Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture. Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.
In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:
Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.
Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values
…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management
To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology). The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.
Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…
Excerpts edited by me:
Factor 1…reflected the view that the value of biodiversity does not depend on its current usefulness to humans, potential future values to humans, or its importance to human survival.
Factor 2…reflected a preservationist viewpoint, that conservation should prevent the human caused extinction of species.
Factor 3…reflected a viewpoint that emphasized the diverse values of biodiversity, particularly the right of all species to exist and the role of species
in sustaining ecosystem functions
Factor 4… reflected a view that biodiversity is useful to people, rejecting notions that biological diversity should be conserved for its beauty and that
all species have a right to exist.
There are several things I like about this article:
First is the notion that conservation is as political as it scientific— informed by the social sciences (policy, economics, sociology, psychology) and humanities (ethics, history) and ultimately debated by our local, national, and global societies. It is not the role of science to drive contested, normative debates, although it’s great at providing information to inform these debates.
Second, now you see part of the reason why issues like conservation can be so contentious. There are myriad ways that people value biodiversity and it’s often difficult to reconcile these opposing philosophical positions.
Third, as I have written about previously on the blog, this is a good example of why nature needs to be situated in the context of culture and vice versa in order for challenging environmental problems to be studied effectively, as the authors allude to here (emphasis added):
[O]ur results provide an empirical challenge to the portrayal of conservation as a monolithic activity, driven by a convergent set of Western values, implicitly denying the possibility of differences in viewpoints about conservation at many spatial and temporal scales. The monolithic conception of conservation is based on an assumption that conservation professionals share a core set of values and goals, regardless of the social and economic contexts in which they are embedded and the experiences that have shaped their conservation interests. In reality, most conservation professionals draw on a range of values, from the intrinsic values of species to the use values of nature to humans. We consider it likely that such diverse views exist across a wide range of individuals and organizations involved in conservation.
…We believe conservation science and practice should not try to create a consensus under which conservation professionals can unite and instead acknowledge the diversity of opinions in the field. By acknowledging different
viewpoints, we believe conservation actors can build more honest and ultimately effective relationships with each other and the wider public.
SANDBROOK, C., SCALES, I., VIRA, B., & ADAMS, W. (2010). Value Plurality among Conservation Professionals Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01592.x
Photo credit: wildxplorer