The value of nature

Wildlife conservation has never been more important, but we can very different ideas of what that means. Botanists may see rewilding as ‘land abandonment’, and compassionate conservationists believe killing animals to prevent species extinctions is wrong, while others see it as our moral duty. We all agree that nature has deep value, but where exactly does that value lie?

Writing Tickets for the Ark made me realise that unless we address this question, we’re doomed to follow goals that may not stand up to scrutiny. Worse, we may commit harms that can’t be justified – conservation has a history of human rights abuses, and poisoning animals is a celebrated strategy. Can we justify these harms? Intuition leads people in opposite directions.

To answer such questions, we need to where intrinsic value lies. What parts of nature have value in their own right, not just because of their impact on other organisms? Rather than relying on our gut reaction, we can analyse this philosophically, and challenge ourselves to justify our opinions.

This video explores where value might lie, and I’ve added links to explanations and resources below. You can also add your thoughts in the comments section.

To learn more about why I believe value lies in individual people and animals, you can read my article on what’s the point of conservation. For more detail on this line of argument, I can recommend the wonderful book Defending Biodiversity or, for even heavier reading, What’s so good about biodiversity?. Meanwhile, Tickets for the Ark provides much lighter reading about these topics.

Valuing humans

All conservationists are familiar with ecosystem services – the many and varied ways that ecosystems support human life and wellbeing. They range from flood control to cultural identities. In many cases, this positive impact on humans has been a powerful motivator for conservation. However, there’s also a darker side to conservation, with concerns such as eviction of Indigenous people from protected areas.

I think it’s important to point out that we shouldn’t confuse economic arguments with the value of nature for human wellbeing – you can be in favour of protecting nature to enhance human wellbeing while being against arguments from protecting nature for its economic value.

The literature is very diverse, given that both nature and conservation have such broad impacts. Here’s a good overview: Assessing nature’s contributions to people. We could also look at human values in less utilitarian ways, for example focussing on ‘relational values‘.

Valuing animals

Acknowledging that we have a moral responsibility for animals doesn’t give us an easy ride, and has led to lots of debates about what that means. Do we take an animal rights approach, and consider it wrong to kill animals? Or is welfare more important? How do we approach trade-offs with ecological or human values? Here are some interesting papers arguing different perspectives:

Engage with animal welfare in conservation

Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation

A critical review of the compassionate conservation debate

Deconstructing compassionate conservation

I Am a Compassionate Conservation Welfare Scientist: Considering the Theoretical and Practical Differences Between Compassionate Conservation and Conservation Welfare

Valuing species or ecosystems

Some classic papers argue for the intrinsic value of species and/or ecosystems. They have failed to resonate with me, but I still consider them valuable reading, and include: Duties to Endangered Species, Holmes Royston; Thinking like a planet, J.B. Callicott; A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold; The shallow and the deep, long‐range ecology movement, Arne Naess. Arne Naess is a fascinating philosopher. I find his arguments about the intrinsic value of ecological wholes unconvincing, but his arguments about the need for transformational change in the way we live are extremely compelling (if not his views on the human population). He’s not just interested in human needs here and now, which can lead us to destruction of nature, but also the needs of future generations. See, for example: There is no point of no return.

In contrast, Yasher Roher and Emma Marris give an excellent critique on why ecosystem integrity is neither real nor valuable. Robert K. Garcia and Jonathan Newman ask Is it possible to care for ecosystems? and conclude that we lack reasons to act on an ecosystem’s behalf.