13 Nov 2014: Interview

A Scientist's Call for Civility
And Diversity in Conservation

The ongoing debate over how to value the natural world has become rancorous and counterproductive, says marine biologist Jane Lubchenco. It is time, she tells Yale Environment 360, for the dispute to end and for conservation efforts to become more diverse.

by diane toomey

For the past few years, an acrimonious debate has been ranging between two camps of conservationists. One faction advocates protecting nature for its intrinsic value. The other claims that if the degradation of the natural world is to be halted, nature’s fundamental value — in other words, what nature can do for us — needs to be stressed. The tone of the rhetoric has
Joy Leighton
Jane Lubchenco
led to a petition, published this month in the journal Nature, that criticizes both sides for indulging in ad hominem attacks and unproductive arguments that have devolved into “increasingly vitriolic, personal battles.”

The petition’s 240 co-signatories, led by Jane Lubchenco, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Heather Tallis, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, call for an end to the infighting, which, they point out, is dominated by men’s voices.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lubchenco, now professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, explains why she and her co-signatories are calling for a more “inclusive conservation” and why the bickering needs to stop.

Yale Environment 360:What was the genesis of this petition?

Jane Lubchenco:I think this petition arose because of deep frustration that many of us were feeling that conservation biology was really getting sidetracked – that it was caught up in rancorous debate that was inhibiting open conversations, prohibiting funding of conservation science, and diverting attention away from the real focus that we believe it should have, which is moving ahead to conserve as much nature as possible for a wide variety of reasons.

e360: The petition states that what began as a healthy debate has “descended into vitriolic personal battles.” Why, in your estimation, did it get to that point?

Lubchenco: That’s a good question. You know, sometimes people are people. They so believe in what they do, they sometimes get carried away with it. And in this particular case, individuals who believe passionately that we should be conserving nature for its own intrinsic value had, I believe, legitimate concerns that focusing on the value of nature to people both cheapened the moral and ethical arguments for protecting biodiversity, but also would open the gates to lack of protection if something was not obviously useful to people. But that perspective was
A lot of people are saying, enough already, this really is not helpful.”
articulated in a way that implied that was the only valid perspective, that other perspectives were not legitimate and, in fact, were counterproductive. And the impression that many younger people in this field got was that the individuals who were articulating that were taking a “it’s my way or the highway” approach. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s been a huge amount of new work devoted to understanding better the myriad ways in which people benefit from nature and trying to incorporate that knowledge into ways to recognize and work toward healthy ecosystems because it’s in our interest to do so. And over time, those two perspectives, the first being the focus on intrinsic values, and the second focus on instrumental values, have gotten more and more polarized and more vitriolic. And it has just come to a head and a lot of people are saying, enough already, this really is not helpful.

e360: There have been some rather extreme criticisms lobbied on the part of both camps. Those who advocate an instrumental value approach to conservation say that so-called traditional conservationists ignore on-the-ground human realities and romanticize wild places. Traditional conservationists counter that the so-called new conservationists paint a way too rosy picture of the resiliency of landscapes and are in bed with polluting corporations. Given all that, do you think this petition will actually have the effect of lowering the temperature of this debate?

Lubchenco: I believe it will. I certainly hope it will. So one thing that this petition is doing is shining a spotlight on the fact that the champions of the opposing camps have been only a few voices and not broadly representative of the huge diversity of people working on conservation funds or conservation practice around the world. Younger scientists were not represented, women were not represented, individuals from a wide spectrum of countries around the world have not really been a part of this debate. And so I think that making that obvious, which this petition does, will help get us in a better place. It’s really calling for a more unified and
All perspectives are in fact legitimate and have different resonance and different applicability by different stakeholders.”
inclusive focus on the importance and the value of nature.

e360: The petition, as you said, does point out that the major players in this dispute are nearly all men, so you and your co-signatories are calling for a more inclusive representation of voices in conservation science. But are you suggesting that women’s voices and voices, let’s say, from the developing world, would lend more civility and openness to the debate?

Lubchenco: I think anytime you have a broader diversity of voices, you get a diversity of perspectives, and in that diversity you tend to have more tolerance and more openness. And that’s exactly what we’re calling for.

e360: Then how do you achieve more cultural and gender diversity in conservation science debates?

Lubchenco: Well, there’s already a huge age, gender and cultural diversity in conservation science and practice around the world, and many of the things that we suggest in the petition are ways to do a better job of incorporating that diversity into this particular dialogue. We’re suggesting that conferences and discussions in the halls of academia and conservation organizations should make very concerted efforts to be more inclusive.

e360: Your petition makes the point that certain audiences will respond to an intrinsic value message, other audiences will resonate with the instrumental approach. But when it comes to real world decisions, for instance, consulting with corporate polluters or not, doesn’t one really have to come down on one side or the other?

Lubchenco: In any particular instance, it may be the case that one set of arguments is more relevant or appealing to different constituencies. There’s no doubt about the fact that real-world decisions in conservation, are indeed tough and do oftentimes force choices. What we’re calling for is an acknowledgement that all perspectives are in fact legitimate and have different resonance and different applicability by different stakeholders or different circumstances.

e360: In the commentary you and your coauthors recommend a number of remedies. One of them concerns the academic training of conservation scientists and urges institutions to “more accurately portray the rich global history of the field.” That implies that one side of this argument perhaps isn’t getting enough attention in academia now. So what is not being taught that should be?
I think it’s incumbent upon everyone to be more inclusive in the field and in their lectures.”

Lubchenco: Some champions of one extreme perspective or the other have articulated the position that this way, my way, is the way to do conservation biology. And I think it’s incumbent upon everyone to be more inclusive in the field and in their lectures, in their seminars, in their courses, and recognize that these different arguments have been around for some time and continue to play out in today’s world. But they need not be pitted, one against the other. They can coexist.

e360: The petition also calls for expanding the evidence base that can identify what works and what fails in conservation so that “we can move from philosophical debates to rigorous assessments.” To me that sounds like the petition is calling for good science. So I’m wondering why isn’t enough of that work being done now?

Lubchenco: That work is being done now. We need more of it, and we want the focus to be getting that work done, not on these silly arguments that are diverting attention from the real business.

e360: The originator of the petition, Heather Tallis, is lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy. You sit on the board of that organization, which is known to be staunchly in the instrumental value camp. Its chief scientist, Peter Kareiva, has been the focus of a lot of criticism for his views on the topic. Are you concerned that those who believe in the intrinsic


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values approach may interpret this petition as a call to stop criticizing The Nature Conservancy so much?

Lubchenco: It is true that The Nature Conservancy has been criticized because Peter Kareiva has been a strong champion of instrumental values. But I believe that he, like me, actually has a pretty inclusive view of this, which is that the intrinsic values are, in fact, really important, and very legitimate and need to be argued when they are appropriate, but that those values alone have not stemmed the loss of biological diversity and those arguments alone are insufficient in appealing to the breadth of audiences and stakeholders that are really needed to arrest the loss of both species and functioning ecological systems. So I think this is really an attempt to legitimize both approaches and to make it clear that neither one nor the other is the end all and be all.

e360: The petition, which calls for “an end to the fighting,” has 240 original co-signatories and there’s a website where others can add their names. I noticed today that biologist Michael Soulé, a staunch advocate of intrinsic value and one of the main protagonists in this fight, has added his name to the petition. So has Peter Kareiva. Is that a good start?

Lubchenco: I think that is a fabulous start, and I hope that will be a harbinger of peace to come.

POSTED ON 13 Nov 2014 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability Asia 


I am just learning about this ugly battle — and that suggests either I am out of touch (and I am not) or this is much more about a few professional egos gobbling up more than their share of bandwidth. I am a scientist first and systems engineer second and way more interested in application than discussion. The "to do" list to end the categorical destruction of the planet by our species is really long right now, and the tasks are highly refined. Yes, more science would be great and better ways to use science to improve the task list are needed. But blowing smoke about which side's paradigm has more (intrinsic or instrumental) value is, well, just that. The only important dichotomy of vision exists in the rather unnecessary debate on whether the Earth owes humans anything at all. And that's a short discussion because anyone who thinks she does hasn't been able to separate church and science and is just wrong.
Posted by Tom Strumolo MES 1988 on 13 Nov 2014

Let's cut through the fog here. This is not about conservation paradigms, this is about MONEY. Of course Heather Tallis demands equal time for the instrumental camp, now that The Nature Conservancy is firmly in bed with corporate America and highly dependent on their purse. To understand her position, you need to understand the inglorious history of TNC, now just a shell of the organization of their founders. For instance, TNC almost destroyed the American land trust community by giving sweetheart deals to insiders and the wealthy, and then when caught by IRS (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/26/AR2007062601287.html), they made a strategic decision to generally turn their back on local and regional conservation and "go global". Now, they court every possible corporate donor and rich guy without shame and are even turning their backs on lands that have been long entrusted to them. They left the American land trust community in dire straits and it has cost the latter countless millions of dollars and hundreds of potential transactions to fix TNC's damage (see LTA Accreditation). When I see people/bullies/orgs like TNC calling for civility and diversity, I know that it is a smokescreen to cover up their real purpose: to generate organizational wealth from those who are destroying the planet. The gender game is just the icing on their cake. Let's not be mislead through ignorance: we can talk about smoothing the waters once we remove the black hats and their ulterior motives from the debate.
Posted by George Bonington YFES 1994 on 13 Nov 2014

This “debate” is not new, stretching back to the turn of the 20th century. Nor is it much of a contest: Either we preserve wild ecosystems and creatures for their own intrinsic value, regardless of human constructed notions of utility, or everything is commodified, turned into a private good and parceled out to the highest bidder strictly for human use. And it’s no surprise that the ascendency of the utilitarian view is a major product of corporate “partnering,” to describe it in a civil manner.

One need only read a few of the op-ed pieces written by Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at TNC, to realize just how dangerous is the utilitarian perspective for the well-being of the wild. The Kareiva camp dismisses extinction, ignores climate change, cherry-picks its way to “nature’s resiliency,” lauds greater levels of control, poo poos numinous experience, demands we accept a diminished wild, and has sold its ethics to corporate persons for cash. This is not about ecofeminism or poor communities of color. This is about true environmental justice, across the full span of creation. Do we “afford” wild habitat and creatures their proper due, from a valid ethical foundation, or do we chop it all up, sell it off, and embrace neoliberal nature valuation? Are we truly Homo sapiens or not?

The implications of the neoresourcist mentality are clear and need to be fully deconstructed to illustrate the cold calculus. Most of the work (little better than op-ed pieces) lacks intellectual rigor, there are too many breezy generalizations, a straw man is essential for the framework, the evidence is cherry-picked, and they utterly fail to make the case that theirs is the moral high ground. In fact, the ethics are ghastly and will only perpetuate destruction.

The apologists of the Nature piece can’t be serious that we ought to open the playing field to even greater levels of anthropocentric folly. More civility? No – this is far more than an academic debate. The very essence of the neoresourcist argument is uncivil. The prescription applies heavier doses of same old toxic medication that brought about the unfolding disaster, except adds a happy face.

Fortunately, there are plenty of outstanding writers exposing the ethically stunted neoresourcist position, Foreman, Soule, Wuerthner, Kingsnorth, Monbiot. Despite the temporary ascendency of the corporate state, and its new minions in the corporate–academic complex, plenty of folks are fighting back in support of preserving places and creatures for their own sakes, for their own intrinsic value, irregardless of how they might fit into human designs. More civility? Not as long as the stakes are this high.

Posted by Kyle Gardner on 15 Nov 2014

Might I also suggest Eileen Crist, one of the most eloquent defenders of nature's intrinsic values, female or otherwise?

Posted by Tim Hogan on 17 Nov 2014

In the ongoing debate between those who want to "protect" nature vs. those who want "wise use," it's often the case that good science is missing in those debates. Here's an example: in the state of Massachusetts, we have a state agency, The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. This agency has maps of the state where they THINK rare species and habitats are found but they often don't really know for sure. Even assuming that those species and habitats are present- the question is what to do about it? There is no clear science to answer that question. I am a consulting forester and if I want to carry out a timber harvest where this agency claims a rare species is present- they have the power to greatly limit how and when the harvest will occur. The problem is that the agency often comes up with severe restrictions which simply can't be supported with science. I could give many examples but I'll give just one. On one client's property- the agency claimed that there was a siting of a box turtle many years ago and to protect that turtle, any logging within 3,250' of that siting must be done in the dead of winter. For beginners, that's an excessive distance to worry about. The agency claims the turtles are safer in the winter as they hibernate under debris. But, clearly this agency doesn't really understand forestry practices. If under the debris in winter, there are more likely to be injured by heavy logging machinery than would be the case in summer, when a logger could see he turtle. I pointed this out- and I asked the agency, "What is the statistical probability that any turtle will be injured if the work is not done in winter?" I got no reply. They informed me that many are killed on highways. I then asked, "what's that got to do with logging practices?” All of this and more I won't get into now points out that their good motive of protecting that species is without a solid scientific basis and that they don't comprehend how forestry practices actually occur- but they stonewalled me with their immense power to do so. So, it's not a dichotomy between those who want to protect nature vs. those who want to exploit nature- often the protectors go about it all wrong. Also, forestry practices do not compare with development of the land- yet in Massachusetts, this and other agencies don't seem to comprehend this fact. So, both sides of these debates need to open up to what the other side is saying. Both sides demonize the other side with self-righteous propaganda- but there are some in the middle who are not demonizing anyone and we are not listened to.
Posted by Joseph Zorzin on 26 Nov 2014

Biodiversity and the survival of rare and endangered species should be the primary goal of all of our efforts. All ecosystems are not equal in that regard, and novel ecosystems are a poor substitute for the range of natural ecosystems necessary to safeguard our natural heritage of biodiversity. Extinction of species counts against the best interests of humanity. Therefore I see no distinction in one conservation philosophy or the other. Stick to the maintenance of biodiversity and the prevention of any extinctions to guide our conservation philosophy. New species may be expected due to humanity's modification of the environment but that is no excuse for permitting extinction of the native biota.
Posted by Andrew Greller on 06 Feb 2015

As someone who enjoys wildlife and wild spaces it is sometimes difficult to imagine what it is like to be someone who does not enjoy wildlife and wild spaces. But for a variety of reasons there are many people who do not. If you are talking to those people about the importance of conservation and you focus your efforts on instilling an appreciation of the intrinsic value of wildlife and wild spaces, it is akin to forcing your religious values upon them. And the more you do that, the more you run the risk of destroying your own credibility when it is time to call on those people to help with a conservation cause that has clear instrumental value. Having worked in environmental education for nearly 20 years I have heard many people dismiss evidence about the importance of some conservation effort because they think that it only is relevant to treehuggers who care more about some obscure bird than about humans. And yet clearly other people are moved by the intrinsic value of wildlife. That is why Lubchenco is right on when she says, "What we’re calling for is an acknowledgement that all perspectives are in fact legitimate and have different resonance and different applicability by different stakeholders or different circumstances." Makes perfect sense in the real world. Sounds like this all stems from egotistical academic bickering.
Posted by Vince on 09 Feb 2015


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Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. She also has reported on science, medicine and the environment for WUNC, the public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.



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