Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Against Conservationism


Some time last year I wrote the essay below; I can’t remember what I wrote it for, but I’ve just dug it up whilst reorganising my files. I thought it a shame to waste, so I’m sharing with you.

Against Conservationism

For anyone who believes that human beings, or perhaps more properly, human persons, have moral duties to non-human animals for their own sakes, key features of animal conservation should be both troubling and problematic. The reasons for concern rest in the way conservation debates are framed together with the nationalistic language used, and the implicit sentiments that accompany them. Put simply, conservationism sups from the same cup as nationalism and other ideologies that subordinate the value of the individual to that of some larger social grouping. This claim may seem like it is intended to be provocative, but it is made neither to display boldness nor provoke reaction. Rather, the intention is to bring to attention that which has been before us, but which has rarely been perceived.

In the United Kingdom conservationists have been engaged in numerous battles, over many years, to preserve native species. Successive governments have funded and supported programmes to protect the red squirrel from the non-native grey squirrel, to defend water voles from mink, or eradicate certain introduced species – rats, rabbits, crayfish, and even hedgehogs. Numerous campaigns and organisations exist to protect native species against the foreign invader. The focus on native versus non-native, and the use of words such as ‘invasive’ or ‘invader’ and ‘foreign’, evoke nationalist sentiments. Competition between foreign and domestic species is described using the language of conflict and war, or in a similar manner to the pejorative way immigration is often discussed in the media. In this way, the language of conservation draws upon feelings of national community and invokes images of embattled creatures struggling to stave off foreign invasion. Native animals are implicitly and unreflectively deemed to be more valuable than foreign ones. Few in the UK question that the grey squirrel is an unwanted menace that should be wiped out in order to preserve the red; red squirrels are British, grey squirrels are the foreign (American) invader. In other contexts we might find this kind of nationalistic discourse troubling, so why is it unchallenged in conservationism?

The conservationist will no doubt reply that her words are intended to be purely descriptive, that they carry no normative baggage along with them. To say that one species is foreign and a threat to a native species is mere statement of fact, unencumbered by any evaluative content or particular sentiment. But this reply is hard to maintain when the conclusion that invariably flows from such statements is that the native species must therefore be preserved and the non-native one destroyed. Arguments for why one must be saved at the cost of another are rarely given – an animal’s status as native is often considered self-evidently sufficient to prefer it over a non-native species.

Why do conservation arguments take this form? One possibility lies in the etymological link between conservation and political or social conservatism. Another rests in environmental philosophy; a philosophy that locates value not in the individual, but in the species, ecosystem, or ‘biotic community’. Let us examine these perspectives in turn.

Political conservatives believe in the value of tradition, continuity, and stability. Conservatives look to preserve the culture and heritage of their nation – to uphold and maintain traditional values and adopt nationalistic approaches to political and civic life. Conservative approaches to the environment seek to preserve the natural for the benefit of mankind. The native species is seen by the conservative as a part of his national heritage. As a symbol of nationhood, it is the patriotic duty of the conservative to defend his native species against the attack made upon it by the invading foreign species. The native species is also seen as a natural resource possessed by the nation; when it is threatened something that belongs to the nation is stolen away.

In contrast, environmental philosophy seems quite different in approach to conservative environmentalism. The language of nationhood and the focus upon heritage and human ownership is quite absent. Rather, the environmentalist sees each creature as part of a greater whole. The value of life resides in a being’s place within its wider grouping: the herd, ecosystem, or species. If the number of individual animals becomes so large that it threatens the Gestalt, then individual animals must be culled. If an imbalance has been created in an ecosystem, then it must be put right – not just because all lives are interdependent, but because there is inherent value in the biotic community.

Both conservative and deeper environmental approaches willingly sacrifice the individual animal in the name of preservation. If a species is threatened with extinction then threats to it must be faced and defeated, and individual animals of the threatened species may be captured, confined, and bred to increase numbers. Thus, the conservationist’s response to over-population of a species is to advocate a cull in order to conserve the habitat. And if an animal species is threatened with extinction, then it is right by the conservationist for members of that species to be confined in a zoo and bred so that the species may be preserved. In each such case, it is clear that the objective of the preservation of the species, or habitat, is the primary goal – the welfare and life of the individual animal is secondary. The two perspectives may differ in how they value animals, but they are connected by the way they perceive the individual creature. Conservatives see the value of animals in terms of their instrumental value to humans, whilst environmentalists see the value of animals in terms of their contribution to other interconnected lives. Each considers it right to suborn the lives of individual animals to the greater good: the wider community comes before the individual. For the non-native species – the grey squirrel, mink, cane toad, or rabbit – this means that they can and should be destroyed either to protect the ecosystem or to preserve a nation’s assets.

The attitude of conservationists of either stripe towards individual animals differs starkly from that of animal rights advocates. The animal rights perspective is one of a number of approaches to laying out how we should treat non-human animals that put the individual animal at the centre of the debate. From an animal rights position the individual animal is worthy of moral consideration for its own sake – the good of the animal is not defined by its contribution to a larger whole. An animal rights view delimits actions that contravene a non-human animal’s good. Whilst an environmental ethic allows an individual animal to be sacrificed for the good of the species, and a conservationist/conservative ethic allows it to be sacrificed for the good of the nation, the animal rights position sets protected areas of an animal’s individual good that cannot be violated unless it is to prevent worse violations. Thus, whilst it might be permissible under an animal rights ethic to euthanise a dying animal in great pain, it would not be permissible to kill an animal in order to use its organs to save two other animals. This is because in the first example the action is carried out in the interests of the animal itself, whilst in the second the animal’s life is treated as a mere means to benefit others. From the rights position the animal’s instrumental value is trumped by considerations of its individual good. In this way the divide between animal rights and conservation positions is similar to that between liberal and nationalistic or communitarian political theories. And just as the liberal is wary of claims that sacrificing the few can be made justifiable by appeal to the greater good, so too should the animal rights advocate be wary of the traditional ethic of conservation.

With the discussion so far in mind, let us turn our attention back to the topic of native and non-native species. Those who think animals worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes should ask themselves what makes a squirrel worthy of saving if it is red, and worthy of destruction if it is grey? The answer doesn’t seem to go much beyond the fact that one coloured creature is descended from a species that has lived on the right side of an imaginary national boundary line for longer than a different coloured creature. To put this in perspective – the American grey squirrel has lived in Britain for over a hundred years; equivalent to tens of squirrel generations. A human population that had lived for 20-30 generations in a country would almost certainly have ceased being thought of as foreign. Besides their respective colours, there seems no obvious reason why one species is more worthy than the other: red and grey squirrels are effectively the same sort of creature.

In cases where native and non-native species at odds with one another are quite different creatures, the privileging of native over non-native species can seem even more arbitrary than in the squirrel case. Take American mink vs British water voles. In objective terms, it would seem that the American mink is a more sophisticated creature than the British water vole. With its larger and more developed brain and longer lifespan the mink probably lives a richer life, filled with more experiences, than the vole. If the badness of death is, as many argue, connected to the loss of future experiences and thwarted goals then the mink almost certainly has more to lose by dying than the vole. The lives of mink are therefore likely to be objectively more valuable than the lives of voles. This position certainly seems to match our intuitions. We do not hesitate to kill bacteria, and we give little thought to squashing bugs. But the more sophisticated and sentient a creature becomes the greater the justification we feel we need to provide before we can permissibly harm it. And yet it is never questioned that the presence of predatory mink consuming water voles is a bad thing, requiring the elimination of the mink as a solution. It is not questioned because the voles are native and the mink are foreign. The ‘nationality’ of the vole not only trumps all other moral considerations, it also excludes them from consideration. When a native fox devours a native water vole the British do not react with the same horror as they do when a mink is the predator. When the fox eats the vole it is what foxes have always done on British shores. But when the mink does it, it upsets the natural and historical order of things and it must therefore be wrong. From an animal rights perspective this is simply an irrational and incoherent position to take.

So, given the argument from animal rights, what sorts of defence of protecting native species might the environmentalist or conservationist make? Well, the environmentalist might respond by pointing out that the introduction of non-native species often upsets finely balanced ecosystems, harming many more native creatures (both on an individual and wider level) than are harmed by eliminating the non-native threat. Of course this naturally leads into a very strong position on permissible environmental intervention by humans too. If invasive species must be fought off in order to protect native ecosystems, then the damage that humans do must also be prohibited; it is very hard to make an argument that benefits to humans can outweigh environmental considerations if this view is taken. Furthermore, there are two additional points to make. The first is that if a non-native species fulfils the same role in an ecosystem as a native one at the cost of the native species then the environmentalist has no reason to prefer the native over non-native. The second is that ecosystems are very often adaptive. If the ecosystem can adapt, or is likely to adapt to the introduction of a new species at the cost of a native one, then there is again no reason to be concerned about the introduction of the non-native species. One potential reply to these two points would be to make reference to the value conferred by rarity or uniqueness. Thus, the fact that native species are often unique might give them additional value. The question would then become whether this additional value is sufficient, other things being equal, to privilege one species over another. It seems true on an intuitive level to regard rarity or uniqueness as value conferring in some senses (think of precious metals or famous paintings), but does not appear to always be the case. Debates about whether stocks of the Smallpox virus should be preserved or destroyed do not make reference to its uniqueness as a relevant factor. And imagine if consideration of the number of humans in a particular racial grouping was allowed to enter into decisions about which patients should receive medical treatment or not. It is clear from these two examples that taking the uniqueness or rarity of a species as a reason to privilege one creature over another is deeply problematic.

A more traditional conservationist position to the above might simply be that when considering the impact of non-native species on native ones the lives of the animals are not what matters. Rather, there are other values at stake, such as the importance of community, shared history, national pride, an aesthetically pleasing environment for humans to live in, and so forth. These values, the conservationist might argue, are more important than the value of their lives to the animals that live them, or the maintenance of an ecosystem. If British citizens think red squirrels or water voles are more British than grey squirrels or mink, and Britishness is superior to being American, then red squirrels or water voles should be saved and grey squirrels or mink destroyed. The problem is that this nationalistic position seems at the same time arbitrary and somewhat distasteful. The defender of animal rights will want to know how the conservationist has come to rank the value of national symbols and of their own nation above the lives of a particular species of animal or of other nations. Without the support of relevant reasons, the conservation position is untenable, and relevant reasons may be hard to come by.

If the environmental and conservation positions are troubling in respect of non-native species for the reasons given, might there be some other more attractive account of why it is right to preserve native species against non-native ones? One thought that goes some way towards this is connected with the fact that invasive species are introduced through human agency. Many non-native species are introduced either deliberately or as a result of humans unwittingly transporting animals around the world as we import and export goods between countries. When these introduced species harm the lives of native ones then there is a sense that humans have done wrong by their actions and the correct response is therefore to undo or mitigate that wrong. Thus, by defending a native species against a foreign one, we might somehow be righting a human wrong. Such a position is intuitively attractive, but at the same time it fails because it gives little or no consideration to the fate of the introduced species. The destruction of the introduced species is instrumental to righting the wrong done to the native species. And since the mink commits no injustice by devouring the vole – the mink is no moral agent that knows right from wrong – the position is thus inconsistent in the way that it values animal life. In the end the position can only be coherently maintained if the non-native species can be prevented from harming the native one without at the same time harming the non-native species. Furthermore, the simple rectification of a situation does not seem enough on its own to explain why it is wrong to interfere in an ecosystem to introduce a non-native species, but right to do it in order preserve a native one.

To sum up then; once we turn our attention to the ways in which conservation debates are framed, and the language used when discussing native and non-native species, we become aware that the ethic of conservation is not free of controversial ethical standpoints. We should realise that conservation discourses have certain values implicit within them, and we should not uncritically and unreflectively accept that native species must be privileged over non-native species. Such assertions are not self-evident, they require supporting arguments; arguments that in all likelihood will be incompatible with claims that non-human animals have rights, or that we have strong duties towards them. For cosmopolitans, internationalists, liberals, animal rights activists, and all those who feel a sense of unease at the attitudes associated with nationalism, the normative undercurrent running beneath conservation discourse should be troubling. If we really are to say that the grey squirrel should be destroyed to save the red, then we need to be both more open about what we believe is valuable and provide better reasons in support of our case. That we must save the red is far from self-evident. Finally, I should like to add that my intention in this essay has not been to provide answers to the problems I have identified. It is my hope that by simply becoming aware of the way conservation is discussed, the values implicit within conservation discourse, and the contradictions that accompany it, we may come to develop a more enlightened, cosmopolitan kind of environmentalism in the future.


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

5 thoughts on “Against Conservationism

  1. I believe we must be mindful of other lives not just of fellow humans. Conservation in and of itself may not be the answer — zoos are in fact prisons for animals, as I see it, despite our desires to think otherwise and believe we are conserving animals and not allowing them to become extinct. As an animal in a zoo, I would rather be dead than locked up.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree about zoos – often (but not always) they seem like cruel prisons that animals cannot possibly flourish in.

      • Those who work and volunteer at zoos are some of the kindest people out there, and I try to remind myself that it is wrong to wholeheartedly criticize. There never seems to be the perfect solution…the world is far from black and white!

  2. Interesting discussion of consideration of individual animals and focusing on species. I suspect that an individual animal’s life is of value to that animal. Also, I’m in favor of trap/neuter/return for feral cats–as opposed to trap and kill–and many of the points you make are relevant to the debate about feral cats and local wildlife–usually birds, no one ever mentions rats–Do you kill a cat to save the bird(s) that it might kill?

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