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What is conservation?
CHRIS SANDBROOK
In a recent Editorial in Conservation Biology, Michael Soulé,
a founding father of the discipline of Conservation Biology,
took issue with a group of scholars and practitioners who
have developed the so-called new conservation. He argued
that because [new conservations] goal is to supplant the
biological diversity-based model of traditional conservation
with something entirely different, namely an economic
growth-based or humanitarian movement, it does not de-
serve to be labelled conservation(Soulé, ). What is re-
markable about this statement is Soulés presumption that
there is a clear definition of what conservation is. As his art-
icle makes clear, he believes that conservation should be
about protecting nature for its own sake, and that a move-
ment that focuses on delivering benefits to people is there-
fore not conservation at all.
Some might see the debate about new conservation to
which Soulés article seeks to contribute as a sideshow
alongside the daily business of getting conservation work
done. Certainly the debate has been at times ill-tempered,
but it does serve to reveal an uncomfortable truth that lies
at the heart of the conservation movementnamely, that
there are profound disagreements about what conservation
is. This is more than just an academic question, because so
many of the choices that conservation entails about what to
conserve, where and how, grow out from how it is defined,
whether implicitly or explicitly. There is much disagreement
about all of these things within conservation, as demon-
strated by the debate about new conservation and earlier
disagreements about the proper relationship between con-
servation and development (Oates, ). These differences
are confirmed by empirical research into the values held by
conservationists (Sandbrook et al., ). Given this level of
disagreement it seems reasonable to ask whether there are
any shared characteristics that cut across all different
forms of conservation and, if so, what might the answer to
this question tell us about the future of the conservation
movement?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines conservation as
the action of conserving something. To unpack the word
conservingin this sentence, the dictionary provides two
relevant definitions of the verb to conserve: to protect
from harm or destructionand to prevent the wasteful over-
use of a resource. These points describe two important
themes in conservation thinking, and for some people the
implicit acceptance of sustainable use in the second of
these definitions is a defining feature of conservation that
distinguishes it from preservation, where the latter is fo-
cused on protecting areas of wilderness entirely free from
people (Sarkar, ; see Cronon, , for a critique of
the idea of wilderness). However, others see wilderness pres-
ervation as an important part of conservation, so this dis-
tinction is not universally recognized.
Most definitions of conservation provided by conserva-
tionists reflect their authorsparticular view of what conser-
vation ought to be. For example, Leader-Williams et al.
() define conservation as actions that directly enhance
the chances of habitats and species persisting in the wild.
This emphasizes habitats and species, and persistence in
the wild, which in turn suggest a particular set of actions in-
tended to achieve these goals. There is nothing wrong with
this definition, and many people who call themselves con-
servationists would agree with it. Others would not, how-
ever. For example, some are particularly concerned with
conserving the genetic diversity within single species of agri-
cultural crops, and others may not wish to limit their con-
cern to the wild. So the Leader-Williams et al. definition of
conservation, like Soulés and most others, describes a
branch of the conservation tree rather than the tree itself.
It is possible to engage in lengthy debates about the merits
or demerits of each definition (the new conservation litera-
ture is just such an example) but this does not help with the
broader task of identifying shared ground.
Given the diversity of perspectives on what conservation
is, it is necessary to take several steps back from the specifics
of conservation objectives and practice to find a definition
that might be acceptable to everybody. The broad definition
of conservation that I propose is: actions that are intended
to establish, improve or maintain good relations with na-
ture. This definition highlights the idea of conservation as
something that is active rather than passive (actions). It re-
cognizes that some conservation actions create new relation-
ships with nature (establish) whereas others build on
existing relationships (improve or maintain). At the same
time it recognizes that despite good intentions, not all con-
servation actions are successful (intended to). It captures the
positive intentions of conservation towards nature (good re-
lations), whilst leaving room for different perspectives on
what these relations might entail. Finally, it allows for di-
verse understandings of the entity with which these relations
are held (nature), which for some may include people and
even non-living geodiversity.
CHRIS SANDBROOK United Nations Environment Programme World
Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, and Department of Geography,
University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
E-mail chris.sandbrook@unep-wcmc.org
Oryx
, 2015, 49(4), 565566 ©2015 Fauna & Flora International doi:10.1017/S0030605315000952
I feel this definition is broad enough to capture all things
that might be thought of as conservation (ranging from the
strict protection of national parks and the eradication of in-
vasive species right through to forms of farming and gar-
dening), and yet narrow enough to exclude things that are
done deliberately to harm nature. In this sense, it does its
job. However, it is certainly too broad to be used as the
basis for determining conservation priorities or actions.
This conclusion demands careful thought. If the conserva-
tion movement is so diverse that a definition of conservation
that suits everybody is this vague, is it useful to think of con-
servation as a single movement at all? Perhaps instead the
process of developing this definition demonstrates that con-
temporary conservation is not one thing but many, and that
there can be more that separates different conservations
from each other than binds them together.
Recognition of the diversity of conservation has two im-
portant implications for the future of the conservation
movement. Firstly, it challenges the view of those who
have argued for an end to internal debates over the meaning
of conservation in favour of a unified and diverse conserva-
tion ethic; one that recognizes and accepts all values of na-
ture, from intrinsic to instrumental, and welcomes all
philosophies justifying nature protection and restoration,
from ethical to economic, and from aesthetic to utilitarian
(Tallis & Lubchenco, ). This sounds good and might be
pragmatic when speaking to diverse audiences, but if con-
servation is not one thing but many then attempts to fold
them into a single movement under the banner of inclusivity
seem unrealistic in practice, and potentially stifling of debate
over what are real and meaningful differences of opinion.
Secondly, it raises the question of which version(s) of
conservation thinking different conservation organizations
and individuals actually subscribe to. It is remarkable that
so much energy has been invested in efforts to characterize
and champion particular forms of conservation without
asking conservationists themselves whether they recognize
these positions and/or agree with them. This is an area
ripe for further empirical research.
The new conservation debate has been a source of frus-
tration for many conservationists who see it as divisive and
dichotomizing. However, it highlights the fact that conser-
vation in the st century is such a broad movement that it
resists straightforward definition and is riddled with contra-
dictory values and viewpoints. Given this situation, it is
tempting to argue that the word conservation (with its back-
ward looking and conservative connotations) should be jet-
tisoned altogether. But it is a deeply embedded and widely
recognized label for those who care about nature, and
here to stay. Rather, it might make sense for those with
closely aligned values and preferred means of action to
come up with titles and definitions for their own form of
conservation. The resulting conservations would then fit
(sometimes uncomfortably) within the broader singular cat-
egory of conservation. In this vision conservation becomes a
forest rather than a single treea parliament not a
corporation.
This might appear an admission of failure, as the ortho-
dox view has been that conservation is strengthened by pre-
senting a united front to the outside world because a
patchwork approach to conservation synergizes its ineffect-
iveness(Child, ). However, it could instead be seen as a
sign of maturity as conservation grows in scale and influ-
ence. In this vision, different (and sometimes contradictory)
perspectives could be promoted unashamedly by those who
support them rather than swept under the carpet. This
would make it easier for conservationists to identify who
they would, or would not, like to work with, and enable
niche forms of conservation to get on with their work with-
out worrying about undermining the integrity of the conser-
vation movement as a whole. There are many conservations,
and it is time to stop pretending otherwise.
Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Bill Adams and Martin Fisher for helpful
comments.
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IntroductionPath dependence in conservation policyPolicy changeParks and narrative changeWhat factors encourage path dependence?Addressing path dependence in conservation policyReferences
Chapter
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) Myth and Reality in the Rain Forest: How Conservation Strategies are Failing in West Africa
  • J Oates
OATES, J. () Myth and Reality in the Rain Forest: How Conservation Strategies are Failing in West Africa. University of California Press, Berkley, USA.