Conservation is many things to many people

6 09 2016

635927434268884923-480894926_Odyssey5I’ve never really entered the so-called (i.e., contrived) ‘debate’ regarding New Conservation, because I’ve always felt in my gut that it was a false dichotomy (turns out, I’m not the only one to think this). For this reason principally, I haven’t really examined the associated to and fro with any great interest or depth.

I will say this though — I was horrified last year in August while attending the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Montpellier during and after the now-infamous plenary debate between Kareiva and Spash on this ‘New Conservation’. Horrified. Yes.

Peter Kareiva, in his characteristic style, attempted to explain his position in what could be called a deliberately provocative and perhaps sensationalist manner. Clive Spash, on the other hand, took an almost quasi-religious idealogy and used it to smack Peter in the proverbial gob. It was a circus from the start, and unfortunately so badly moderated that neither side came off looking very good at all. The final, and dare I say, sycophantic standing ovation after Spash’s spittle-flecked sermon made me just a little sick to my stomach.

Really? Was all this swaggering, Shakespearean posturing justified? Is the discipline of conservation biology at a philosophical and ideological crossroads requiring its respective disciples to choose their favourite messiah from a binomial distribution? I didn’t think so then, and I’m even less inclined to think so now.

It was something of a vindication of that now year-old feeling when a paper came across my desk last week that was just published online in Conservation Biology, entitled Understanding conservationists’ perspectives on the new conservation debate by George Holmes, Chris Sandbrook and Janet Fisher.

As it turns out, I’m a datum in that paper because I participated in the survey while attending the ICCB. The survey was a set of questions that attempted to get at the heart of what different people think the discipline is all about. Surprise. Surprise — there are many different interpretations of the discipline.

As the famous saying goes, opinions are like arsholes: everyone has one1.

But the paper by Holmes & colleagues does a nice job of clustering three main schools of thought (‘factors’) that encapsulate the main ideologies of a representative group of conservationists.

Group 1: ‘Traditional Conservation 2.0‘ describes a position that in general emulates the so-called ‘traditional’ perspective of conservation (i.e., primarily biocentric motivation, a focus on biodiversity and ecosystem processes), but with an important difference — these people promote conservation of biodiversity in all its forms, including non-native species and in highly modified landscapes.

Group 2: ‘Nearly New Conservation‘ describes a generally optimistic view of market-based instruments in conservation, an interest in novel ecosystems and modified landscapes as well as more pristine areas, and a belief that science should play a strong role in conservation. Importantly though, this position diverges from the Kareivan ‘New Conservation’ in that it is more concerned about avoiding harm to people than actually increasing their wellbeing (i.e., benefiting people is a means to an end rather than an end in itself).

Group 3: ‘Market Scepticism‘ is the position concerned for biodiversity in modified as well as pristine landscapes, and these people uphold the need to avoid harm to people. However, it strongly diverges from Nearly New Conservation in that it has serious reservations about the role of corporations and market based instruments in conservation.

Now, could I place myself in any of these categories? I’m sure Holmes and colleagues did, but I can’t say I subscribe to any of them entirely, nor I do not disagree with any of them fully. My point is that just because we have strong idealogical views doesn’t mean we will be more or less effective in our day jobs. My personal view (and it is just that, my view) is that conservation is the quest to reduce the probability of biodiversity extinctions, by whatever means.

I also admired and agreed with a question raised by Holmes and colleagues in their conclusions: “This raises the question of whether the traditionalist position of authors such as Soulé (2013) and Wilson (2016) has relevance for many contemporary conservationists, or represents an ultra-orthodox view held only by a small minority.”


1Australian cabaret comedian Tim Minchin had an interesting addendum to this old expression: “… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arseholes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.”

CJA Bradshaw



4 responses

7 04 2017
Future of conservation |

[…] year I posted about a paper that attempted to gauge the opinions of modern-day conservationists about the […]


8 09 2016
Joona Lehtomäki

A false dichotomy indeed! But I think we do need the debate. It’s very possible that views held by people in the different categories are in fact irreconcilable. You can argue about Spash’s style, but I think this was big part of his message. Having one discourse that people don’t fully subscribe to becoming dominant (neoliberal conservation, think of ecosystem services, natural capital etc) probably makes a lot of scientists uncomfortable for reason or another. Hence the standing ovation. This is also reflected in the Holmes et al. (2016) paper, here’s another quote:

” […] it is striking that we identified a position (Factor 1), which is almost completely absent from the New Conservation literature. Nine of our respondents were associated with this perspective and a similar position, argued by Clive Spash in a plenary debate at the ICCB conference, received a standing ovation from large sections of the audience.

This finding begs the question of whether there is a latent critical viewpoint on neoliberal conservation that is held by a large number of conservationists but not represented by the actions of most conservation organisations or the writing of scholars like Soulé, Kareiva and Marvier.”

Calling for a more inclusive conservation (paper you linked above) runs the risk of quelling the debate, as Matulis and Moyer (2016) recently pointed out [1]. I think their (and Spash’s) view is that holding ideological views, strong or weak, can and do affect the the effectiveness of our day jobs and I tend to agree. Thanks for the post, very interesting!


Liked by 1 person

6 09 2016
Tim O'Connell

Reblogged this on The Waterthrush Blog.


6 09 2016
Tim O'Connell

Thanks for this post. The best line is yours: “conservation is the quest to reduce the probability of biodiversity extinctions, by whatever means.” Some of us just keep on trying to understand and conserve the natural world, and we don’t care what people call it.

Liked by 2 people

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