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People are motivated to protect nature for a wide variety of reasons. Some want to sit in meditative repose in the cathedral-like silence of a forest. Others feel deeply that all creatures have an equivalent moral claim to existence. And some want to shoot animals and put their heads on the wall.

Miller, Soulé and Terborgh (2014) want to label certain motivations as good and worthy and others as self-interested and venal. Since all conservation is a human endeavor, it strikes us as enormously counterproductive for conservation biologists to reject the impulse to protect nature in humans whose rationales they do not personally share. We are certain conservation will be more successful if it embraces the full gamut of motivations and stops acting as the arbiter of moral purity.

We are surprised to find this view so controversial. Based on the number of editorial attacks we have elicited (e.g. Soulé, 2013; Cafaro & Primack, 2014), it is clear that the idea of embracing a wider range of approaches is deeply threatening to some in the conservation community. We do not get it: why are people who love the diversity of plants and animals and habitats so afraid of a diversity of approaches and motivations within the conservation community? We never proposed a replacement of traditional conservation approaches; we merely proposed an expansion.

Like others who have critiqued our views, Miller et al. rely on scientific arguments, moral arguments and practical arguments. Let us take these in their turn.

Scientific arguments

  1. Top of page
  2. Scientific arguments
  3. Moral arguments
  4. Practical arguments
  5. References

Miller et al. argue that biodiversity merits protection because ‘diversity per se in ecosystems is important to ecosystem function and ecological services.’ Inconvenient for Miller et al.'s line of argument is the observation that diversity has not declined significantly at the scales relevant for ecosystem productivity, resilience, nutrient cycling and so on (Vellend et al., 2013). This is because introductions of novel species have generally outpaced extinctions of native taxa (Sax & Gaines, 2003). Given no compelling demonstration that the geographic origin of the species matters when it comes to ecosystem functioning (Mascaro, Hughes & Schnitzer, 2012), the ecosystem function argument has major holes (Maier, 2012). Granted, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But the bottom line is that additions of non-native species are tending to compensate for local subtractions of species, with as yet unknown final consequences.

Regarding the ability of nature to bounce back following human disturbance, we agree that the phrase ‘once a perturbation is curtailed’ is an important caveat. We were not hedging by stating this. Frankly, we thought this caveat was obvious based on the examples we used in our earlier writings, all of which involved a curtailment of human perturbation. But given that some people misinterpreted our point, we realized it was not obvious and so we stated it. Nature's ability to rebound or at least compensate following many, but not all, human disturbances makes clear that it is not too late for people to change their practices and let nature recover. All is not lost if we act quickly.

Moral arguments

  1. Top of page
  2. Scientific arguments
  3. Moral arguments
  4. Practical arguments
  5. References

Miller et al. believe that anthropocentrism is wrong, and that acknowledging the social construction of nature is to deny nature's existence or reality. We disagree, and feel their view is rooted in misanthropy and distrust of humans. This is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree, but it should be properly labeled as a worldview, or as an article of faith, not a situation where one side is righteous and the other side is corrupt. We believe that all people protect nature because it benefits people. For some, the benefit comes from being able to enact and live out their moral convictions. For others, the benefit may come from recreation, inspiration, mindfulness, clean water, flood protection or carbon fixation. Edward Wilson (1984) has written eloquently of biophilia and Richard Louv has created a global Children and Nature Network (http://www.childrenandnature.org/) based on a deep concern that a deficit of nature can truly harm children. Conservation is at its core a human activity.

The ‘surrender to development’ that we are charged with might be more aptly labeled ‘helping nature by also helping people’. A growing library of case studies documents successful conservation that links nature protection to human livelihoods and economic development (Goldman et al., 2010; Heiner et al., 2011). Caring for people is essential to caring for nature. For example, a $26 million gift from the Peter Hawkins Dobberpuhl Foundation will protect a key migration corridor for elephants, but it will also help African cattle ranchers to improve their practices and access to markets so they do not suffer the dire poverty that pushes people to poach elephants for their ivory (Large, 2014). Conserving nature ‘for people’ does not equate to ‘bad’ or ‘selfish’.

Practical arguments

  1. Top of page
  2. Scientific arguments
  3. Moral arguments
  4. Practical arguments
  5. References

Miller et al. want to change the global economic system and get people to willingly self-impose a significant reduction in their standard of living. They think gloominess is the way to motivate these radical societal changes. We are not opposed to arguments that speak of doom and gloom and of sinful man, but based on polling data and social science analyses, we doubt that preaching a monastic life and scaring people with apocalyptic stories will sway much of the public to do anything about conservation or global warming (O'Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009; Swaisgood & Sheppard, 2010). And thus, these strategies happen to not represent where we want to invest our time to achieve conservation. We think success for conservation lies in a broader appeal to protecting species and natural systems as opposed to preserving biodiversity per se. In most cultures, past and present, there has been a fondness for nature (Grinde & Patil, 2009). The term biodiversity did not exist when the world's oldest national park was created outside Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, nor Yellowstone or Yosemite.

Miller et al. charge us with having an ideology. We find this ironic. Our approach to conservation is everything but an ideology. We are promoting a ‘practice’ of conservation – a practice that tolerates all ideologies and that has drawn on decades of experience doing conservation. Yes, the practice we advocate includes making the best of novel ecosystems, working with corporations and finding ways that poor nations can have both economic development and conservation. Conservation needs an ‘all of the above’ approach, with the particular practice designed to match the context (Kueffer & Kaiser-Bunbury, 2014). It is Miller et al. who are ideological, as they are enforcing the catechism instead of embracing a more ecumenical approach to conservation.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Scientific arguments
  3. Moral arguments
  4. Practical arguments
  5. References