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The Conservation Biology Divide

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Conservation biologists are currently in another civil war over the meaning of the field. In short, should conservation be concerned more with humans or should it be concerned more with biodiversity? I find these conversations frustrating because they are so either/or. In other words, they reflect the larger debate among environmentalists over the past several decades around wilderness and the role of humans. Are humans strictly destructive and thus nature should be protected from humans or should we just accept the reality that there is no pristine and realize that the rest of the world is probably going to start looking like Europe, with a heavily managed and overpopulated landscape, albeit not one without any green spaces?

As much as I love wilderness, it’s more likely that the long-term answer is accepting human activity in most spaces in some way, even if that does cost some biodiversity. The major reason for this is political. Keeping people out is a short-term possibility but if people don’t develop a respect for environmental values, if those government structures begin to tumble, or are not strong to being with, it becomes really hard to enforce those legal restrictions. Plus, restricting people from land can cause resentment and incentivize poaching and other activities that can have a political angle against the wealthy white people from around the world coming to take their safaris instead of letting me farm this land so I am going to kill the animals they like plus feed my family. The best case scenario here is probably a Costa Rica, where you do have a lot of preserved land and a lot of biodiversity protected and mass deforestation everywhere else.

The Nature Conservancy ends up playing an outsized role in these debates. I like The Nature Conservancy because I think it is vitally important that small spaces are protected for the masses to visit. Yes, TNC works with corporations. No, they are not pure. But there are many rivers of environmentalism and ensuring that a piece of land outside Providence is not developed because some unique plants live there actually has value, both in preserving that biodiversity and in providing green spaces to people. But a lot of conservation biologists loathe this organization for, essentially, being sell-outs.

In any case, even within a single discipline there needs to be room for different methods and goals. It’s not like if all the conservation biologists stand together, the world is going to listen. All the climate scientists are standing together and the powerful just call their science a hoax. Rather, while these debates should exist in a field, I don’t think it’s particularly productive to go to war over them. After all, here I am writing about this and not noting some recent victory in the field of conservation.

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