« Return to this article

Know the West

Species conservation is a human problem

Writer Michelle Nijhuis synthesizes the story of modern-day conservation in her new book ‘Beloved Beasts.’

Journalist Michelle Nijhuis crystallizes the human urgency around conservation in her new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. Despite its title, the book is anchored in the narratives of the people, not just the other living creatures, who have shaped the last century or so of the conservation movement. 

In luminous and detailed prose, Nijhuis, who has written for HCN for more than two decades and is a contributing editor for the magazine, charts the ongoing story of the conservation movement, and its pivotal characters. There have been victories and major disappointments, and Nijhuis doesn’t shy away from the dark side, including a legacy of eugenics and settler-colonialism. For her, acknowledging such complexity is essential to the future of conservation — if it is to be successful.

 

The book is a series of profiles, presented chronologically, of the movement’s most significant players and the wildlife they sought to save. Though the historical record that Nijhuis chronicles is messy — sprawling across several eras, geographies and species — her writing is direct and intimate, keeping the reader close throughout. At the book’s outset, she raises the question: “Why should any of us make sacrifices, even in the short term, to ensure the persistence of other species on the planet?” The answer presents itself as Nijhuis delves into the stories of those who spent their lives wrestling with that same question, uncovering the ways in which all species depend on one another.

High Country News recently sat down with Nijhuis, who lives on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and writes and edits for the likes of The Atlantic, National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine. She discussed how her work for HCN influenced Beloved Beasts, the evolution of her thinking on conserving species and why it’s important to reckon with the conservation movement’s troubled past. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Journalist Michelle Nijhuis.
Darcy Hunter

High Country News: How did you decide to write a book about the conservation movement and species preservation?

Michelle Nijhuis: I’ve always been interested in the backstory of the conservation controversies that I wrote about at High Country News and then elsewhere. But a few years ago, I started to think that there might be value in revisiting that history, and in trying to put it together in a way that was accessible to people both inside and outside of the conservation movement. Even professional conservationists don’t know that much about their history, and if they do, they tend to think of it as a procession of iconic figures who didn’t necessarily talk to each other. They don’t have a sense of it as a movement that developed ideas over time and has had successes and failures.

Species, for better or worse, have always been the fundamental unit of conservation in the sense that they’re the basis of many of our conservation laws; they’re the emotional currency of the environmental movement in many ways. 

HCN: Was there anything specific about the reporting for HCN that influenced your thinking as you wrote Beloved Beasts?

MN: My time at High Country News took me to places where I think many professional conservationists never get to go. I got to go to small Western towns of every description, on reservations, off reservations, in mountains, in the desert. ... I got to talk to people of all inclinations. So High Country News just gave me a much more complex understanding of the challenges for conservation, and made me understand that it’s a human problem. Conservation biology and the science of ecology have taught us so much about what other species need to survive. The challenge for conservation is to figure out how humans can provide those things.

HCN: There are so many instances of injustice in the modern world — racial injustice, poverty, slavery, etc. — why choose to write about the loss of biodiversity? How does that connect to human injustices?

MN: Conservation is a practice that is so fundamental to our survival as a species, and I wanted to wrestle with the movement, and try to assess where it’s been and where it’s going. I knew that conservation — or I should say, certain conservationists — have espoused views that we would now consider reprehensible: there’s a history of racism in the conservation movement, of colonialism. These are certainly not universal histories, but they are recurrent threads in the conservation movement. By looking at those closely — by surfacing them and trying to look at how they affect conservation strategy now — we have an opportunity to bring conservation more in alignment with social justice, with climate justice, with a lot of other movements that are important today, and to more fully recognize that we are, at the broadest level, all fighting for the same thing.

We have an opportunity to bring conservation more in alignment with social justice, with climate justice... and to more fully recognize that we are, at the broadest level, all fighting for the same thing.

HCN: How do those threads of colonialism and eugenics resonate today, in the modern conservation world? How should this knowledge shape our actions moving forward?

MN: There have been a whole variety of actions taken by conservationists over the years that range from just simply obtuse to actively harmful to other societies. I think the thing that ties those all together is the lack of appreciation for human complexity. The worst form that has taken is an assumption that people of other races or people of other nationalities are somehow less complex than one’s own race or nationality, and therefore their concerns can be somehow dismissed, or they can be oppressed in some way.

The more subtle form that takes it is a more general assumption that humans are only a destructive force on the environment. Those assumptions have certainly led to harm against people. But, speaking more generally, they’re counterproductive, because they exclude so many people from the conservation movement. There’s a lot of willingness and a lot of interest in the conservation movement right now in looking back at its history, in looking at the roots of some of those assumptions and historical oversights, and trying to change their strategies, or trying to rid the influence of those assumptions from their current strategies — to think about all humans in a more sophisticated, more complex way.

Courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

HCN: Is it possible to have a conservation movement that’s centered on the survival and beneficence of nonhuman animals rather than humans themselves? What would that look like?

MN: Over the last decade or so, there’s been an ongoing debate in conservation circles about (whether) conservation (should) be about saving species for their own sake, or about saving species for what they can provide — the tangible and intangible benefits they can provide to humans.

I feel like the more relevant question is: How can we reduce the cost of conservation for everyday people? How can we reduce those short-term costs and increase the benefits that people get from conservation, whether those be emotional or financial, so that there’s a more equitable balance of burdens and benefits? Most people do want to protect their neighboring species from extinction. I think the job of conservation is to make it possible for people to act on what I think is a very widespread care for the long-term health of other species.

HCN: The narrative around conservation is often one of scarcity, loss and despair. But your book doesn’t settle on those themes, opting instead for a hopeful message. How do the ideas of hope and possibility factor into your thinking about conservation?

We can try to put ourselves in the shoes of people who lived before us.

MN: From where we stand today, things look pretty dark. There’s no doubt that we are going to lose more species, we are going to lose more habitats, we’re going to face more global crises. One of the benefits of a historical perspective is that we can try to put ourselves in the shoes of people who lived before us.

They did what they thought was right, and they kept doing it, even though they had plenty of reasons to think that it wouldn’t have any positive effects at all. (Beloved Beasts includes the story of Michael Soulé, for example, whose research on genetic variation within lizard populations helped reveal the importance of biodiversity and eventually inspired the creation of a new discipline, conservation biology.)

We can take some hope, if you want to call it hope, from that perspective. We don’t have any guarantee — no one ever has — that what we do is going to make a difference, (but) our job is to keep doing it. As people who care about the future generally, maybe the thing we can look for is not so much hope, but resolve, and a commitment to the process of change and to finding that resolve wherever we can.

Surya Milner is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.