By Phil Cafaro
Steve Irwin. Errol Flynn. The Sydney opera house. Kangaroos. Wombats. Here at TOP, we hardly need new reasons to love Australia. Yet last week, we came across two more: articles by Dr. Harry Recher and Dr. Freya Mathews that we somehow missed when they were first published several years ago. They do such a good job of articulating the central goals of conservation and relating them to population matters, that we could not resist sharing them with our readers.
Harry Recher, an ornithologist and conservation biologist, is Foundation Professor Emeritus in Environmental Management at Edith Cowan University in Perth. Although born, raised and schooled in the US, most of his research and professional life has occurred in Australia. His article “Failure of science, death of nature,” is based on his 2014 Keith Roby Memorial Lecture delivered at Murdoch University. Roby Lectures are traditionally an opportunity to reflect broadly on the goals of conservation and environmental sustainability; past lecturers have included luminaries such as Paul Ehrlich and Arne Naess.
Reflecting on three decades of previous Roby lectures, Recher notes that conservationists have long understood the main drivers of our environmental problems: an ever-growing human presence and ever-growing demands on nature. Yet conservation easily gets detoured into trying to ameliorate the many discrete problems caused by this escalating human presence, rather than trying to halt the escalation itself. The failure of this approach, in Australia and globally, stands as proven. But how to turn the situation around?
First, says Recher, we need to cultivate a knowledge and love of the natural world. This will further a non-anthropocentric approach to conservation, where we act as if other species mattered as much as our own. “People need to accept that we have a moral responsibility to share resources with other species, thus ensuring their right to life,” he writes. Rather than continuing to sacrifice other species for pointless human aggrandizement, Australians need to “invert the [current] conservation paradigm and view all of Australia as a place of nature, a conservation reserve, within which there are nodes of human activity, all of which is managed with ecological sustainability and nature conservation as the goals.”
Second, we must remember the ultimate goal of human societies. This is not ever more economic activity or the heaping up of endless wealth, but creating communities that allow their members to live good lives. “To achieve a more equitable and sustainable society we need to develop our social and human capital.” We need “a different economy – one that values personal achievement, education, art, and creativity over an obscene accumulation of material wealth.” In this way, Australia and other societies can “grow” in ways that actually improve people’s lives, without ballooning our demands on nature.
Third, we need to directly challenge the contemporary endless growth economy. Trying to accommodate the current, mainstream economic approach, which refuses to accept limits, will inevitably sacrifice all that conservationists hold dear. While the discussions around “limits to growth” initiated in the 1970s have subsided, the evidence that we are bumping up against such limits continues to accumulate. It is time to acknowledge this and build economies that accept it. This is the argument in a nutshell, but Dr. Recher makes it with great nuance and insight. We encourage you to read it in full!
Recher reserves a proper measure of scorn for the contemporary environmental movement’s failure to address overpopulation. “Whatever efforts are made to conserve nature in Australia they will ultimately fail without reducing the impact of people on the land and water. This requires limits on the consumption of resources and a reduction in the size of Australia’s population. Based on the extent of environmental degradation across the continent and the accelerating loss of biodiversity there is a strong ecological argument that Australia is overpopulated.” Yet Recher notes that, for the most part, Australia’s environmental groups fail to discuss population matters, leaving Australia’s population policy to be made by greedy businessmen and politicians lacking in environmental concern. We need more discussion of population matters, not less, he insists. Taking his own advice, Recher wades fearlessly into population ethics, affirming that a right to procreate implies a duty to do so responsibly—an elementary point that few environmental leaders seem willing to articulate these days. He also does not shy away from questioning whether, in a crowded world, people have a right to have as many children as they want. All in all, the lecture is a bracing exploration of current approaches to conservation and a call to something better.
Freya Mathews is a noted philosopher and environmental advocate. Currently Adjunct Professor of Environmental Philosophy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, she also manages a private biodiversity preserve in northern Victoria. She has written extensively, and always perceptively, on many areas of environmental philosophy and management, including wildlife ethics and rewilding in the Anthropocene epoch. Her article “From biodiversity-based conservation to an ethic of bio-proportionality” appeared in Biological Conservation in 2016.
In this article, Dr. Mathews makes two key assertions. First, that taking biodiversity preservation as the central goal of conservation sets the bar for conservation too low. “Preserving biodiversity” tends to be re-interpreted, by the general public, by land managers, and crucially by the courts, as “preserving minimum viable populations” of native species. But conservationists want to achieve more than this: we want to preserve abundant wild nature, where possible—not just sufficient numbers in the interstices of human development to avoid extinguishing species.
Mathews illustrates her point by discussing recent efforts to prevent industrial development in the Kimberley area in northwest Australia. Although this development does threaten some rare and endangered species, most conservationists would still want to stop it even if these species’ survival was guaranteed. As she puts it: “As an environmental cause … the Kimberley is in a very special class. At issue here is the protection, not of exhausted remnants, but of a veritable empire of nature … not yet severely ecologically compromised.” The Kimberley affords Australians the opportunity to preserve landscape-level ecosystem interactions and the ongoing evolutionary processes that have created global biodiversity in the first place; in other words, nature in all its abundance.
Mathews provides further reasons against settling for biodiversity preservation, narrowly understood. One of the most convincing is that it is likely to fail as a conservation goal even on its own terms, since minimum viable populations may not, in fact, be viable over the long term. The number of individuals needed to preserve a population’s viability, after all, is often based on analogy with similar species, and sometimes even on rank guesswork. Some species, like the extinct passenger pigeon of the eastern U.S., may evolve to depend on very large populations, while populations that currently are “viable” may wink out unexpectedly as people transform climate and other formerly relatively stable aspects of species’ environments.
Mathews second assertion is the ethical claim that human beings owe nature more than the preservation of small remnant populations of other species. Here she argues for “bioproportionality” in our sharing of habitat and resources with the rest of life. This is a matter of properly understanding humanity’s place in nature, and appreciating the claims that other species have on us to act with restraint on the one planet that is home to us all. “By what right does humanity claim exclusive ownership of terrestrial and marine environments?” Mathews asks. “Wild animals do not owe their existence to us. We did not invent them, design them, create them. They are guided by ends that are completely independent of ours. They have their own unique patterns and rhythms of existence. They are … ends in themselves, not mere means to ends of ours.”
Like Recher, Mathews believes that such biocentric attitudes are the heart and soul of conservation, and that they call on us to demand more from our fellow citizens—not selfishly, but on behalf of wild nature. Drawing parallels with the colonial exploitation of indigenous peoples, she writes: “To acknowledge the moral sovereignty of wildlife is to concede that wild animals are, like sovereign peoples, entitled to their territories, their ecological estates. It is to acknowledge that the biosphere was shaped for wildlife and by wildlife as much as it was shaped for us and by us … In this sense the biosphere belongs to wildlife as much as it belongs to us. It follows that we have no right to dispossess wild things of their ranges or degrade their environment to the point that it can no longer sustain them.”
Mathews, like Recher, sees reducing our current bloated human populations as a key aspect of a proper conservation philosophy, and a necessary component of a biocentric approach to conservation. “Applying a principle of proportionality to biological populations would also entail applying it to the human population,” she writes. “To achieve such ecological proportionality with respect to human population would entail a dramatic (though of course consensual) reduction” in human numbers. She notes in passing that an unwillingness to discuss overpopulation is likely a main reason why conservation biologists are so timid in challenging the economic system that is rapidly extinguishing many of the species they care about. And she chides conservationists generally for failing to address the key question of how much of nature and nature’s resources humans can legitimately engross, at the expense of the rest of the world’s species.
While we love these two articles, we disagree with some of their finer points. Dr. Recher discounts the importance of native species, writing that “conservation success should not be measured against some mythical ‘natural’, ‘pre-European’, or even ‘pre-human’ condition, but by the absence of extinction and the self-sustainability of ecosystems.” Given the role that invasive species have played in extinguishing species around the world and especially in devastating Australian biodiversity, this seems a dubious contention. We think the native/non-native distinction is essential in guiding conservation goals, although it will not always be dispositive. For instance, in some cases it may be difficult to establish whether a species really is non-native, depending on time scales; or, as Recher points out, native species may have come to depend upon exotics for their own survival. Conservation is complicated, and often involves conflicting goals and trade-offs. But preserving native species in their native ecosystems must remain one key goal, in our opinion.
Similarly, while we support Dr. Mathews advocacy of “bioproportionality” rather than mere sufficiency, we think a simpler and more straightforward way to put this might be that sharing habitat and resources with other species is a matter of justice. To some extent, such “interspecies justice” has been incorporated legally in many countries, although these laws and their implementations are usually far from sufficient. One interesting case is Sweden, where parliament once took a broad decision that “all naturally occurring species shall be preserved in vital populations” (the Swedish word for ‘vital’ is actually close in meaning to Mathews’ preferred term ‘abundant’). Of course, much remains to be done to achieve such a goal, in Sweden and elsewhere.
Despite any and all caveats or cavils, we believe professors Recher and Mathews get the basics right. A morally justifiable conservation movement must work hard to preserve a non-anthropocentric approach to conservation. We must embrace limits and put economics in its proper place: subordinate to the goal of furthering the flourishing of life, human and nonhuman. And to do that, we must rein in our own numbers. To our two colleagues down under, we say: Good on ya!