Should Human Welfare Trump Wildlife?

An inside look at the growing uneasiness among some conservation biologists about the trajectory of the conservation movement.

(Photo: Ryan Murphy/Getty Images)

Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

When modern conservationists seem to put human welfare ahead of the needs of wildlife, are they betraying the movement’s central tenets? That’s the argument made by the authors of a new editorial in the journal Biological Conservation. In fact, it’s less an argument and more like an angry accusation, relying heavily on the phrase “great moral wrong.”

The editorial taps into a growing uneasiness among some conservation biologists about the direction of the conservation movement as it struggles to find the most effective role in an era, the so-called Anthropocene, in which human expansion seems to be having a devastating effect on almost every species and landscape on the planet—via habitat destruction, poaching, bush-meat hunting, pollution, and climate change.  

Prominent environmental groups—among them The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International—have responded to this change with an increasing emphasis on how deeply human survival depends on the things nature provides: “ecosystem services” like clean water, crop pollination, flood control, putting oxygen into the atmosphere and pulling carbon dioxide out, wildlife habitat.

This shift in emphasis means that environmental groups now often work side by side with old adversaries, from indigenous communities crowding around conservation areas to Fortune 500 companies looking to clear-cut, mine, harvest, or otherwise exploit the landscape. The shift to a more human-oriented approach has sometimes resulted, notably at Conservation International, in an exodus of species-oriented biologists.

Getting lost in the process, according to the editorial, is the defining environmental belief that any extinction caused by humans is “a great moral wrong.” The coauthors are Richard Primack, a biologist at Boston University, and Philip Cafaro, a philosophy professor at Colorado State University, and they are also, respectively, editor and book review editor of Biological Conservation

They direct much of their attack at Peter Kareiva, the iconoclastic chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and Michelle Marvier, a conservation biologist at Santa Clara University and coauthor of the textbook Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature

Kareiva and Marvier’s recent attempts to redefine conservation have put so much emphasis on increasing human wealth via “economic development” and “working with corporations,” according to Primack and Cafaro, that they completely neglect “the right of other species to continue to flourish.” Kareiva and Marvier use rhetoric, they say, that contemplates “mass extinction with equanimity, in part, apparently, because such extinctions will not necessarily inconvenience human beings.”

When I asked Kareiva about the attack, he pointed out that the articles Primack and Cafaro mention were chiefly directed at other biologists, for whom a statement of opposition to mass extinctions would have seemed superfluous, at best. “The point was to say, ‘Hey, biologists, learn some economics; learn social science. It’s relevant.’ ” He added that he entered the conservation movement as a species biologist “totally from the ‘let’s sue ’em; let’s stop logging” side of things. But experience fighting for spotted owls and salmon had made him think the approach produced more political fireworks than results and often shut out people who might otherwise participate in conservation.

Global companies that “care about social license to operate” and about public and shareholder opinion can be “pretty cooperative,” he said, especially if you point them to choices that allow them to protect habitat while also getting the resources they covet. “They become conservation allies,” he said. But he added, “No successes yet, lots of collaboration, and we’ll see how it turns out.” 

Kareiva also argued for an increasing focus on letting local communities share in the management of conservation areas, as a way of providing them with both the means to survive and incentives to work for wildlife preservation. In a formal reply to be published in Biological Conservation, Kareiva and Marvier argue that taking account of both “conservation and other human values will broaden support for conservation. In contrast, we believe that prioritizing places based on counts of species (e.g., biodiversity hot spots), with no regard to benefits to people, will not be as effective.”

Cafaro is unpersuaded. When conservationists look to rich people and corporations for progress, he told me, “there are certain topics you maybe don’t bring up. If you’re talking with someone worth $500 million, you might not talk to him about income inequality” or the hazards of an economic system built on relentless growth. 

Cafaro also opposed appeasement of people who intrude on national parks and protected areas. “I favor moving them out, compensating them, and creating areas where wildlife can live,” he said. “I see this as a matter of justice to other species. We don’t have a right to be everywhere.” Or as he and Primack put it in their article, “Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth’s resources. If increased human numbers and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our numbers and economic demands.”

Where does this quarrel leave the rest of us? Up to now, the conservation movement has largely followed the kind of absolutist, and sometimes obstructionist, approach Primack and Cafaro seem to be advocating. That strategy has been successful at persuading nations around the world to designate a remarkable share of their territory as parks and protected areas. But they are mostly paper parks, without budget, staff, or in many cases, wildlife. Species continue to be exterminated and spiral toward extinction.  

That suggests Kareiva and Marvier are right to question present methods and propose a new way forward: Self-interest is the most powerful force in the universe. So there may yet be progress in simply reminding people that there is still time to protect the natural world—and the species—we depend on for the food and drink on our tables, the pleasure in our hearts, and the future of our families.

Check back in 10 years to see if honey works any better than vinegar.

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