Environmentalism: Rational or Romantic?

I had a fascinating chat over lunch with colleagues the other day in the lab where I work in in Cambridge, England. We were talking around a recent article by Johann Hari in Slate in which he tries to divide all environmentalists into romantics and rationalists.

Romantics, in Hari’s rendering, come into the room inspired by nature. Rationalists, all post-Enlightenment, base their enthusiasm on numbers, services, economics. I love his caricature: “Henry David Thoreau, the mud from Walden Pond drying on his heels, smiles and offers Al Gore a huckleberry; Al Gore smiles back and offers him a BlackBerry. Theodore Roosevelt makes them jump by taking potshots at the endangered owl Edward Abbey has brought along. Paul Ehrlich announces with a shriek that there are too many people in the room and chases Rachel Carson out. Everyone begins to shout.”

Actually, we all felt the dichotomy was a bit false — but all bar one of us saw ourselves as romantics first. That was how we got into the job; we love nature and wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Cynically, we also suggested that maybe, for us, the hard science of accounting for the value of what nature gives us — the economics, the quantification of ecosystem services — were all means to a more romantic end. We love nature; we are inspired by (or even find something spiritual in) a wood, a pool or the antics of ants in the dust. We’ll do what we can to save them. And that includes building a complex economic valuation.

For most of the world, of course, the romantic view is a luxury they can ill afford — finding beauty in nature is an activity for the idle dreamer, the wealthy and well-fed wanderer. Business leaders must answer to shareholders — profits first, please. Governments must deliver perpetual growth. As for the great majority — the poor — first nature must provide for them. But that doesn’t mean they are excluded from being romantics about it as well. Listen to respect given to nature in world religions, in ancient art, in the songs of Pacific Islanders.

Where does this leave us environmentalists? Have we swung too far towards the rational in our desperate bid to win popular and elite support, with our complex assessments of ecosystem services, our efforts to change global accounting processes to ensure ecosystem valuation, our terms such as “natural capital,” and our selling of nature as a means to alleviate poverty? Have we even built too much science into the whole process of conservation? Frankly, I won’t be the slightest bit impacted by the extinction of a small beetle in Brazil. I’ll be far more upset if they build on the already degraded woodland plot where we go with the children sometimes.

There are lots of romantics out there too, beyond our kith and kin. Maybe we should be working on that front, too? Engage with religious leaders, artists, musicians. How about trying to protect places because they are beautiful, accessible, exciting and fun? No matter if they are tiny, low-diversity, with nothing rare or unusual whatsoever. How about Red-Listing these?

Making a moral, spiritual, cultural or beauty-based case for looking after nature may not sit comfortably in a scientist’s work schedule…but most people aren’t scientists. Not at heart anyway.

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

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Through your comment in regard to engaging religious leaders, I was reminded of E.O. Wilson’s book, Creation. If you haven’t read it, one of the greatest minds in conservation opens a dialogue between scientists and religious leaders. It’s a great book, and both the romantic and the rationalist fit well into the conversation.

  2. “Have we swung too far towards the rational in our desperate bid to win popular and elite support…? Have we even built too much science into the whole process of conservation?”
    I’m neither popular nor elite, and yes I agree with your assessment that most of us are romantics first, but I also believe in practicality. The main thing I’ve always admired about TNC is how it bases its actions on science and proven effective tactics to achieve its goals. TNC stands apart from other conservation groups because it works WITH businesses to reach a common goal versus lobbying government to force new regulations on businesses which in turn usually hurts the economy. I believe this is why TNC has consistently received good ratings. We can all learn from proven science. As much as we all like to ‘lead with our hearts’ I urge you to lead with your head. Please don’t change a thing!

Add a Comment