Nature conservation has become an issue of pressing importance to top decision makers as well as to the general public.
In a time of fast economic and technologic transition at a global scale, the state of the whole world is at a higher stake than it has ever been, and maintaining the same course is no longer an option. The dominant paradigm of irreproachable economic growth is being questioned as unsustainable.
Humanity is at a turning point which will have direct and indirect implications on nature conservation.
On the presidential elections of the most influential country in the world and, one can argue the most responsible for global environmental degradation, both candidates saw the need to promise major environmental policy change, as defended by the majority of the population.
The improved relationship between some of the countries taking part in G20 negotiations is also a positive sign for the necessary global agreements to tackle environmental problems, particularly climate change.
It’s opportune to ask what type of human society and its relationship with nature do people aspire. How much change will occur and in which direction will depend on people putting forward their philosophy of how the world should be and nature conservation is an unavoidable issue that everyone having a thought about the future on this planet ought to take in consideration.
Awareness of the need for nature conservation happens mainly as a consequence of two factors: the actual worsening of nature depletion at a global level, and the increased availability of scientific and documental information about its functions and what is happening to it.
Among people with an interest in nature conservation there are many distinct views about nature, humans’ relationship with it and how we should deal with its fate, some being quite antagonistic.
This is reflected on the political contrast between those that believe that radical change is needed in the way societies are structured and those that are quite happy to maintain the same order with just the necessary greening reforms.
When the values and points of view are comprehensive and well established by the person formulating them, they are part of one’s personal philosophy of nature conservation. As people share similar values the term philosophy is usually referred to the system of values with which a wide group of people identify.
Nature conservation became necessary to restore nature to a state closer to the one it was in before humans damaged it, as well as to avoid further damage.
Practical nature conservation deals with the science and methods that humans can employ in the field.
A philosophy of nature conservation pursues a coherent set of values concerning the protection of nature from human disruption.
These can be more or less radical according to the underlying assumptions and practicalities and can be drawn from ethics, science, economics or even practical conservation.
At the epicentre of a philosophy of nature conservation is the way nature is regarded and as such this topic deserves special consideration.
THE WAYS HUMANS VIEW NATURE
Throughout history, as values have changed due to advance in scientific knowledge or sociological paradigm, trends have also changed in the way interested people view nature.
The core values in most modern human societies have been shaped or at least greatly influenced by religion. And it is not only the religious people that are influenced by its value system.
Judeo-Christianity (the most widespread religion in the West) is blamed by some for the ecological crisis that the Earth is facing. The assertion is that the value we give to nature will determine the way we allow it to be exploited and destroyed.
Judeo-Christianity, being unreservedly anthropocentric, considers humans in a superior category making them more important than all other creatures (White 1967). It also gives them implicit rights to dominate and transform nature as they wish. With the replacement of paganism by monotheism, people stopped to venerate the natural beings which they used to associate with spirits. Worshiping nature became a heresy.
Some of the notions in Judeo-Christianity that are detrimental to nature were adopted from previous philosophies, as the superiority of form over matter as promoted by Aristotle.
Even when a religion encourages nature stewardship, it is still anthropocentric as it is not valuing nature for what it really is, but rather for what it means to humans.
The contrasting philosophy is that of biocentrism, a holistic position which affirms that all natural beings have intrinsic value independently of the value they may have to humans. If all human life ceased to exist, nature would still have value. All living beings serve a purpose; otherwise they would have already been eliminated by natural selection.
James Lovelock draws from biocentrism the holistic view of nature as an organism to formulate the Gaia hypothesis as a theory of the whole world as an organism.
Another philosophy that usually goes hand in hand with biocentrism is ecocentrism, which focus on the fact that all species including humans have evolved together and because of that are interdependent.
Environmental ethics considers that the ecological crisis could be ended by extending moral consideration to non-human beings.
Deep ecology argues that the environment has the same right to exist as humans, with humans being integral members of the environment.
In contrast with Judeo-Christian postulation, deep ecology sees nature not as means to an end but as an end in itself.
Arne Naess encouraged everyone to develop his/her own view of nature and the relationship of humans with it.
Shallow ecology (also called reform environmentalism) on the other hand is mainly concerned with solving ecological problems without challenging the human values and social structure that led to those problems. Shallow ecology doesn’t question the rights humans have given themselves to objectify and exploit nature to nature’s disadvantage.
Andrew Brennan, like most conservationists, says that deep ecology draws on idealism and global holism which are metaphysical and not supported by physics.
Brennan’s eco-humanism considers scientific ecology as an important framework for political and ethical thinking that reveals that we are part of nature, and claims that what we are depends on where we are.
His philosophy of nature conservation takes in consideration the interests of people, not ignoring human’s demands for food, water, energy and technology.
ROMANTICIZATION OF INDIGENOUS SOCIETIES
Environmentalists are often accused of romanticizing the tribal as well as the developed countries pre-industrial relationship of humans with nature.
Some hunter gatherers’ and primitive agriculturalists’ societies have a sustainable relationship with the environment. But many distant indigenous societies weren’t always in the idealized equilibrium with nature that some imagine.
Tribal people see the idea of wilderness as only residing in European imagination. Before European influence, many remote societies had developed what could be considered civilized towns that included large fortifications, terraces for agriculture and animal domestication. They had also introduced species and extinguished others.
Fire had been used by most societies for as long or more than 1 million years.
It’s not necessarily the case that societies that didn’t acquire any tools from the industrial revolution were not in their own way causing nature destruction.
It is true that technologically developed societies require a far larger output of resources and input of pollution than tribal societies, but it can’t be said that exponential increase in population and territorial expansion wouldn’t lead tribal societies to the destruction of some ecosystems. Nor can it be said that most tribes aren’t anthropocentric, as several species have been exterminated in short periods of time.
Each person in a tribal society is more in tune with nature, if only for the fact that their community directly experiences the consequences of disrespecting nature, which in many cases translates to less abundance, famine and death.
It may be the case that if both societies are heading towards environmental destruction, the one developing advanced technologies could be the only one with the key to solve the problem. That said, there are other reasons, namely sociological, for people to look up to a society that is not so distant from nature as modern highly technological cities.
William Clarke argues that most palaeotechnic humans, given the option of using neotechnic cultivation, would do so. But it may well be that they don’t know all the long term consequences of that option or it may also be that they are compelled to do that, because of living in a situation that has been degraded and restricted by external influences. In any case, generalization of which cultivation approach is the best shouldn’t be made, as each situation will be specific.
In some cases the intentions of conservationists conflict with those of indigenous people, particularly in issues related to indigenous people’s land rights issues. Michael Mansell, the Tasmanian aboriginal leader referred to those advocating the extension of national parks in Tasmania as “trespassers on aboriginal land”.
CONSENSUS VERSUS PLURALISM
One’s philosophy of nature conservation often is generated out of broader ideologies about how the world should be. This is mostly determined by one’s experiences and education.
But all philosophies make assumptions which are not agreed by everyone. Even between any two people in a group that defends a certain philosophy there will be points of disagreement.
People’s belief system generally becomes more consolidated the older people are, as we acquire the capacity to better understand the world and be more assertive on our personal judgement of it. However one’s ideology is not immutable and two people disagreeing on something may do so merely because of a dogmatic assumption that might crumble if only it is questioned.
Also, just because two people have antagonistic views about something doesn’t necessarily mean that their moral standing regarding that particular issue is any different. Peoples experiences in life can lead them to judge an issue in a particular way.
For instance, two people can have different views about the increase of human population in a particular area even though they both have the protection of the environment as the reason to have that view.
Some people would like nature conservation to be guaranteed first and only then deal with any problems to humans that may arise from that. Others would like to see nature conservation to take into account human’s interests from the start.
According to A. Brennan, we ought to locate a problem within a larger framework than the one where the problem directly lies, to be able to conclude that it is an actual problem and not only an arguable inconvenience.
For ethical theorists such as J. B. Callicott, value is only conferred by humans according to their morals which are a product of evolution. H. Rolston on the other hand defends that natural beings have intrinsic value independently of any human ever valuing them or not.
Still many thinkers hold that a normative theory should be pluralistic, so that it acknowledges the conflicting frameworks.
There are several disagreements among conservationists about the way nature should be conserved in practice, which derive from one’s environmental philosophy. Some, for instance, defend non-interventionism, arguing that we should not impose our will on the course nature takes. Others will say that not all intervention is destructive and actively managing certain habitats improves their value as habitats.
The wider issue of sustainability on the other hand gains very wide concern as the fair way to allow future generations to have access to the same resources that we have today. It easily fits in most people’s anthropocentric philosophy.
Blueprint for Survival (E. Goldsmith et al) proposed decentralization of human societies and self-sufficiency on some things. There would be towns of around 500 people in larger areas of 50,000 people and regions of around 500,000.
We don’t know how human societies will be in the near future but taking into account just the different philosophies on nature conservation, it doesn’t seem to be possible to appeal to all. One can only guess if there will be an increase in divergence between different human communities or if on the other hand the process of global homogenization will win.
Attfield, Robin (1983) – The Ethics of Environmental Concern – The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia
Brennan, Andrew (1988) - Thinking about Nature – Routledge, London
Goldsmith, F.B. and Warren, A. (1991) – Conservation in Progress – John Willey and Sons, Chichester
Pepper, David (1996) – Modern Environmentalism, an Introduction – Routledge, New York
Young, John (1990) – Post Environmentalism – Belhaven Press, London
Zimmerman, Michael E. et al (2001) – Environmental Philosophy – From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology – Prentice Hall, New Jersey