When ‘conservationists’ …aren’t

12 08 2008

There is the concept of “conservation” and its vital counterpart, “preservation”. “Conservation” is defined as the preservation and careful management of the environment and of natural resources. Although preservation is necessarily an inherent aspect of conservation, in recent years it has come to symbolise a form of environmental zealotry that would preclude, if given the chance, any advancement of knowledge in ecology and biology in general. Conservation embraces understanding – knowledge that enables a defined management of the systems we seek to conserve.

Most people are familiar with emotive zealots such as those subscribing to the extreme views in abortion laws, religion and animal rights. I am reminded here of Barry Horne, the British animal-rights activist who died in a prison hospital from hunger strike. Mr. Horne was serving an 18-year sentence after being convicted of a nation-wide fire-bombing campaign in 1997. The misplaced passion exuded by Mr. Horne not only cost him his own life, but millions of pounds to shop owners around the country. One might ask the question: What was it all for? Even the slightly more humoristic saga of eco-terrorists in Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel Monkey Wrench Gang reminds us that zealots can embrace issues with a dedication that denies the logic of constructive improvement.

A far more insidious and malignant form of zealotry is that demonstrated by individuals or organisations that on the surface advocate a particular opinion, when underneath, do not actually subscribe to their own stated convictions. A common diatribe of such preservation zealots is that researchers do “science for science’s sake”. However, when one looks closely at this statement, it becomes rather meaningless. Science isn’t a ‘thing’; it isn’t some elitist club with secret handshakes and covert winking, and it certainly isn’t a collection of robed druids locked in their white towers casting mystical spells for evil intentions. The average non-scientist may find it surprising to learn that science is simply a technique – a technique that aims to remove subjectivity from human decision making and understanding. The reason one usually takes years to master the sciences is that the human brain is decidedly subjective. Humans have preconceptions about how systems function with their expectations usually winning out in the end. The scientific method permits humans to answer questions (more) objectively. That’s it.

So, when one poses a question, in this case, how to determine the reasons for species decline and what to do to counteract this, we use the scientific method. Anything short of this will undoubtedly riddle the conclusion with personal bias and ineffective countermeasures.

Some preservationists insinuate that biologists could care less about the welfare of the animals on which they base their research. This simply isn’t true. In all my years as a biologist I have never once met a colleague in the biological sciences who did not have the deepest respect for the species of chosen investigation. Yet, many extremist animal welfare/rights organisations would have their members and the public believe that scientists are emotionless automatons somehow lacking respect for the natural world. This simply doesn’t make sense. Why would your average biologist face years of poverty studying in their chosen field? Why would one face relentless bad weather, injury, discomfort, hunger and cold for little or no monetary reward and virtually non-existent public recognition? Why would biologists strain their bodies and their minds for these species simply for some benign curiosity?

I am afraid the answer is that biologists do these things for the simple reason that their efforts will see some benefit befall their chosen species or system of study. Who are normally the crusaders for threatened or endangered species? Most of the time they are the biologists themselves who alert the general public about population declines, maltreatment, misuse and abuse by human industry, climatic anomalies and disease events. These are the men and women who know what is happening, who can observe the subtle nuances of an animal’s response to a change in the status quo, and more importantly, have the data to back up their claims.

Yet, what do many preservationist groups do when faced with a problem? Lobby against scientists. These lobbyists do not know the species about which they purport to defend. They do not understand the nuances of their biological systems, and they certainly do not respect those who have dedicated their lives to the understanding and persistence of these species. Instead, they target all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. Instead, such organisations and the general public should support biologists who endeavour to discover the true influences of human uses and abuses of wildlife? Or, perhaps such organisations could create scholarship funds to support student research in the area of concern. Some do, but many would rather go on witch hunts.

What we truly need is more biologists studying the impacts of human development and industry rather than have so-called conservation groups lobby more politicians. Until such time that preservationist groups stop biting the very hands that feed them, that is, the biologists providing the important data on which their political agendas depend, I recommend that people interested in supporting conservation work should invest their money in biological research.Invest in those who are actually in the process of achieving conservation objectives. Peruse your local university’s web pages for people engaged in the projects you wish to support. These people require sometimes quite substantial funding to collect this important information.

The opinions and statements extremist organisations are tantamount to the belief system that pervaded the Dark Ages, when knowledge was something to be feared and those accused of witchcraft were burnt at the stake. It’s about time such special interest groups spent less time denouncing their neighbours for devil worship and live up to their stated aims of assisting conservation.

CJA Bradshaw

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7 responses

21 12 2011
Surgical conservation: gain requires some pain « ConservationBytes.com

[…] on a single species (or even individual) while the rest of biodiversity melts into extinction (see related post here). We just don’t have time for this nonsense, and this is why we have to consider […]

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2 06 2010
Tom Keen

I don’t think the trend is in any way unique to Australia. The environment “movement” evolves all too slowly. Unfortunately, I find most conservation NGOs aren’t worth supporting (any recommendations?!).

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2 06 2010
CJAB

Probably the best bet is to support groups like The Nature Conservancy who buy conservation easements. Anything less is mostly misguided greenie-ism that does little for conservation (e.g., Greenpeace).

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1 06 2010
Tom Keen

I’m little bit curious as to what the Tasmanian Conservation Trust said now…

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2 06 2010
CJAB

The wheels turn slowly in Tasmania. My guess is that their antagonistic, anti-science stance is even more entrenched. It’s a general trend in Australia anyway (e.g., the Greens who would cut off their energy nose to spite their environmental face).

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21 11 2009
Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil « ConservationBytes.com

[…] two faces of conservation evil 21 11 2009 Beware false prophets, and especially those masquerading as conservationists (or at least ‘green’) when they are not, in fact, doing…. But this blog site isn’t about typical greenie evil-corporation-making-a-mess-of-the-Earth […]

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24 09 2009
CJAB

For a little history, I wrote this essay after falling victim to the Luddites running the Tasmanian Conservation Trust (http://www.tct.org.au/).

See also:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2004.04.001
http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/439392c
http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00566.x

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