Convivial Conservation: book review and authors’ response

Read Rogelio Luque-Lora’s review of “Convivial Conservation” with a response from the authors, Rob Fletcher and Bram Buscher – comments are very welcome!

Living with Nonhumans
The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene
by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher
Reviewed by Rogelio Luque-Lora

This is a shortened version of a review published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Philosopher. You can download a free copy of the full review here.


Despite conservationists’ best efforts, global biological diversity continues to disappear at alarming rates. According to political ecologists Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, this is, to a large extent, a consequence of mainstream conservation not addressing biodiversity declines in the right ways. The authors acknowledge that there is significant variation in mainstream approaches to conservation, but that two fundamental premises are dominant. Firstly, a stark dualism, both material and epistemological, between human and nonhuman nature. This dualism carries the normative implication that nature ought to be saved from humans – hence the historical focus on protected areas as the cornerstone of global conservation. The second premise of mainstream conservation is its embrace, ideological or pragmatic, of the capitalist development model. As the authors explain, the histories of capitalism and conservation are entwined, with conservation having emerged as a response to the increasing destruction wrought by capitalist development. In practical terms, conservationists often decide that it is more productive to partner with capitalist interests to generate the funds needed for their projects than to fight against the dominant political economy.

According to Büscher and Fletcher, the recognition that mainstream conservation is failing to save biodiversity has triggered the recent appearance of more radical approaches. As the authors explain in the opening paragraph of their book, the last decade has seen growing urgency and pressure on both the natural world and the conservation community, which has led many to conclude that gradual, stepwise improvements to mainstream conservation will not suffice to prevent worldwide ecological catastrophes. Taken together, the authors contend, these are good reasons to believe that a revolution in conservation is underway.

Büscher and Fletcher identify two major radical alternatives to mainstream conservation, the main features of which can be apprehended from how they position themselves with respect to its two fundamental premises. The first group, new conservationists, reject nature-culture dualism while showing enthusiasm for working within capitalist processes and logics. They endorse the view that in the Anthropocene pristine nature independent of human impacts no longer exists. Therefore, rather than try – and fail – to protect perceived wilderness areas from human activities, new conservationists argue that the natural world ought to be integrated into the capitalist economy. The hope is that once the (capitalist) value of nature is taken into consideration, humans and nature can develop in harmony.

The dehesas of the Iberian peninsula have developed through the action and coexistence of wildlife, livestock and humans. In them, any notion of stark dualism between humans and nature falls apart. Source: author’s own.

The second group, neoprotectionists, firmly oppose both these claims. According to the loudest voices within neoprotectionism, it is a gross exaggeration to think that because human activities are leaving a mark on planetary processes, all species and ecosystems are now dependent on human will. The only real way to save biodiversity is to have more numerous, larger and better-connected areas where nonhuman natures can continue to live in ways largely independent of human activities. The most radical neoprotectionists think that at least half of the Earth’s surface must be set aside for “inviolable” nature reserves. For the most part, neoprotectionists see the rising consumption trends and endless economic growth that characterise capitalism as key drivers of biodiversity loss.

A closer reading of the history of conservation ideas, however, calls into question the authors’ accounts of new conservation and neoprotectionism as recent, radical challenges to mainstream conservation. While new conservation presents itself as a novel approach fit for conservation in the Anthropocene, the ideas behind it are at least decades old. In a paper published in 1999, development scholar David Hulme and social anthropologist Marshall Murphree described the then-recent shift in African conservation toward approaches that were people-centred and promoted economic growth. Strikingly, they named this shift “new conservation”. Similarly, the fact that new conservation’s radical counterpart is effectively called new protectionism should also raise suspicions about its novelty. Conservation interventions that aim to protect pristine nature from human activities date back at least to the nineteenth century Romantic cult of wilderness.

To be sure, new conservation and neoprotectionism are not carbon copies of their respective predecessors. It is clear that the advent of the Anthropocene has given new conservation and neoprotectionism scalar dimensions not seen in the traditions from which they derive. In the case of new conservation, this is manifested in their call to embrace the global ubiquity of human influence on the rest of nature. In neoprotectionism, it is the scaling up of protected areas to set aside half of the planet’s surface for inviolable nature reserves that is novel. Yet these differences are operational rather than ideological. New conservation’s embrace of human influence stems from their pragmatic belief that protecting wild areas for their own sake has not worked. In the case of neoprotectionism, the values behind proposals to protect half of the planet are indistinct from twentieth century ecocentrism and deep ecology.

The similarities between new conservation and neoprotectionism and their respective predecessors are not exclusively theoretical. The ideologies promoted by new conservationists and neoprotectionists, far from rejecting mainstream conservation practices, actually align with many of them. For instance, decades-old community-based conservation and payments for ecosystem services both fit the new conservationist paradigm of promoting human wellbeing and integrating the natural world into the economy. Similarly, the fact that neoprotectionism has also been called “back-to-the-barriers” indicates that many of the practices they endorse have been deployed for a long time. If the ideological stances and the practices promoted by new conservation and neoprotectionism, which Büscher and Fletcher identify as new and radical, are in fact decades old, the authors’ claim that a revolution is brewing is compromised.

Perhaps most worryingly for their accounts of new conservation and neoprotectionism as radical challenges to mainstream conservation is the number of caveats the authors find in this very classification. Büscher and Fletcher successfully show why both new conservationists’ rejection of nature/culture dualism and neoprotectionists’ scepticism of the capitalist economy are shallow and unfounded. As the authors demonstrate, nature/culture dualism is inherent to capitalism, so by embracing the capitalist political economy, new conservationists fundamentally undermine their aim of overcoming dualism. With respect to neoprotectionism, Büscher and Fletcher convincingly argue that, although neoprotectionists are right to claim that integrating biodiversity into the global capitalist market will not save it, the protected areas they promote cannot be sustained indefinitely against capitalism’s inherent need to grow beyond its own frontiers. Moreover, in practice, the strict protected areas championed by neoprotectionism are often funded by processes that rely on capitalist exchanges, such as ecotourism and philanthropy. A more accurate conclusion of these critical analyses is that these supposedly radical approaches are merely episodic and rhetorical variations on a more broadly defined mainstream conservation.

***

The authors’ legitimate dissatisfaction with new conservation and neoprotectionism leads them to develop their own radical proposal, which they call “convivial conservation”. Convivial conservation seeks to be truly post-capitalist and offers a range of short- and long-term suggestions for moving beyond capitalist conservation. One example is the transition from traditional protected areas to so-called promoted areas. In and around these areas, people’s livelihoods would be based not on capitalist enterprises like ecotourism, but on activities including the sustainable use of natural resources and a “conservation basic income”, which would be funded through the state, promoted area entrance fees and crowd sourcing. On a broader scale, the recognition that the success of convivial conservation ultimately depends on the global dismantling of capitalism also requires conservationists to challenge hegemonic power through campaigning and other forms of political action.

The second pillar of convivial conservation is its rejection of human-nature dualism. According to the authors, nature and society must be viewed not as separate but rather as mutually related and co-constituted, a conclusion to which they arrive after reviewing a range of Anthropocene scholars, including Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing and Jason Moore. But while convivial conservation wholly rejects capitalism, its takedown of human-nature dualism is partial. Büscher and Fletcher argue that in seeking to bring other species and abiotic processes back into moral and political focus, more-than-human, animal, new materialist, and posthumanist theorists have “swung the pendulum much too far” and erased many meaningful and necessary distinctions between humans and other creatures. While urging us to accept and rejoice in the plurality of connections and similarities between humans and nonhumans, the authors wish to retain some form of human exceptionalism.

The reason for this is the realisation that without some form of human exceptionality, any attempt to establish healthier relations with nonhuman natures are bound to fail. There is little in the natural world that is inherently convivial (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the quality of being lively and friendly”). Covid-19, malaria-spreading mosquitoes, and crop-raiding elephants are examples of the indifference of nonhuman natures to human wellbeing. Even seemingly harmonious natural states, such as the (perceived) balance of ecosystems, are the product of forces utterly indifferent to the lives of individual organisms (one such force is the killing of prey species by predators at rates that compensate for the production of offspring in far greater numbers than their habitats can sustain). As Lao Tzu may have put it, “heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”.

For human beings to transcend this ruthlessness and voluntarily establish stable and reciprocal relations with the rest of the natural world, they must have the capacity to function as intentional political and moral agents. As far as we know, this ability is absent in all nonhuman species, at least in the measure that would be required for the major societal changes that this book promotes. Kate Soper has made a similar point:

Unless human beings are differentiated from other organic and inorganic forms of being, they can be made no more liable for the effects of their occupancy of the ecosystem than can any other species, and it would make no more sense to call upon them to desist from destroying nature than to call upon cats to stop killing birds.

Yet the only reason for accepting human exceptionalism that is provided throughout the book is that it is required for convivial ecological politics to emerge. This does not prove human exceptionalism to be true; it only proves that without it, the kind of conservation that the authors envision is an impossibility.

During summer months, drought and high temperatures in the Mediterranean habitats kill all non-woody vegetation and put animals at risk of starvation and dehydration. “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.” Source: author’s own.

Though it was published nearly two decades ago, John Gray’s Straw Dogs (which takes its title from the Lao Tzu quote above) can be read as a provocative antagonist to The Conservation Revolution. Like many of the posthumanist writers reviewed by Büscher and Fletcher, Gray seeks to present a less human-centred view of the world. The idea that humans are categorically distinct from other animals is, according to Gray, largely a Judeo-Christian invention, which humanist thinkers have unknowingly inherited despite their atheist credentials. Had Darwin published his work in Daoist China or the pre-Columbian Americas, the suggestion that animals are our evolutionary kin would not have caused the uproar it did in Christian Europe.

Straw Dogs is not oblivious to the troubling implications of erasing distinctions between humans and the rest of the natural world. On the contrary: it lays them bare. According to Gray, lacking the qualities that supposedly set us apart from other animals (most notably the capacity for free will and the volition to act morally) implies that we can expect the biosphere to treat us in much the same ways it treats other organisms: eventually, negative feedback processes, like diseases and shortages of natural resources, will push back against Homo sapiens. These are bleak prospects, so one serious challenge for convivial conservationists is to prove not just that human exceptionalism is necessary, but also that there are theoretical and empirical grounds for believing it to be true.

Work in other areas is also needed to show convivial conservation to be viable. There is no shortage of examples of human greed, folly, indifference and ecological devastation from both before the advent of global capitalism and in non-capitalist economies since. While the authors’ contention that capitalism is inherently unsustainable is in principle convincing, they and others now need to show that whatever might replace it will do better at reining in those ecologically undesirable human traits. Büscher and Fletcher have shown that conservationists’ aims of preserving nonhuman natures are unlikely to be met without a revolution in their approaches and partnerships. Now they and their sympathisers need to show that such a revolution is possible, and that its outcomes will be desirable.

Response by Rob Fletcher and Bram Buscher

We would like to thank Rogelio Luque-Lora for his thoughtful and sympathetic treatment of our book. He raises a number of important issues concerning our analysis of contemporary conservation debates and their implications for future practice that warrant discussion and engagement. We want to take this opportunity to respond to two of Luque-Lora’s assertions that we find most significant in the context of ongoing political ecology debates.

First, Luque-Lora argues that the two recent proposals for reforming conservation we single out– new conservation and neoprotectionism – are not really so novel and radical as depicted. In part this is a semantic question concerning how one chooses to define these particular qualities. This framing of positions were also meant as part of a broader heuristic model that through simplification helps to clarify the stakes and issues in current conservation debates. But our main aim in describing these provocative approaches in this way was not necessarily to claim that they were in fact novel and radical, but that they had both been characterized as such – that is, as calls to dramatically transform dominant conservation policy and practice – by their proponents. This common self-characterization – and the invitation it offered to question mainstream conservation approaches in even more transformative fashion – was what we sought to highlight. Given that they have led to major and very heated debates within the conservation community, it is clear that some of their proposals and arguments were also seen as radical challenges by many others. But through illustrating and analysing this in detail, we at the same time concluded that the two proposals were really not as novel and radical as proponents claimed. Besides demonstrating that both positions are indeed rooted in longstanding strains of thought emerging from mainstream conservation approaches, the more important point for us was that both continue to harbour deep-seated contradictions that cannot provide a productive way forward for conservation policy. This is why our analysis led to our suggested and preferred alternative of convivial conservation.

The second, and to our minds more intriguing issue that Luque-Lora raises with our analysis concerns the question of human exceptionalism and its implications for the convivial approach we advocate. As Luque-Lora describes, we pull back from the sort of radical critique of the nature-culture dualism levelled by many other critical social scientists aiming to dismantle (nearly) all divides between humans and other entities. Instead, we reassert that some degree of differentiation between humans and others, as well as between nature and culture more broadly, is not just simple realism, but necessary to be able to wage an effective environmental politics. If this is not done, we argued, there is no way to single out humans’ impacts on the rest of the world as unique and hence uniquely problematic.

But we are not the only ones who assert the necessity of human exceptionalism in this way. While ecocentric critics often decry anthropocentrism in conservation policy, they nonetheless (and paradoxically) demand just this in asking that humans reflect on and change the way we interact with other species to become ecocentric in the manner demanded. No other species (short of outlier proposals such as to alter predators’ behavior through gene-editing; see e.g. Johannsen 2017) are asked to do (or likely considered capable of doing) the same. Hence this stance assumes a unique human capacity on which the politics advocated necessarily relies. In short: a conviction that humans possess the capacity to move beyond human exceptionalism is arguably the most exceptionally human capacity that distinguishes us from other animals.

Yet, as Luque-Lora argues, just because human exceptionalism may be necessary for effective conservation politics does not automatically make it reality. But we believe there is strong evidence to support its reality too. It is true and important that many qualities considered uniquely human by Western thinkers in the Cartesian tradition in the past – language use, sociality, self-consciousness, proactive planning, and so forth – have now been called into question by research that convincingly demonstrates their presence among other species (see e.g. De Waal 2016). Yet even if these qualities are not wholly unique to humans, we still believe that they are consequentially different in humans as compared to other animals (see Büscher, in press). Hence, whether human-nonhuman differences are of degree rather than of kind is in many ways a moot point with respect to ecological politics, since they remain significant in their consequences. One piece of rather straightforward if superficial evidence to substantiate this point is the fact that Luque-Lora is debating these issues with us and other people rather than with non-humans.

Less trite and more important for our convivial conservation proposal is the human capacity to exercise conviviality with respect to the rest of the world, on which Luque-Lora rightly asserts that our proposal depends. Interestingly, he questions whether this same capacity exists not only in humans but also more-than-humans. Drawing on Lao Tzu and John Gray, he contends that “nature” is widely characterized by a certain exercise of and indifference to cruelty and suffering. But this overlooks the fact that various nonhumans also exhibit a capacity for compassion and altruism (see e.g. Sussman & Cloninger 2011).

In her own meditations on the topic, Jane Goodall (2010) has asserted that what distinguishes humans from other animals, even close relatives like chimpanzees, is our uniquely intense capacity both to inflict violence and cruelty and to exercise compassion and kindness. This, Goodall argues, is evidenced by our waging of lethal warfare on a scale beyond any other known species and by the unprecedented ways in which we also care for our sick and injured. The takeaway point for us from this is that a hard-nosed, realistic conservation politics needs to acknowledge both of these uniquely intense human capacities, but especially to emphasise the possibility and need to cultivate the positive capacities in ourselves and others. Moreover, how our different capacities are expressed, we believe, is fundamentally shaped by the sociocultural, historical and political-economic structures in which we exist; hence our emphasis on the importance of attending to these structures in addition to a focus on immediate human-nonhuman interactions in order to foster the (democratic, equitable) conditions in which (commodified) competition (both intra- and interspecies) can be minimized and space for conviviality expanded.

We take the call to push this further very seriously, and deliberately ended our book by saying that we join all of those already working for transformative structural change with hope. Hope, clearly, is not enough to demonstrate that our proposal is better than what currently exists. But in the face of widespread ecosystemic breakdown, species extinctions and obscene inequalities, we do need this yet-again exceptional human quality to give it our best shot. We invite Luque-Lora and others to join us in this movement.

References

Büscher, B. (in press). The nonhuman turn: critical reflections on alienation, entanglement and nature under capitalism. Dialogues in Human Geography.

De Waal, F. (2016). Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? London: WW Norton & Company.

Goodall, J. (2010). Through a window: My thirty years with the chimpanzees of Gombe. London: HMH.

Johannsen, K. (2017). Animal rights and the problem of r-strategists. Ethical theory and moral practice20(2), 333-345.

Sussman, R. W., & Cloninger, C. R. (Eds.). (2011). Origins of altruism and cooperation. New York: Springer.

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