Conservation and Self-Interest: Second Thoughts

The pages of Cool Green Science are filled with blogs calling for conservation to focus more on people, to pitch to the things that matter most to us, to emphasize nature’s benefits. (I think I’ve written one or two myself).

Be it clean water, pollination, food security, or storm shelter — conservation can provide it. According to these blogs, the route to conservation success lies in convincing people that it’s in their best interest to protect the environment.

But what if this approach is actually diminishing our collective will to find lasting solutions to major environmental issues? Putting short-term conservation gains over long-term success?

This is the thesis of fascinating report released recently by a UK group of NGOs, including WWF-UK and Oxfam, called Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. Written by Tom Crompton of WWF-UK (a person with the wonderful title of “Change Strategist”), the report pulls together an impressive body of empirical evidence and recent research in psychology and cognitive sciences. Crompton’s thesis is essentially that tackling environmental and humanitarian issues through appeals to individual interests — even when successful — serves to reinforce the perceived importance of these interests, simultaneously diminishing and undermining the value basis of concern about bigger-than-self issues.

It‘s an unfortunate fact that regardless of age, gender, nationality, or ethnicity, our value systems tend to cluster in similar ways. Those more concerned with financial success and image typically have less concern and empathy for bigger-than-self issues: social inequality, poverty, climate change, biodiversity loss. The opposition between these sets of values has been repeatedly confirmed through experimental studies, many of which are cited in the Common Cause report.

But there’s good news, according to Crompton’s report: Far from being at the mercy of an immovable set of social values, environmental and humanitarian groups can influence the deep values of society through consistent and transparent messaging. And it is precisely those bigger-than-self values that “must be championed if we are to uncover the collective will to deal with today’s profound global challenges,” argues Crompton.

I’ve often heard it said that conservation, and protected areas in particular, have been too much about nature and not enough about people. This might be true. However, if we follow the evidence compiled by Crompton and colleagues, by focusing on “nature’s benefits” and individual cost-benefit assessments, conservation actually comes up short on the people account — it makes nature about too few a people. It appeals to self-interest, when instead community spirit is needed.

Conservation needs to recapture the mantle as guardian of our shared natural heritage, for both present and future generations; a stewardship whose justification falls neither on prosaic arguments about biodiversity nor on appeals to personal interest.

Importantly, this argument does not mean that we shouldn’t continue to focus conservation in places and ways that deliver benefits to human communities. Nor does it mean that we shouldn’t talk about “nature’s benefits.” It simply means we need to be clear about our values and consistent with our messaging.

To borrow an example from Crompton’s report, one approach would be to subsume economic arguments for conservation within a wider moral imperative. Conservation could consistently emphasize the need to protect natural heritage for this and future generations — while also presenting clear evidence of the benefits that conservation delivers for communities as a response to those concerned about the social consequences of that protection. This “heritage and benefits” message is no less about people than would be an appeal to self-interest; it’s just more consistent in its values.

Let’s hope for our children’s sake that, in our excessive zeal to make conservation a form a self-interest, we do not make protecting the environment a less common concern.

Editor’s note: A version of this post first appeared in Science Chronicles, the monthly science magazine of The Nature Conservancy.

(Image credit: e_monk/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I completely agree with your musing heres. Not only does conservation need to ‘recapture the mantle as guardian of our shared natural heritage’, but also as guardians acting on bahlf of the millions of specieis we share this plaent with. After all, without us they do well. With us, they need us to manage ourselves.

    When we see ourselves as part of the system, not above it, conservation inherently makes sense and suddenly becomes personal again … but not because of its monetary value … because of its life value.

    Just my two cents worth …

  2. Great Read! I am always eager to learn as much as I can to be a better steward of our environment. We at the American Evergreen Foundation (AEF) Offer our “Conservation through Participation” programs with a never ending goal to reach out, involve and enlighten.

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