Some words in defense of “old” conservation

Deep in the Bewani Mountains, Papua New Guinea, in 2010. The range, an isolated pocket of montane habitat surrounded by lowland rainforest, has never seen a comprehensive biological survey.

The May 12th issue of the New Yorker (available here from the E.O. Wilson Foundation) features an article by D.T. Max, profiling The Nature Conservancy (TNC) CEO Mark Tercek, and more broadly detailing a rift in the conservation community that has arisen over the past decade or so. The rift, between so-called “new” and “old” schools of conservation thought, is of great interest to me, both in its intellectual and personal implications.

Briefly put, the rift has arisen between two ideological strains within the greater movement. On the one hand, “new” conservation (best embodied by Tercek, TNC Chief Scientist Peter Karieva, Stuart Brand) moves away from traditional modes of land protection to emphasize “sustainability”, less strident rhetoric and inclusivity (particularly courting urban populations), climate change, and works to create partnerships in the corporate world (this is a particular focus of the Max article). On the other hand, “old” conservation (best embodied by Michael Soulé, Dave Foreman, E.O. Wilson, Reed Noss) puts primacy on biodiversity, and the permanent protection of land parcels selected for their biodiversity value — national parks, wilderness areas, refuges.

Despite these ostensibly aligned goals — and let me emphasize off the bat these goals are all good things, in theory — debate between these factions has proved acrimonious. “Old” conservationists accuse “new” conservationists of being conciliatory, of supporting a water-down, domesticated version of nature, wherein (to quote Michael Soulé) “wild places and national parks [are replaced] with domesticated landscapes containing only nonthreatening, convenient plants and animals.” “New” conservationists in turn accuse the old guard of being unrealistic, unpragmatic, misanthropic, perhaps racist.

There is, of course, truth to some of these claims. We need novel solutions. Historically, nature preserves (notably in Africa) have been created with utter disregard for indigenous inhabitants. The old guard of conservation, mostly pioneers from the emergence of conservation biology as a science in the 1980s, are a uniformly white, over-educated, privileged lot (Soulé, Noss, Wilson). But then again, so are Tercek and his ilk, so I’m not sure this criticism carries much weight, at least as a reason to choose one camp over the other.

So goes the synopsis. But why is this relevant to me and this blog? Because I am at once a member of the generation that has come to understand environmentalism almost solely in terms of “new” conservation as an ideology (the urban-chicken, web-activist, composting set) and yet grew up ensconced in “old” conservation culture, courtesy of my parents’ professions. And ultimately, it is the latter set of values, not the former, where my sympathies lie.

I read Peter Karieva and Michelle Marvier’s (notable nü-conservationists) textbook on ‘Conservation Science’ during a seminar class in 2012. My dislike of it was immediate. From its cover (featuring a monoculture — a rice paddy) to its passive-agressive jabs at conservation biologists (not a holistic enough field, apparently, for the authors), the book grated. Moreso did an infamous article by the same authors entitled Conservation in the Anthropocene. To quote one of its defining passages: “…instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.”

In other words, conservation should be guided by our own self-interest. In my mind, nü-conservation as a package reeks of intellectual and moral laziness: we are nature, ergo everything we do helps nature, ergo there is no need to modify our behavior. (Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity posts a great rebuttal here.) But more important to picking a side than simply disliking this approach, I feel a strong allegiance to the word view and values of the old guard. Values that are distinctly lacking in environmentalism’s post-modern iteration. To again quote Michael Soulé, from the Max article: “It’s emotional…I don’t mind admitting that I’ve just always been in love with wild nature.”

This is the reason I wanted to become a biologist as a grade schooler, why I’ve signed off the next 5 years of my life chasing a Ph.D., probably even the reason I run too much. But I sense little room in the self-professedly “inclusive” tent of nü-conservation for non-anthropocentric world views, and little to inspire the requisite passion for conservation in a movement to protect convenient species in domesticated landscapes while dismissing conservation of our relictual wildlands as “misanthropic.”

All of which may come of as an arcane, academic, inconsequential debate. But it matters to me, and if it matters to you, too, I’d like to hear from you.
The results of illegal logging operations in the Bewani foothills await export in Vanimo, Papua New Guinea. It’s a sad cliché, but we’re losing species before we even know they exist.


One thought on “Some words in defense of “old” conservation

  1. I sympathize with your attachment to “old” conservationism (what I will call “bio-conservatism”), but I think it is important, at least provisionally, to distinguish between bio-conservatism as a scientific exigency and conservationism as a political cause. As the study of extant life forms, biology has a strictly scientific stake in conservation. As you say, innumerable species are going extinct before having been become the objects of biological investigation. That does not necessarily mean that the possibility of acquiring knowledge of those species is forever lost, but it does mean that the interval separating biology from, say, paleontology is rapidly narrowing. The destruction of unstudied habitats endangers biology itself.

    The political implications of this are ambiguous. On the one hand, biology should have no intrinsic stake in the continued existence of any particular life form once complete knowledge of that life form has been achieved. On the other hand, biology’s political neutrality vis-à-vis the present state of the biosphere is merely an ideal. Biology will never achieve “complete” knowledge of any species, even the most familiar. The bio-conservative imperative must therefore demand the unconditional preservation of all already-existing life forms.

    One might protest that bio-conservatism, so construed, is excessively anthropocentric (since it measures the worth of a species in terms of the knowledge it has bequeathed to humanity) or deeply misanthropic (since it takes no particular interest in the well-being of the human race). Both complaints are understandable, but neither is justified. Bio-conservatism is a scientific exigency; it has nothing more to say, politically, than: life must remain alive so that it may be known. What should be done with that knowledge, and whether its acquisition is a good thing in the first place—these are political and ethical questions, not scientific ones.

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