Mark Hanson - January 30, 2013
Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs (Guest)
Conservation at a Crossroads
Scientists have begun to refer to the historical period in which we live as the Anthropocene Era, meaning it is the age in which humanity is the dominant force on the planet. The term brings to fitting fruition Christian and scientific worldviews that place humanity as the earthly sovereign over the rest of creation. And as humanity has played this part to the large detriment of life on earth, conservationists have fought to preserve what they could—working to protect wilderness, parks, and other areas from human encroachment.
But conservationists may be at a crossroads regarding what they should protect and why. The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, is taking on the central tenants of the modern conservation movement, arguing that it’s time to put human interests in the center of conservation. The problem, however, is that doing so provides little ethical leverage against the destructive practices that prompt conservation efforts in the first place.
Here’s how his argument goes. Contrary to the assumption that we should protect pristine wilderness, he argues that such places do not actually exist. There are no places untouched by humanity. Even before the dominance of European civilization, indigenous peoples left their mark on the land for millennia. And as long as we have been around, we have shaped nature to our ends. We use some places for trails, others for roads; some for science, and others for logging. Our national parks, he claims, “are no less human constructions than Disneyland.” And where humanity mucks things up, nature recovers about 80 percent of the time.
The upshot here, Kareiva believes, is that we should shift our ethic from conservation for the good of the land, to conservation for the good of the people, including their economic well-being. We should focus less on preserving the few remaining wilderness areas, and more on sustaining human communities. The goal is to preserve or enhance ecosystems that [quote] “benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor.” [end quote]
As a maverick, Kareiva has reinvigorated attention to the purposes and justifications for conservation. But does he go too far?
Is conservation really about preserving a piece of land in some pristine, purely “untrammeled” state, to use the language of the Wilderness Protection Act? No, and the law does not support this view either. But the fact there is no pristine place to protect, or that Native Americans have been using fire and agriculture within ecosystems for centuries, does not entail that all relationships with the land must be primarily for our benefit. National parks may be as much of human creation as Disney Land, but they reflect very different ethics. Native Americans affected the land, but they did so largely with an ethic of respect and gratitude and with a reciprocal relationship with the land, which is a sharply different way of living with nature than the Western tradition of dominion.
Further, the fact that guiding values in conservation and wilderness management like “natural,” and “untrammeled by man,” are unrealizable ideals does not make them irrelevant. They serve to inform conservation practices, as well as to convict our compromises with them. They shape an ethical orientation that recognizes that other life forms deserve some level of respect, which includes promoting their survival and well-being for their own sakes.
But why not adopt the view that we should protect only that which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of people? The precarious position we find ourselves in—an era of profound environmental degradation—is rooted in a historical ethic that has done little to restrain our material interests on the one hand, or to nurture a respect for the interconnectedness of life in all its forms on the other. Human well-being is too easily interpreted as a synonym for un-restrained consumerism. The tendency within policy-making circles to sell all policies in economic terms leaves us impoverished. And in regards to wilderness, it denies the important ways in which we need experiences in truly wild places to learn to see ourselves as part of a broader, more natural web of life.
Kareiva’s new conservation ethic is right on one score: we should not neglect human interests. But we must take care with how we accommodate them in conservation. Efforts like the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act rightfully recognize that loggers and environmentalists belong at the same table. A certain degree of pragmatism and respect for local values follows from the fact that people are always part of the ethical equation. The difficult task of ethics is drawing lines when the boundaries are blurry.
Wilderness conservation and management will therefore be about trade-offs. But we must be on guard to make sure the Anthropocene Era does not become a reason to reinforce our destructive relationship with nature, but rather use conservation to guard against our worse tendencies to disrespect life in the service of narrow self-interests.
This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.