New Conservation Is True Conservation


As conservation scientists, we all work to stem the tide of extinction and to protect abundant areas of natural beauty, both for people and the many species that share this planet. But Soule (2013) describes some of the work of my colleagues and I as belonging to a “chimeric movement” that “does not deserve to be labeled conservation.” Attempts to marginalize a group of dedicated individuals and discredit new approaches to conservation are troubling, especially within a movement that appears to be suffering waning support. Public opinion surveys show a sharp decline in the percentage of the U.S. public who consider themselves environmentalists (from 76% in 1989 to 41% in 2008), and a Gallup poll finds that the percentage of the U.S. public who worry “a great deal” about the loss of natural habitat for wildlife declined from 58% in 1989 to 44% in 2008 (Bowman et al. 2013). More recent surveys conducted by The Nature Conservancy (unpublished data) find similar declines in the percentage of U.S. voters who consider themselves conservationists (from 81% in 2004 to 69% in 2012). In addition, although partly explained by policy changes within the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), some may find it worrisome that SCB membership has declined by 60% from 12,000 members (SCB 2006) to 5000 (SCB 2013). Even more troubling is that Soule's stance has no basis in fact. As one of the authors of what Soule calls “the manifesto of the new conservation movement,” I hope to set the record straight and to help move this debate beyond unproductive infighting.

Let's start with some facts. None of the people labeled by Soule as new conservationists has proposed a scheme that “replaces wild places and national parks with domesticated landscapes” (Soule 2013: 896). Speaking for myself and my new conservation coauthors, we would aggressively oppose such a scheme where it ever seriously proposed, and we argue, quite to the contrary, that “the protected areas strategy is and will continue to be a cornerstone of conservation” (Kareiva & Marvier 2012). That said, we are convinced that protected areas alone are not enough. Despite great successes in the establishment of protected areas, the rate of species extinction remains unacceptably high (Pimm & Raven 2000).

In our view, calling for ever more protected areas to stem the tide of extinctions is analogous to the call for more hospital beds that was regularly heard as the devastation that could be wrought by the HIV/AIDS pandemic first became apparent. Certainly, hospital beds were needed, but they were not sufficient. Instead, governments around the world turned to university and industry research laboratories for game-changing solutions based on understanding of the causative virus and designing one antiviral agent after another. Analogously, conservation absolutely needs protected areas, but it also needs new solutions that tackle the systemic root causes of planetary degradation. In light of this, my colleagues and I advocate that conservation must expand its toolbox and experiment with new approaches. But this assertion in no way implies, as Soule (2013) insinuates, that we believe traditional approaches, such as national parks, must be discarded.

A genuine difference of opinion concerns how to achieve conservation success given the realities of the modern world. Soule's approach is to chide humanity for its self-interest: “We're in deep doo-doo. That's why we're destroying the world. That's why we're wiping out life on this planet, and why we can't deal with big problems like climate change. Our self-interest gets in the way. That's why I'm so pessimistic” (Soule as quoted in an interview by Nijhuis 2011). Alternatively, conservationists might accept that some amount of human self-interest is a given and figure out how to work constructively within that reality.

The concept of protecting nature because of its benefits for humanity (ecosystem services) is one effort in this vein. My coauthors and I argue that prioritizing locations for protection should not be done solely on the basis of species diversity (in practice, usually the number of endemic plant species); rather, prioritization should consider benefits of conservation for humanity (Kareiva & Marvier 2003, 2007). We argue that conservation must benefit the poorest not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is imperative for conservation effectiveness. Existing protected areas are under siege. Around the world, there are serious efforts to downgrade, downsize, and even degazette protected areas (Mascia & Pailler 2011; Ritchie et al. 2013). Hunger for minerals and fossil fuels is a major driver of these efforts (e.g., the battle over drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) but so is pressure from rural people cutoff from the natural resources they had previously relied upon. Even the world's largest tropical protected area, Tumucumaque National Park in Brazil, is at risk of having its protected status revoked because 2 of the 5 municipalities in which the park is located were not consulted prior to its creation in 2002 (World Wildlife Fund 2013). Clearly, protected areas need the support of local communities.

Along these same lines, Soule claims that “new conservationists assume the benefits of economic development will trickle down and protect biological diversity.” What we have written regarding how conservation can and should benefit the poor and the marginalized bears no resemblance to the economic theory (Timmins 2011) that recommends benefits go to the wealthiest members of society so that they can trickle down to the poorest. We advocate building a solid foundation from the bottom up and providing alternative livelihoods to the poor so that they are not forced to illegally harvest resources or otherwise work against protected areas.

Soule claims that “new conservationists demand that nature not be protected for its own sake but that it be protected only if it materially benefits human beings.” To the contrary, I encourage the conservation community to continue working in this vein. However, at least in the United States, surveys demonstrate that messages about protecting biodiversity or nature for its intrinsic value are inspiring for relatively narrow segments of the population, particularly those who self-identify as conservationists or environmentalists (Marvier & Wong 2012). To reach other population segments, describing and demonstrating the benefits of nature for people and their children is a more effective approach. Hazel Wong and I did not publish these empirical findings with any intent to undermine arguments based on ethical duty or intrinsic value. Rather, we asserted that supplementing ethically based arguments with messages that align conservation with people's self-interests will broaden the tent of conservation. This is a testable hypothesis. Moreover, rather than being incompatible with other motivations for conservation, the concept of ecosystem services includes the spiritual, psychological, and aesthetic values of nature for people and is often framed to include the scientific, existence, and other values of biodiversity (Justus et al. 2012).

In his editorial, Soule worries, “Would the funds to support the new conservation projects be skimmed from the dwindling conservation budgets of nongovernmental and government agencies?” In fact, just the opposite is true. Ecosystem service projects are attracting more funding than biodiversity projects and are just as likely to include or create protected areas (Goldman et al. 2008). Rather than drawing down limited financial resources for conservation, ecosystem service projects engage a more diverse set of funders. Conservation is not a zero-sum game as Soule frets, but to expand the breadth and increase the total support for conservation will require that we expand our range of approaches and welcome diverse people with diverse motivations for protecting nature.

Rather than creating schisms within conservation, it would be far more constructive to focus on the battle to win the hearts and minds of those currently outside the conservation tent. Just as conservationists value the diversity of species and the evolutionary processes that shape that diversity, we can remain open to a diversity of ideas and approaches, similarly encouraging their evolution over time. We need a safe space for the discussion of novel approaches, a space where it is okay to critique old approaches and propose new possibilities without risk of becoming a pariah. We need rigorous testing of new approaches and innovative new science (see, for example, Science for Nature and People []). We do not need misrepresentation and divisive labeling of what counts as true conservation.


I thank R. Vagelos, former CEO of Merck, for sharing the analogy between hospital beds as a response to the HIV pandemic and protected areas as a response to the extinction crisis.