Old conservation, new conservation, true conservation

Should conservation science be united against the common enemy?

I was reminded of that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian by the old conservation / new conservation debate that recently boiled up in some conservation journals (see, e.g. Doak – What is the future of conservation, Soule – The “New Conservation”, Marvier – New conservation is true conservation) as well as in the blogoshpere. The labels “old/new conservation” are maybe new to some, but the debate probably isn’t: in the “old days” of conservation (say 70ies to 80ies), emphasis was placed on the existence right of nature, on preserving what is there, and on wilderness. Nature for nature’s sake. In the 90ies there was a transition to a more human-centered justification for the protection of nature, championed by the ecosystem ecosystem service (ES) approach. The latter can be stretched to include “existence values”, i.e. the fact that humans may choose to value the existence of a species or an ecosystem without any immediate gains from it. However, the ES view still constitutes a paradigm shift in that the origin of nature’s value resides in the appreciation of humans, and not in nature itself. I think in the end it is this point that creates the largest discomfort among “old conservationists”.

There are things to be said in favor of either approach – in fact, my first point is that probably most of those have already been said decades or centuries ago, because

1) There is nothing special about this debate compared to other big societal decisions: going to war, respecting fundamental human rights, organization of the state. One can argue these debates based on utilitarian approaches to moral reasoning (the ES approach) or based on other schools of moral philosophy. Neither approach is logically inconsistent. In the end, it’s a matter of values and negotiation in a society which approach is taken.

I miss seeing that spelled out clearly. Instead, the conversation in ecology centers around which type of message will be more successful, as if we were running an advertisement agency. Thus my second point

2) We should move away from discussing conservation approaches in terms of how successful they are in convincing people of the necessity of conservation, and instead first discuss in more detail what we want, and thus what we want to conserve.

You may say we know already what to conserve – everything, right? Well, here’s a fact: we are approaching 9 bn people in one or two generations, who all want to eat and go on holidays. I can’t conceive a societal and economic trajectory that will get us through there without any further scratches to the environment. We can still steer the boat in one or the other direction, but everything is not on the menu. We will have to make some hard choices. Which leads to my last point

3) It matters which approach to deciding on the value of nature we take, and it’s an illusion to say that all approaches work best together.

Sure, old conservation and new conservation both prefer saving everything if you can have it. But if you can’t, their recommendations may differ considerably. It seems intuitive to me that the latter is correct, because both approaches have quite a different reasoning to start with. But if you need convincing, think of the debate about novel ecosystems – if you could prove that an ancient ecosystem like the flora of New Zealand could be replaced by introduced species without any loss of ES, would it be OK to “let it go”? As a hard core ES follower, you might well argue that way. My point is not that YOU WOULD, but that ONE COULD, and that probably SOMEONE WILL once ES become the leading rationale in environmental legislation.

In summary, I agree it’s folly indeed to fight about nuances instead of attacking the common enemy.

However, I don’t think the old conservation vs. new conservation debate is just about nuances. The recurring claim that ES just give the same message in a language that policy makers understand may turn out to be a grave mistake. ES are a different rationale. And following this rationale might ultimately lead to different actions. I’m not saying that adapting this rationale it’s the wrong choice – smart persons have defended both sides for centuries when other political problems were discussed. But I think we should be clear about the fact that going for one or the other side is a choice that matters, and that the debate about if and when we apply either rationale for environmental protection should not be brushed away by arguments of “whatever works best”, or “in the face of the common enemy”.

3 thoughts on “Old conservation, new conservation, true conservation

  1. Pingback: Friday links: what’s flipped learning anyway?, bad null models, peer reviewers vs. lightbulbs, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Pingback: Are the niches of anthropocentric and biocentric conservationists really complementary? | theoretical ecology

  3. Pingback: Leopold and “New Conservation” – Conservation Biology Book Prompts

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