Islands in the Gulf – Fragmented World of Nature Conservation

I’d like to begin with three visual impressions of our disparate and sometimes uncomfortable relationship with Nature:

Last of the Buffalo

Albert Bierstadt’s vision of ‘The Last of the Buffalo’, completed 1888

Odile after being speared

Odile, a female African elephant, with spears in her head after an attack by disgruntled tribesmen in the Kenya Amboseli National Park.
Photograph by Amboseli Elephant Research Project (2004)

Rhino translocation in South Africa

Black rhino being translocated to a secure new habitat in South Africa to help conserve the species.
Photograph © Michael Raimondo, WWF (2011)

These connections with nature can be so contentious it is as if we were living on separate islands in a stormy gulf of disagreement. If we visited these islands we would find that people on each one have constructed their own unique way of connecting to nature.

On the ‘nature-as-family’ island, we would find folk that look after gardens, pets and working animals, many would also look out for their favourite wild creatures and wildflowers when walking in the countryside. Their connection with the wild is direct: nature is part of the family.

On the ‘institutional’ island are those who have an orthodox or professional relationship with nature. They are the experts who analyse the plants and animals, calculate their protective status, determine their provenance and distribution, assess their economic value and formulate programmes that may conserve them.

Two of the islands appear to be separated by depths as bottomless as the Mariana Trench. On one side is a ‘spiritual’ island whose inhabitants find their spirits soaring when communing with the wild world. Theirs is a sacred connection with Nature of the kind John Muir described when he walked in the Sierra Nevada or Ian Player as he trekked through the African bush.

John Muir in Yosemite National Park

John Muir, Yosemite National Park in 1902.
Scottish-born Muir became an early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States. He saw Yosemite Valley as the “sanctum sanctorum” (Holy of Holies) of the Sierra Nevada.

On the other side of the gulf is a ‘utilitarian’ island. The people there have a more pragmatic approach to nature; they look for the vital resources and services that can be found in every ecosystem. On this island the value of an elephant is measured in the ivory market, that of a maned lion by the tens of thousands of pounds a hunter will pay to bag it, and that of a Californian redwood according to the tons of atmospheric carbon it has locked away. For all their money-mindedness, the folk on this island are equally committed to nature, knowing it may hardly survive unless the marketplace is kept open and the resource managed carefully.

Gifford Pinchot, Chief of US Forest Service 1905-10. He fought for the principle of a managed use of forests.

Gifford Pinchot, Chief of US Forest Service 1905-10.
He fought for the principle of managed-use of forests.

These different ways of relating to nature are recognisable in the history of the conservation movement. Wildlife conservation as we think of it today began life on the spiritual island in the late 19th century when John Muir and like-minded pioneers helped found the world’s first national parks.

Despite steady growth in the numbers of national parks, it had become clear by the 1950s and 60s that wildlife was declining over huge tracts of territory and that a more organised and systematic conservation was required. A group living on another island, the ‘scientific’ island, joined in the conservation movement. This island was populated by scientists and naturalists with a broader understanding of the species composition and ecology of nature, including such well-known pioneers as Sir Peter Scott in Britain, Jacques Cousteau in France and Rachel Carson in USA. They realised that the perilous state of nature demanded classification, analysis, legislation and monitoring.

Peter Scott ringing cygnet

Peter Scott – British painter, ornithologist, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund – ringing whooper swan cygnets in Iceland (1951)

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, American marine biologist and conservationist, author of Silent Spring (1950s)

Jacques Yves Cousteau

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, explorer, filmmaker, author, founder of The Cousteau Society for the Protection of Ocean Life and pioneer of marine conservation. The Cousteau Society/AP Photo

In recent times many, perhaps most, conservation professionals have decamped to yet another island – that of the utilitarians. Here they advocate conservation by commodification of nature. Each ‘ecosystem service’ is reckoned on having monetary value that can generate wealth (see blog, Payment for Eden). Commodification of nature draws upon a Marxist doctrine which advocates marketization as the solution to environmental degradation. Hence a forest may be developed to produce numerous commodified services such as carbon fixation, water purification, water storage, climate moistening, pollinator upkeep, honey production, timber production, firewood supply, venison production, mushroom provision, tourism trails, and so on, all of which can be weighed in the balance of economics against alternative uses for land such as plantation forestry or farming. The idea of payment for ecosystem resources and services is neither new nor controversial when taken as one component of nature conservation. What is new is taking commodification as the paramount organizing doctrine of modern conservation. In that restrictive sense conservation has strayed far from its founding principles.

Karl Marx in London

19th Century Engraving of Karl Marx speaking in London

Although there is some island-hopping and island-sharing – for instance institutional conservationists may have their households full of pets, scientists may work closely with individual animals, and those living on the ‘nature as family’ island may follow the progress of conservation science – by and large the conservation world operates as an archipelago of island states separated from one-another by a sea of disagreement and misunderstanding. If there is a solution to this unfortunate state of affairs, it would appear to lie in bridge-building.

If asked, many conservationists might agree that each kind of connection with nature has its own substantive value. We need material support – food, shelter, medicine and freshwater – and the rural jobs that developed wildlife can provide. We also need companionship from nature, inspiration, scientific ideas, and quiet places where nature-goers may find the mental space to be themselves.

Perhaps fewer conservationists would accept that ethical codes of conduct should govern our multiple relationships with nature, although the movement for environmental ethics, so ably developed by Aldo Leopold in the 1940s, is perceptibly gaining strength. The main difficulty to progress appears to be in persuading the global economy which is based on a short-term business cycle to adopt long-term sustainable and ethical principles.

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold, American ecologist, forester, environmentalist and author of A Sand County Almanac, circa 1942 .

What else is on offer? Media democracy? This has the advantage of involving more people but the disadvantage of creating its own division. On one side of the division are the elite with conservation knowledge who make policies and plans and on the other side are those who consume their seductive messages. We may end up, perhaps we have already ended up, not so far from where we started off – on an archipelago of island-states except that now each island-state is broadcasting the importance of its own appealing message.

What else then? Can governments, the ultimate institutions, build a set of bridges? Can they, for instance regulate our spiritual and aesthetic connections with nature? I doubt if they are equipped for such a role but they might assist with legislation against mistreatment and misuse of wildlife.

Marabou on Satellite Dish

Marabou Stork roosting happily in Kampala, Uganda where it helps to keep the streets clean. Photograph by Martyn Murray

For my part I like to begin at the very beginning when people shared a common way of life and knew themselves to be a part of wild nature. That is our starting point and I believe it is with us still. No matter how sophisticated our culture, our inner nature still has its origin in the wider realm of the larger nature surrounding us. We remain connected. From this perspective it is self-apparent that our modern ways of engaging with the environment should incorporate care and respect for nature – just as we try to bring these same qualities to dealings amongst ourselves. But we surely need something more assertive as well, a positive and powerful movement in which all can participate. It should be a celebration of nature and ourselves, and have the capacity to unify the archipelago of our connections with nature. Where will it come from? My guess is that rewilding is the way forward. I will write more about it in a future blog.

About Martyn Murray

I fell in love with nature when I turned twenty-one camping under Acacias in East Africa, surrounded by giraffe and zebra with my nape hair raised by the distant roaring of lions. I went on to work for fifty years in Africa, Europe and Asia as an ecologist and conservation consultant. A few years ago I moved to the Isle of Lismore to pursue my passion for reconnecting people with the natural world. My first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. My second, Origin of Species: Bite-Sized, contains the essence of Charles Darwin's greatest work – his theory of evolution by natural selection – in a text that is 15% the length of the original. The third, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat and on how to keep personal freedom alive. I am currently working on a fourth which is about the global collapse of the natural world. Its working title is, In This Together. It challenges us all over our current connections with nature. More details are on my website,
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1 Response to Islands in the Gulf – Fragmented World of Nature Conservation

  1. Pingback: The Butterfly That Beat Its Wings | The Wild Nature Blog

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