How faith plays into the new conservation debate

Two sides call a truce, at least for now.

  • A diver and thriving marine life at the bow of the USS Saratoga at Bikini Atoll. The ship sank during underwater bombing tests conducted by the U.S. military in the Marshall Islands.

    Reinhard Dirscherl/Visualphotos

In November, 240 scientists figuratively joined hands to sign an opinion piece in the journal Nature, hoping to move beyond internal dissent about the best way to protect wild things — an age-old conservation debate that has resurfaced with renewed intensity in recent years.

The commentary was co-authored by Heather Tallis, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy, and Jane Lubchenco, a renowned Oregon State University marine ecologist. In it, they accused their colleagues of promoting a false dichotomy: that we must conserve biodiversity either for its own sake or largely to benefit people. Instead, they argued, conservation science should embrace “a unified and diverse conservation ethic; one that recognizes and accepts all values of nature, from intrinsic to instrumental, and welcomes all philosophies justifying nature protection and restoration, from ethical to economic, and from aesthetic to utilitarian.”

On the surface, this might seem obvious. Certainly for some of the signatories, it was an affirmation of a higher truth: People value biodiversity and wild places for many different reasons. But after more than 25 years as an analyst for the federal government and conservation groups and consultant to private foundations, I suspect that the fundamental conflict remains, especially for those who consider wild, naturally functioning ecosystems sacred. Nature commentary or no, they believe that putting humans at the center of biodiversity conservation will ultimately destroy Earth’s coevolved Eden.

This divide has existed for many decades — at least since the days when Gifford Pinchot, the nation’s first forestry chief, promoted sustainable use while preservationist John Muir championed national parks. But it emerged with renewed intensity in 2011, with the publication of Emma Marris’ book Rambunctious Garden. Marris, a journalist, points out an awkward truth about modern conservation: Maintaining the “wildness” of a pre-European ideal takes a heck of a lot of artificial management. She notes, for example, that the National Park Service employs 16 exotic species management teams spread across hundreds of parks. And this kind of conservation will require even more heavy-handedness as the climate changes. Do we help species migrate to new locations, or do we let them sort it out themselves? Marris’ solutions are more utilitarian than reverent. Novel, human-influenced ecosystems involving non-native species can be valuable, she believes, providing benefits such as habitat for endangered species, protection for soil and shade for vulnerable seedlings. Instead of fighting the constantly changing natural world, she urges conservationists to embrace it and find ways to make it work. 

Rambunctious Garden caused a stir among traditional conservation biologists, most of whom seek to preserve a wild state of nature rather than prune it. The debate really caught fire in early 2012, when Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, published a provocative essay for the Breakthrough Institute with his colleague, Robert Lalasz, and University of California-Santa Clara environmental science professor Michelle Marvier. Current approaches to conservation have failed to stem the loss of biodiversity, they charged, despite a tenfold increase in the number of protected areas worldwide since 1950.

In the David and Goliath struggle between nature and people, people will always win. -Michael Soulé

Like Marris, they argued that preserving nature while the planet adds billions of people will require greater conservation focus on working landscapes –– the farms, timber lots and urban areas that are currently gobbling up space. But they bumped up the rhetoric, criticizing protected areas for displacing indigenous people, scolding icons like Henry David Thoreau for being hypocrites and challenging the notion that nature is fragile. (They noted, for example, that Bikini Atoll, the site of atomic bomb testing in 1954, supports more coral species now than it did before the bombing.)

The conservation movement has pitted people against nature, they claimed, and in the process, alienated would-be supporters. Environmentalists need to move beyond their focus on protecting biodiversity to providing ecosystem services, working with corporations to integrate the value of nature into their practices, and enhancing natural systems that benefit people to promote economic development for all. Doing otherwise, they stated, is unethical, given the billions living in poverty.

Traditional conservation biologists, who seek to preserve biodiversity, found these ideas heretical. Michael Soulé, professor emeritus at the University of California-Santa Cruz, shot back in the pages of Conservation Biology, a journal he helped found, calling Kareiva’s approach “a radical departure from conservation.” Soulé denounced the move away from protecting nature for its own sake and replacing wild places and national parks with domesticated landscapes. In a flurry of follow-up papers, he and others argued that the “self-centered dogma” of a human-centric approach and the false idol of limitless economic growth would fail to protect natural ecosystems in a world with finite resources. Their arguments were partly scientific but also reflected a fundamental disagreement over core values.

Current research, according to Soulé, supports the connection between biodiversity and ecosystem stability and productivity. Even if a damaged ecosystem can recover, extinction is permanent. But the arguments also reflect deep convictions about the intrinsic value of nature and the moral imperative to protect all species, regardless of their benefit to humanity. “I value, really value, things that have been evolving in a place for hundreds of thousands of years, are well adapted, that have mutualisms and complex relationships with other species,” Soulé told me a few months after his editorial appeared. “It’s emotional. I’m one of the few scientists who will admit that.”

For the most part, the fire and brimstone has since died down. Kareiva and other “new conservationists” deny that they ever called for the abandonment of protected areas as a conservation strategy. Rather, they were simply proposing to expand the toolbox beyond protected areas to enhance natural values on the working landscapes in between. By including conservation projects that provide tangible benefits to people, they argue, conservation can cast a wider net of support.

Kareiva and Soulé added their names to the Nature piece soon after its publication. “I don’t think anybody has just one set of values as a motivation in conservation,” Kareiva told me. “I think (the issue is) painted as people who love the intrinsic value of nature versus people who love people. But I don’t think anybody who is motivated by the intrinsic value of nature would want to harm people in the process.”

But Soulé remains unconvinced that the conflict can be easily resolved. In the David and Goliath struggle between nature and people, he believes, people will always win. He signed the Nature paper, he said, because he agrees that it would be nice if we could all get along. But he fears that a human-centric world will lead to a “homogocene” in which the same few hardy species prevail in degraded habitats around the world, limited only by the gross parameters of climate, while ecosystems that persisted for eons perish.

I share his angst. Those of us raised in the conservation fold of the 20th century bowed to the greats: John Muir, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold. Their lofty (and sometimes rebellious) prose resonated with the deepest parts of our souls, validated our heartfelt beliefs, and inspired us to dedicate our lives to protecting Mother Earth. To many of us, there is something deeply spiritual and immeasurably sacred about preserving intact natural ecosystems created and shaped by forces we don’t understand fully. It’s an article of faith that goes beyond logic.

But I know from heated family arguments at holiday tables and long campaigns on Capitol Hill that not everyone shares my values. Surveys conducted on behalf of TNC confirm my observations. They suggest that, at least in the U.S., emphasizing intrinsic values is preaching to the choir — Democrats who already support conservation efforts — while emphasizing ecosystem benefits can appeal more to the right.

In practice, too, conservation has always reflected different goals and values. Theodore Roosevelt designated the first wildlife refuges to protect birds from the hat trade even as he was creating national forests to produce timber for industry. So I’m embracing the more universal notion tucked amid the otherwise polarizing words of the 2012 Breakthrough essay, that “conservation must demonstrate how the fates of nature and of people are deeply intertwined –– and then offer new strategies for promoting the health and prosperity of both.”

Surely, there are many paths to environmental salvation. Perhaps if everybody on Earth chose one of them, any one of them, we could begin to reclaim our diminishing Eden.

Amy Mathews Amos has spent her career at the interface of environmental science and public policy as an analyst and consultant. She writes about conservation, wildlife and health from her home in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

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