‘New conservation’ is an expansion of approaches, not an ethical orientation


I would first like to express my deep admiration and respect to Brian Miller, Michael Soulé and John Terborgh for their incredible pioneering work in conservation biology. It is an honor to have my work read by these men. Unfortunately, they fundamentally misread me if they think that I advocate ‘managing nature for human benefit’ (Miller, Soulé & Terborgh, 2014). My book, Rambunctious Garden, described new approaches emerging in conservation and the science behind those tools (Marris, 2011). It scrupulously avoided ethical injunctions, offering instead a description of the many conservation goals besides historical fidelity that may be in play in any given project. Among these was ‘ecosystem services’, but so was protecting the rights of other species. I did not presume to dictate to my readers which of the many goals I reported on were morally superior. (As it happens, I am personally motivated by my sense that creating actual and functional extinctions is wrong.)

The approaches I write about – assisted migration, working with novel ecosystems, going beyond black and white thinking on non-native species, rewilding (including rewilding with proxies for extinct animals) and conservation outside of protected areas – are meant to be a complement to, not a replacement for traditional conservation in protected areas. And they are tools, not moral orientations. They can be used for anthropocentric or eco-centric goals. Like any tool, they can be deployed carefully or stupidly, with humility or with arrogance.

Thus, anthropocentrism is not ‘a large part’ of my ideology. Whether or not is part of what Miller et al. term the ideology I cannot say. The phrase suggests organized (and vaguely sinister) group with mutually agreed-upon tenets. This is not the case. There is no organized group or dogma, and any similarities between my ideas and those of Nordhaus & Shellenberger (2007) or Kareiva, Lalasz & Marvier (2012) owe more to our drawing similar conclusions from the times in which we find ourselves than mutual influence.

My citations of Sax et al. (2007) were meant to challenge the conventional wisdom about non-native plants. Although some unquestionably do great harm, the majority do not threaten other species with extinction and often add to local diversity. Miller et al. say I make an error of scale and ignore the global trend toward a more uniform flora of exotic generalists. On the contrary, I acknowledged this issue and quoted ecologist James Gibbs, who likens novel ecosystems filled with hardy generalists to ‘like eating at McDonalds’, both samey and bland (2011; 115). I agree with the authors that homogenization is a concern, but one I personally rank as less dire than extinctions.

My citations of Lugo & Helmer (2004) were not meant to claim that ‘human-made systems [are] superior’ but rather to debunk myths that non-native systems are always low in diversity and function and useless for conservation. I believe novel ecosystems are important sites for conservation because they increase the area available for the work of conservation (and are often already serving as habitat for some rare species), because their self-assembled nature instantiates wildness and because we can learn from how they adapt to anthropogenic change. Along with a growing chorus of restoration ecologists (Hobbs, Higgs & Hall, 2013), I champion novel ecosystems not above or instead of more historical ecosystems but in addition. I am sure Miller et al. would agree with me that we should not condemn these wild and often beautiful places to be paved over as trash.

Finally, the notion that there is no room for ‘inconvenient plants and animals’ in my vision of the future is pure calumny. Even the most cursory read of my work will uncover an almost giddy enthusiasm for rewilding large beasts to landscapes, from native wolves and beavers to proxies for Pleistocene fauna.

Miller et al. assert that ‘the center of traditional conservation is the preservation of biodiversity for ecosystem function and evolutionary potential’. One could quibble over their exact phrasing, but that seems in the right ballpark. They say that this requires ‘a network of protected lands’ and connectivity. I agree heartily. But why then do they worry so much about expanding our set of approaches to work for these goals to include more than just protected areas? They fret that emphasis on natural resilience ‘may promote ecological tinkering’ and yet they live in a world so changed by anthropogenic forces that to refrain from tinkering will likely doom many species, especially those Scott et al. (2010) categorizes as ‘conservation reliant’, to extinction. To be sure, we must tinker with the utmost caution, but we must tinker, or we will lose many species, and their fates will be on our head as surely if we had gone out and shot them.

I do not always agree with everything Shellenberger and Nordhaus or Marvier, Lalasz and Kareiva say. After all, we are not some cohesive ideology. But I do believe that we share a central motivation: to use the tools of science to discern the most effective ways to undertake conservation. They have emphasized integrating development with conservation and investing in technological solutions because they believe it will be effective. I have emphasized moving away from a strict fealty to historical baselines in all cases, because I believe it will be more effective.

We are all on the same side here, and I fail to see the use of these attacks on each other's moral character. You say, ‘we need a broader conservation politic’. Well, that's me. I am another voice in conservation. Let us talk together, be kind to one another and work for the goals that are so important to us all.