly challenges position one. The new vs. traditional conservation topic builds upon earlier debates (Miller et al. 2011), yet one foundational sketch of new conservation was provided by Kareiva and Marvier (2012) in response to a classic statement on conservation by Michael Soulé (1985). Soulé, for instance, characterized conservation biology as a “crisis discipline” built on principles such as “ecological complexity is good,” “evolution is good,” and “biotic diversity has intrinsic value” (p. 731), whereas Kareiva and Marvier prioritized “…pursuing conservation within working landscapes, rebuilding public support, working with the corporate sector, and paying better attention to human rights and equity” (p. 962). As you can hear, position two builds primarily on the human pole of the Place theme, in distinction to the nonhuman pole prioritized in position one; this is what you will defend (see also Kareiva et al. 2012). Note that both advocate conservation, but for different reasons and with differing priorities.
The differences between traditional and new conservation have been debated in ways that may help you distinguish your position. There is, for instance, an agree-to-disagree back and forth between Soulé (2013; 2014) and Kareiva (2014). Another debate, focused on the half-Earth proposal and evidencing new vs. traditional conservation, pitted the position “We question whether the increasingly popular, radical idea of turning half the Earth into a network of protected areas is either feasible or just” (Büscher et al. 2017a, 407) against “Intraspecies justice—justice for people— should not come at the expense of interspecies justice: the very existence of other species” (Cafaro et al. 2017, 400; see Büscher et al. 2017b for response).
New conservation resonates in many ways with what is called community-based conservation, typically considered in Third World contexts where biological conservation and economic development are both priorities (Berkes 2004; 2007; Western and Wright 2013). It also resonates with critiques of the classic environmentalist emphasis on wilderness (e.g., Guha 1989; Cronon 1995) as exclusive of humans.
There is a parallel debate between new and traditional conservation that may assist you, called land sparing vs. land sharing. Done primarily in the context of agricultural food production (Fischer et al. 2008; Phalan et al. 2011; Fischer et al. 2014; Kremen 2015; cf. Edwards et al. 2014), land sparing suggests that high-production agriculture maximizes room on other lands for conservation, whereas land sharing brings these objectives together on the same land via agroecological and other methods. Here, land sparing resonates with traditional conservation (though necessitating intensive agriculture), and land sharing could be argued to achieve the human-needs objectives of new conservation.
To defend this new conservation position, you would be well served by studying related EcoTypes axes and themes—in many instances, those that directly oppose the first position, e.g., hybrid vs. pure Nature or human vs. nonhuman Place. As you explore the readings above, you’ll see various flavors to new conservation, e.g., those that emphasis conflict Society or philic Technology. It may be easiest to characterize this range of positions in terms of what they commonly oppose—conservation as protecting nature from humans—rather than attend to their divergent details. Alternatively, sticking with how new conservation embodies the two multi-axis themes of human Place and new Knowledge may best serve you in concisely defending your position relative to the default position.
Position Three: There Is No Nature to Conserve
Some of position two (e.g., Kareiva et al. 2012) is built on the hybrid Nature notion of the Anthropocene. But, in general, new conservation does not problematize the distinction between humans and nonhumans; rather, it stresses the all-important human dimensions of biological conservation. This is not enough for position three here, where the very notion of nature is challenged. And, if there is no nature, clearly any sort of conservation—whether traditional or new—must be reassessed. This is the opportunity your third position presents.
To many people, position three is sort of like challenging three-dimensional reality: what possibly could be meant by “there is no nature”?? The groundwork for this position—essentially, an application of hybrid Nature to the topic of biological conservation—has long been laid in classic literature examining the thoroughly cultural and political history of the idea of nature (e.g., Glacken 1967, Williams 1980) and related notions such as biodiversity (Takacs 1996), and more recent inquiries similarly challenge the notion of nature, itself so obvious to so many people (e.g., Hayles 1995; Walley 2004; Swyngedouw 2011). Your defense of position three should not shirk from arguing that nature is, in effect, a useless and possibly harmful notion—yet remember that the critique of nature is also a critique of its binary opposite, culture. Hybrid nature suggests that the terms nature and culture no longer make sense (if they ever did).
If there is no nature apart from culture, no culture apart from nature, what new concepts should we deploy? One of the best known post-naturalist scholars is Bruno Latour, who has recommended a variety of notions such as democracy (2004), actor-network theory (2005), compositionism (2010), and multinaturalism (2011). To many, the Anthropocene is itself a hybrid replacement for nature (e.g., Proctor 2013; Wapner 2014).
And, then, does this mean that there should be no conservation? Position three does not argue against conservation—though some of its notable critics have accused it of doing so (Soulé and Lease 1995; cf. Proctor 1998). One scholar, Jamie Lorimer, has worked hard at redefining post-naturalist conservation, applying concepts including multinaturalism (2012) and, in a deceivingly simple way, wildlife (2015). In all such approaches, conservation has nothing to do with nature—what Latour once called “…that blend of Greek politics, French Cartesianism, and American parks” (2004, 5)—but rather with the very different, hybrid, entangled realities we find in our world today.
Here is another way to think of this position in terms of conservation implications. Michael Pollan has said, “We have divided our country in two, between the kingdom of wilderness, which rules about eight percent of America’s land, and the kingdom of the market, which rules the rest” (Pollan 1991, 189). What Pollan meant (adopting language from the EcoTypes Nature axis) was that common conceptions of nature as pure actually hurt conservation, by neglecting other landscapes we should also care about. This position is consistent with post-naturalism in suggesting that conceptual boundaries may limit our scope of action.
Position three is, however, admittedly abstract. Your best chance at defending it is to dismiss positions one and two as both based on an incorrect, inadequate, and possibly harmful understanding of reality. “Get real!” could be your metaphysical (not just practical) proposition as you debate the two possibly more understandable positions. Good luck!
As noted in the comprehensive bibliography here, all EcoTypes references are stored in a group Zotero library. Those below are the ones cited on this page.