What is the point of conservation?

For almost two decades I have been interested in the dilemmas of setting conservation priorities. Where should we spend our limited funds? The more I explored this question scientifically, however, the more I realised that we can’t be guided by science alone. Anyone who believes their actions are driven solely by science has failed to explore their underlying values, and forgotten to ask the basic question of what is the point of conservation. Without answering that, we can’t know what we want to achieve.

Now that I am familiar with the philosophy as well as the science of protecting the natural world, I have come up with my own personal position statement:

I aspire to a world which maximises the wellbeing of all people and sentient beings, now and in the future.

This version was written in January 2020, and I’d welcome ideas and feedback. I wrote it in the context of conservation, but I think it applies to wider questions as well. Ideas of what society could look like are intertwined with what nature could look like.

It reflects my utilitarian outlook (the greatest good for the greatest number), and my belief that there is no objective ‘correct’ answer to the question of what forms nature should take.

This is partly because historical baselines are morally arbitrary. Conservation often aspires to recreate population sizes and species distributions that existed at a chosen point in the past, even though change is the one constant in nature. There’s no reason that one particular moment in nature’s past was morally significant. I’m concerned by anti-human narratives which automatically assume that human influences on nature are bad. When did we decide that humans and nature are separate?

My belief that there are no objective answers in conservation is also based on the view that ecological wholes, such as species and ecosystems, don’t have intrinsic value. As I will explain below, it is hard to justify that species have value for their own sake.

I initially found these viewpoints very uncomfortable, as they contradicted the beliefs I had absorbed as a young conservationist. I had wanted to recreate past ecosystems free from non-native species, and I felt the imperative of halting extinctions simply because it was wrong.

It seems that my intuition had failed me, but that’s no surprise. I had long been arguing that intuition is a poor guide for conservation. Why are people so keen to save the bees and kill the wasps? And I’ve never heard anyone campaign to protect the hairworms, despite their great importance. To tackle our inconsistencies, we all need an ultimate position that our specific views about bees, wasps and hairworms can stem from.

I now believe that we can’t create a world which maximises wellbeing simply through conservation programmes which delay extinctions by another few decades. We need a transformational change to the way we live. It’s still not clear to me how we make that change, or exactly how conservation funds should be spent in the meantime. However, I am relieved to have finally arrived at an over-arching aim that I am comfortable with, hence I feel confident to share my position statement with the world and enter into debates about it. Here’s an explanation.

What has intrinsic value?

Intrinsic value is something which exists beyond human imagination and is irrespective of any role something plays in meeting needs or goals. Conservation organisations often state that nature has intrinsic value, but it isn’t clear exactly what they mean. Where in nature are they placing that value? In individual organisms? In species? In ecosystems? In processes or flows of energy?

It is surprisingly rare to have clear answers to these questions, so here is an explanation of why I place intrinsic value at the level of individual humans and other sentient animals.

Rebecca and Stella 'Granny' Nesbit

This is me and my grandmother. We both have intrinsic value – we are valuable simply because we exist. Granny isn’t just valuable because I value her (which I very much do – so she also has ‘extrinsic’ or ‘instrumental’ value); she’s valuable in her own right. This is because she has needs and will suffer if they are not met. Her pleasure and pain are morally relevant; her wellbeing is important.

Conservation ethics - intrinsic value and sentient animals

This is my guinea pig Spotless. She too has intrinsic value – value for her own sake not just the value I place on her. She may not have the same capacity to feel pleasure and pain as a person does, but she still has that capacity. Her wellbeing is therefore important too.

English Stonecrop (Sedum anglicum). Rame Head, Cornwall

Unlike Granny and Spotless, this plant has no capacity for pleasure or pain. We know its needs biologically, but it doesn’t suffer if they are not met. That’s why you get into trouble if you don’t feed your child or guinea pig, but are thankfully safe if your pot plant doesn’t last the week.

We know that my car needs oil, but if I don’t put oil in it you consider me stupid rather than immoral. Nobody is arguing that my car’s needs are morally relevant, so why would a plant’s needs be any different?

Like the plant, a species has no capacity for pleasure or pain. We therefore have no reason to consider its needs morally relevant. That’s pretty fortunate, because we don’t know what its needs are. Given that over 99.9% of species have already gone extinct, and extinction is the ultimate fate of all species, maybe that’s what a species wants? Shame on us for trying to stop it!

Another challenge for anyone claiming that species have intrinsic value is how to define a species. Sometimes it is clear cut – I think we are all happy with the idea that humans are a distinct species. However, sometimes it is more accurate to talk about a species complex, in which boundaries are unclear. It shouldn’t surprise us that boundaries between species are fuzzy, given what we know about evolution. There is no one precise moment when a parent is one species and their offspring is another; the transition is a gradation.

It is very useful to think about species, and that’s why there are at least 34 competing definitions. But it’s not always very accurate, and if there is no objective discreet category of ‘species’ how can we say that it is morally relevant? And where in a species complex would we place our value?

Defining species gets even harder when we get down to the micro-organism level. And this is important – if we really were trying to argue that species have intrinsic value separate to humans, then a species of bacteria is just as valuable as a species of primate. Conservation based on the intrinsic value of species would need to do a U-turn away from focussing on the charismatic species which are the most expensive to save.

We should also consider the question of what is it about a species which makes it valuable? Is it the DNA sequence? That would still exist if a few individuals survived in a zoo, or even if we saved some seeds or cells. Is it certain behaviours or characteristics? If that’s where we are putting value, then that’s what we should seek to preserve, not the species. Is it the interactions with other species? We’re drifting away from intrinsic value of a species once we start to define its value in relation to something else, and even if we prevent the species from going extinct then the interactions aren’t automatically preserved.

These kinds of questions reveal that it’s unclear why we’ve placed value at the level of the species. We could equally well have argued that intrinsic value exists at the level of the genus, or subspecies, or gene. But that’s not how we see the world. Until recently we didn’t know that DNA existed, so why would we consider a genetic sequence to have intrinsic value? This is a comment on human perceptions though, not on where intrinsic value might lie.

Mount Dan Jeju Island

Why do we consider living things to have intrinsic value when inanimate objects don’t? This mountain is Mt. Dan on Jeju Island, South Korea, which is believed to have bad feng shui because of its shape. In the West we don’t tend to place value on the shape of natural objects in the same way. But rocks were shaped by the forces of physics and chemistry, just as living organisms were. What is the difference? Could each mountain, rock and grain of sand have intrinsic value? If so, we probably shouldn’t change their shape. Was it wrong for early Homo sapiens to create an axe head out of flint?

Some people place value at the level of the ecosystem, but that comes with the same challenges as claims that species have intrinsic value:

  1. The ecosystem won’t suffer if its needs aren’t met
  2. It’s not clear what those needs are
  3. It’s impossible to define what an ecosystem is

People have tackled this last point in various ways, which generally involve a return to a past baseline. Past baselines come with the challenge that they are arbitrary. Why do we think that a particular ecosystem was in its ‘correct’ state at that time? Maybe it had characteristics we see as favourable, such as the ability to store more carbon, but that’s not the same as saying its past state was morally correct.

Sometimes the ideal ecosystem is seen to be one which is unaffected by humans. But at what point did we start seeing humans as separate from nature? We are an animal and, just like all other species, we affect our environment. That’s not inherently wrong, even if we decide that some of our impacts are undesirable.

It’s a good thing that humans aren’t separate from nature in a way which would make all our changes morally objectionable. For a start, it is hard to find an ecosystem which isn’t influenced by humans (in times of climate change, perhaps impossible). We would also tie ourselves in knots – if human impact on nature is bad, then even actions which return an ecosystem to something approaching its past state are wrong.

As for an ecosystem’s needs, people often talk about ecosystem health. Worded like that it’s clear that we want healthy ecosystems, but in reality the word health is a very poor analogy.

We have a pretty good idea of when a human or animal is in good health. I wouldn’t go as far as saying there’s always an objective ‘correct’ state of health, as we can push back against some of society’s views of an ideal mind and body, but there’s a good agreement in many ways.

I feel safe in saying that, when I experienced epileptic seizures, this was a sign of ill health and not a sign that I am a prophet (it’s something I’ve written about). The medication I take keeps me in what I see as perfect health – I don’t suffer. And this is the key point. We might have slightly different views of what health is, but good health is widely seen as connected to positive wellbeing. This doesn’t work when trying to define ecosystem health as ecosystem have no mental state which could allow wellbeing.

Definitions of ecosystem health vary, but are often related to sustainable management. There might be lots of reasons why we want ecosystems with, for example, high levels of biomass accumulation. But these are arguments based on what humans want, hence fitting my objective, rather than what the ecosystem wants, which would be relevant for objectives based on intrinsic value.

One way in which humans often alter ecosystems is by introducing new species. The language around the ‘war on invasives’ can become quite military, so we need to make sure our attitudes aren’t shaped by xenophobia. There is no intrinsic reason why species don’t belong in new ranges: their past range is an arbitrary baseline, and if humans are part of nature then a species’ method of arrival shouldn’t matter.

There may be practical reasons why we don’t want species to spread into new areas, but these should be based on our ultimate objectives not on a belief that they simply ‘don’t belong’. We may also feel that we have more of a responsibility to reverse any negative changes caused by introduced species if humans introduced them, but that is a comment on responsibility and not on whether the changes are always bad.

So, in summary, all individual sentient animals have intrinsic value, and their wellbeing is morally important. Ecological wholes such as ecosystems and species do not have intrinsic value. They may have value to us, and may improve the wellbeing of humans and animals, but that’s a separate argument and will lead to different types of conservation.

What does this mean?

It means we need more nature. Our very lives are dependent on the natural world, for everything from climate regulation to food, and our current actions are threatening this. If we are going to ensure the wellbeing of sentient beings then we need to reverse trends in environmental destruction.

My focus on humans rather than species or ecosystems certainly doesn’t license a ‘use and abuse’ attitude to nature – this strategy is unsustainable, and destroys many of the cultural benefits nature brings to us. There are many good reasons to prevent extinctions and protect wild areas, including because of the pleasure they bring us.

Personally, I want to live in a world where rhinos, kakapos and pristine rainforest exist. But I need to acknowledge that I’m putting forward my world view, rather than a trump card of intrinsic value. If somebody wants to cut down a patch of rainforest, for example, we need to look at both the negative and positive impacts on people and animals. Whose wellbeing does this affect and how?

If western conservationists believe they know the correct conservation strategy based on the intrinsic value of nature, they risk a colonial form of conservation which benefits viewers of David Attenborough at the expense of local people. Everybody’s views matter, and nobody comes to the table with an objective answer of what nature should look like. A natural world which maximises wellbeing may be very different to the nature we saw in the past.

There are already many discussions about human wellbeing going on in conservation circles, but debates about animal welfare are in their infancy. One challenge with assigning value to non-human animals is that we can never know what it is like to be an animal. Which species have the capacity for positive and negative mental states? There is a huge debate around this, and people differ in where they draw the line on the sliding scale between primates and micro-organisms. It is often drawn within the invertebrates. Species such as octopus tend to get at least the benefit of the doubt, whereas nematode worms for example are widely agreed not to be sentient. Plant sentience has few supporters.

From my perspective, this debate it fascinating but not of huge concern. We are a very long from knowing whether a bee, for example, is sentient, and even further from knowing in theory or practice how to ensure wild bees have positive mental states. We’re also a long way from creating a world which supports the wellbeing of the animals we are confident have a great ability to experience pleasure and pain, so that’s where I suggest we focus.

Immense changes are needed to realise a world which maximises the wellbeing of humans and animals – in fact we probably need a transformational change in society. But we’re at an exciting turning point in history where more and more people have realised that the old way won’t work. There’s great momentum guiding us towards a better future, and I hope to participate in many discussions about what the path might be.

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