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.