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The Dangers of Utilitarian Environmentalism

Heather Tallis and Jane Lubchenco published a commentary  titled “A Call for Inclusive Conservation” in the November 2014 issue of Nature.  The essay sought to broker a truce or compromise between two philosophical positions in the conservation movement today that can be characterized as “new conservation” which promotes human utility as the primary goal of conservation and the traditional conservation approach that seeks to protect large natural landscapes like parks and wilderness.  The authors also note that most scientists and conservation leaders tend to be white males.  [i]

I believe Tallis and Lubchenco had two main themes in their piece. One point they stress  is that a more racially, culturally, and sexually diverse conservation movement would benefit the global environment.

I do not think most thinking conservation advocates would disagree with their assessment. I believe there is broad support for greater inclusiveness in conservation.

The second theme of their piece is where things get a bit more nuanced. They see a split in the conservation movement between supporters of what might be called ethical concerns for the intrinsic value of Nature as articulated by conservation biologist Michael Soule[ii] and others; and those who are more comfortable with advocating utilitarian and humanitarian reasons as the main goal of conservation exemplified by TNC’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva and Professor Michele Marvier.[iii]

In their piece, Tallis and Lubchenco suggest that “advocates of intrinsic values assert that ethical arguments for conservation should be sufficient.” Rather a better way to articulate the position is that many of us believe conservation has its best chance of long-term success when it has an underlying ethical justification and goal.

I have no problem using more practical humanitarian arguments for protecting Nature if they also achieve the ethical conservation goals of preserving biodiversity and wild landscapes.

However, hitching conservation to human utilitarian purposes is risky. It inevitably makes it easy to justify nearly any development and to denigrate parks as passé [iv]. Such a position is often premised upon the notion that development is inevitable and the best we can do is reduce its most egregious effects[v].

Part of what drives such conservation strategies is the idea that greater economic development and population growth will keepingwildgarner more support for environmental protection once people become more comfortable and economically secure. But this is a defacto acknowledgement of perpetual growth. [vi]

While there is certainly room to use resources more efficiently and thus reduce the ecological footprint, in the end, both economic and population growth are ultimately the major threat to natural systems and biodiversity.

There is an inherent danger in the assumption that human utility is the measure to judge Nature’s value. Even if this is done in the name of correcting social and economic injustices, or a means of relieving poverty—all worthy goals—we must remember that such an attitude is still akin to racism and colonialism. It puts the human species ahead of all others and justifies expropriating the planet for the benefit of a single species at the expense of the many.

Without an ethical basis and foundation for conservation, we risk losing any rationale for protecting the vast majority of all life that does not have an immediate and obvious utilitarian value to human society.

Some argue, and certainly it is implied by many proponents of the “new conservation,” that parks and other protected landscapes are no longer viable strategies for protecting nature. One of the arguments used to devalue parks is the observation, that at least in the United States, most national park visitors are white and middle class individuals. According to critics, the limited use by minorities makes these parks irrelevant in today’s world.[vii] (This conveniently ignores that parks are well established around the world and used by many races and cultures.)

However, this critique also fails to acknowledge that parks serve more than human needs. They are habitat for many species of plants and animals that often have no other home. If you believe that there is intrinsic value in protecting biodiversity, then one sees a value in parks and wildlands regardless of human utility.

The protection of biodiversity and wild Nature purely for intrinsic value also is an act of humility. It is a statement that we recognize that we do not understand the complexity of Nature—even what may be good ultimately for humans. Humility is the foundation of any code of right and wrong. And it is wrong to view the world’s great diversity merely in terms of its utility to humankind.

The end of apartheid, slavery, oppression of women, and many other injustices were not won primarily upon pragmatic reasoning. Underlying all these efforts was a deep moral commitment to the idea that humans have an intrinsic right to equal treatment and respect.

In the same manner conservation’s long-term success will hinge on how well we are able to articulate a moral and ethical reason for right of all life to exist.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 37 books, most recently Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth.

Notes.

[i] A Call for Inclusive Conservation  November 2014 Vol. 515 pages 27-28http://www.nature.com/news/working-together-a-call-for-inclusive-conservation-1.16260

[ii] Soule, M. Cons. Biol. 27 895-897 (2013)

[iii] . Kareiva, P. and Marvier, M. Bio. Sci. 62 962-969 (2012)

[iv] Christensen, J. quoted in John Muir’s Legacy

[v] Shellenberger, M. and Nordhaus T. Economist Debates Wilderness.http://www.economist.com/debate/days/view/762

[vi] Willers, B. Sustainable Development: A New World Deception. Cons. Bio. Vol. 8, No. 4 (Dec. 1994) pp 1146-1148

[vii] Christensen, J. quoted in John Muir’s Legacy Questioned as Celebration of his Death Nears by Louis Sahagun Los Angles Times November 13, 2014http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-rethinking-muir-20141113-story.html

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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