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What’s the point of conservation?

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Author: Jocelyne Sze

I occasional get into bouts of existential crises, especially when I contemplate why I do what I do (because I have the time to or because it’s an inevitable life question), and when I realise how much of a fight conservation needs to put up.  I start questioning the point of conservation, and the futility of such pursuits, given that we are all going to die eventually anyway, all species come and go, and the Earth is always changing. Given that I have spent a considerable proportion of my life now being interested in this field, I fully intend to continue working in conservation (till the end of my life…) and that a large chunk of my identity probably revolves around it, questioning the point of conservation should count as existential crises (cos what am I doing with my life?!?).

I have always kinda known that personally, I want to work in this field because I enjoy being in the natural world, being in the wilderness where human influences aren’t apparent, and I like biodiversity and wildlife (fluffy animals are cute. Though I still prefer marine inverts). I want these for myself, and I want them for future generations. I don’t want to lose them. I firmly believe it’s good for the psychological, mental, spiritual well-being of everyone to spend time outdoors (cf nature deficit disorder). And of course, humans depend on nature too, in more ways than we realise, or are taught currently (because extinction of experience).

And that’s how conservation is increasingly being portrayed these days, that humans are dependent on nature and the services she provides, and humans and nature have to coexist.

Changing views of nature and conservation. From Mace (2014) http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6204/1558.full

So yes, there is a reason why we need to conserve, and the one uniting factor for all people working in these or related fields worldwide is that we want to keep as much of nature and the natural world as possible, and it needs to be done asap. Conservation is much more diverse than people from the outside realise though, I think, because there are all sorts of arguments about what and where should we conserve (everything is impossible. The most useful? The prettiest/cutest? The most different creatures? The most biodiverse areas? The areas least used by humans?) and how do we go about it (put endangered animals in zoos and focus on captive breeding to save the species? Put fences around parks to keep humans out of it? Give local communities the land and tell them to take care of it? Or pay them to do it? Build infrastructure nearby these wildlife-rich and open it up to ecotourism? Try and estimate a $ for ecosystems and therefore make any destruction of habitat cost more? Or just set aside huge swathes of land and let nature run its course?).

Aww much cute. Of course we want to give money to save them. Image taken from ZooBorns.

However that doesn’t answer the question of the point of conservation. What are we working towards? To what end are we fighting for? And I think that was what I was questioning.

To some extent, there is never a definite answer to that question. Conservation is a crisis discipline (Soulé 1985), and one is always going to be fire-fighting, being reactive. If your house caught fire, it is fairly easy to restore your house afterwards. Not in the financial or convenience sense perhaps, but you know what your house looked like before and you know what to do to get it back to what it used to be. However in an ever-changing world, what things used to be is always up for debate. Did you meant 10 years ago, before they built the houses? Or 40 years ago before they chopped the trees? Or 100 years ago before they diverted the river, or 400 years ago before human settlements popped up, or 21,500 years ago when ice sheets covered huge areas of the earth? (Numbers were random, apart from the Last Glacial Maximum occurring about 21,500 years ago)

Or maybe the Eocene world (~56-33 Million Years Ago). Image taken from the Natural History Museum of London

Most people are just fighting to reduce the rate of loss and change, hopefully to reverse it at some point. And I will be just one more person pushing against that huge wall, trying to stave off disaster and catastrophe (okay I might be exaggerating it a little. Or it might be true). What do I want though, what is my goal? Perhaps it’s to have a world where people can still visit areas of natural beauty, without towering skyscrapers or too much concrete/metal around, where big majestic wildlife and small unnoticed critters scurry around without humans needing to regulate and manage every parameter, where one can take the time to contemplate the meaning of life if they wanted to, or live off the land if they so desired. I guess I would be happy if wildlife stopped getting poached or killed unnecessarily through some direct or indirect means, if wild places stopped getting encroached upon or converted into some other direct human-exploited form. And I guess that’s why conservation doesn’t appear to have a target or a goal, because we just want the ‘bad things to stop’. (There are people who have specific targets, and of course the world needs some metric by which to measure how much success we’re having, usually in terms of number of species or population size of species or area of ‘natural habitat’. In a talk by Prof. Georgina Mace from UCL yesterday that I attended, she has the minimum required for human benefits as a baseline target to work towards)

Image taken from Pinterest

Tagged: Conservation, nature, philosophy

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