Why Conservation Should Embrace a Diversity of People & Values

November 5, 2014

Willie Atu (on left), showing a map of the conserved and threatened areas of the Solomons to the Mothers Union, a group of Kia women who have worked with the Conservancy to raise conservation awareness. Photo © Bridget Besaw/TNC.

The fields of nature conservation science and practice have spent the last few years in a bit of an identity crisis. Conflict has been growing around which values should sit at the core of the field, and which kinds of actions should be used to secure a thriving planet.

The early, productive discourse drew out some big issues for conservation scientists and practitioners to wrestle with:

  • Is protecting nature for its own sake (intrinsic values) enough?
  • Or do we need to expand our view and also conserve nature because it benefits our own lives (instrumental values)?
  • Do these “new” instrumental values help build conservation support, or are they too risky, putting conservation in the same ring as the development forces that can often threaten nature?
  • Should conservation partner with businesses to create change in those development forces? Or is that selling out on nature?

These are hard questions, well worth taking up. But two things have been worrying me about this debate recently; its increasingly divisive tone, and the dominance of the exchanges by a few voices.

It turns out I am not alone. In a Comment published in the journal Nature in November 2014, I am joined by 239 co-authors in a call for a more inclusive conservation ethic — one that recognizes the many different values people hold for nature, and the many voices of our global community.

A False Dichotomy of Values

My motivation to make this call came from an unexpected place: conservation’s own history.

I’ve been sitting with my own opinions on this debate for about three years, assuming that the field would eventually converge on one position or the other. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the debate has moved from scientific discourse to personal attacks. The allure of such a tussle has elevated the tension to the public media; and the polarizing effect of the exchanges has given some of conservation’s funders, partners and students pause.

Increasingly frustrated, but unsure what my voice would add, I still stayed quiet. Then I read the book After the Grizzly, about California in the late 1800s and the early start of the American environmental movement.

In between bizarre stories of grizzlies on display in San Francisco and reminders that women’s hats were one of the biggest threats to native birds, the book’s author Peter Alagona told me something I didn’t know: instrumental values — and even their monetary valuation — have long been part of the modern conservation movement alongside intrinsic values.

George Grinnell and his colleagues gave sweeping speeches about the grandeur and purity of nature at the same time that they commissioned reports on the economic values of insects and birds. When they met with the Audubon Society, they talked about nature’s splendor and innate right to exist — and when they met with businessmen, they talked about the monetary value of birds for agricultural pest control and other benefits.

I looked a little further, and found that instrumental values in conservation appeared in Colonial India around the same time. In 1861, Hugh Cleghorn, a British timber manager in India, said:

“If conservation be needful in temperate climates, how imperative is it in the tropics, where the supplies of water, and consequently of food and other produce, are in a great measure dependent on the existence of forests, especially in all the elevated parts of that vast country. If the facts which prove the value of preserving forests and regulating the cutting of timber on certain fixed rules, were generally known, every official in India would cordially cooperate in the work of conservation.”

A century later, intrinsic and instrumental values were still side-by-side in conservation discourse. Margaret Murie, in her 1962 book Two in the Far North said: “My prayer is that Alaska’s…great wild places will remain great, and wild, and free, where wolf and caribou, wolverine and grizzly bear, and all the arctic blossoms may live on in the delicate balance which supported them long before impetuous man appeared in the North.”

Around the same time, Rachel Carson warned that we were harming nature at our own expense: “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

These quotes give us a cursory and admittedly U.S.-centric look at conservation history, and I don’t mean to suggest that those holding these different values were always in agreement. But any honest reading of conservation history makes clear that both intrinsic and instrumental values have been part of the modern fight for conservation for at least 150 years. If these values are so persistent, why can we not make room for them all?

In fact, going back to our roots sounds to me like a way forward. We don’t have to converge on one answer for conservation. We don’t all have to hold the same set of values. But we can respect them.

A Diversity Disaster: Where Are the Voices of Women and People from Developing Countries?

The idea for a group effort to infuse the value of diversity into conservation came from the other, separate issue this debate flags for me: it has been missing many voices — most obviously, those of women and developing country conservationists.

At a time when women hold several prominent international leadership positions in the field, publish regularly in top tier journals on issues at the heart of ecology and conservation science, and are generally advancing towards achieving equal representation, they are largely missing from this debate. A handful of brave women have spoken up, and they have been my inspiration. But why aren’t we hearing from more?

Heather Tallis, Lead Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
Heather Tallis, Lead Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.

I started talking with other women, and most quickly agreed: We need to encourage women to engage on this issue, and we need to embrace many conservation values.

Each conversation added richness and clarity to the idea.

I started talking with men about this too, and many of them agreed, and further advanced my thinking. Along the way, another big gap became obvious: The lack of voices from developing countries in the debate.

It is not too much to call this a diversity disaster: a field focused on saving the diversity of life, debating its future without engaging a diversity of people.

A Call for Inclusive Conservation

I set out with my co-authors on the Nature piece to help shift both the composition and the content of the conservation debate. There are not yet enough voices from developing countries in the group that came together, but it is a start. The conservation practitioners and scientists that have joined together see a way forward for our field in addressing both issues of values and voices at once.

In the comment, 240 of us “support an equal role for women and for practitioners of diverse ethnicities and cultures in envisaging the future of conservation science and practice.”

As part of that future, we “propose a unified and diverse conservation ethic; one that recognizes and accepts all values of nature from intrinsic to instrumental, and welcomes all philosophies justifying nature protection and restoration, from ethical to economic, and from aesthetic to utilitarian.”

There is an important nuance in what we propose. ‘Unified and diverse’ does not mean we think everyone will always agree, or hold the same all-inclusive value set.

We also don’t suggest that conservation solutions will equally meet the needs of all values — they never will. But the hard problems conservation needs to solve will take ingenuity, openness to new ideas, and input from people experiencing many different realities.

Given that, we believe that “approaching conservation problems with representative perspectives and a broad base of respect, trust, pragmatism and shared understanding will more quickly and effectively advance our shared vision of a thriving planet.”

Some I’ve spoken with find our proposal unrealistic. One person I talked with in discussions around the comment said bluntly: “Do you think everyone is just going to hold hands and sing kumbaya?” Another said, “What’s going to happen to your ‘mom and apple pie’ ideas when they meet boots on the ground conservation?”

For me, the idea and need for a more inclusive conservation is the opposite of a dreamy fairy tale. It does not draw from lofty concepts — but from a pragmatism that conservationists were already embracing more than 150 years ago and that we still embrace today in many cases as we get conservation done.

Several of my co-authors who work in conservation practice noted that the conservation they do is complex with many stakeholders — so recognizing and respecting many value sets is the only way they make progress. I’ve seen the same in my own work.

How Do We Get There?

Many in the field already embrace what we propose, and act on it every day. Beyond these individual champions, the field’s major international Convention on Biological Diversity and the laws of several countries already use language that recognizes a diversity of nature’s values.

We propose several actions that could take us further:

  • Updating our academic training programs to “more accurately portray the rich, global history of the field, introducing students to the diverse ways in which nature has been valued and conserved for centuries.” I mentioned a few stories above showing how far back many values go. This is the tip of the iceberg on a much deeper history students are not typically exposed to in ecology and conservation courses today.
  • Visibly and vocally “embracing all plausible conservation actors, from corporations to governmental agencies, faith-based organizations and interested individuals.”
  • “Advancing conservation efforts when they can benefit people, and when there is no obvious human-centric goal.”
  • Creating a “stronger focus on synthesizing and 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 of the effectiveness of actions.”
  • Encouraging “the full breadth of conservation scientists and practitioners to engage with the media so that coverage reflects the true range of opinion, rather than the polarized voices of a few.”
  • And creating more fora in all kinds of contexts, from conferences to journals to social media, that “elevate the voices of scientists and practitioners from under-represented genders, cultures and contexts.”

Taking our own advice on the last point, I have created as a platform where, over time, the voices of many from our global community will be able to share experiences, values, challenges and innovations as we move towards a truly inclusive conservation.

I end with true gratitude to my co-authors, for their thoughts, input and support. My own thinking was pressed and strengthened by our exchanges, and the proposal we jointly created is a testament to the willingness of many in the field to think and act inclusively.

If these ideas resonate with you, please visit, read the comment and, if you are inspired, add your name in support.

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. Great piece. The African voice is also much needed. Success in conservation can never be achieved if “common people” feel isolated by conservationist who make it look like they are the only ones who possess the healing hand to nature’s problem. #huntmenot

  2. in our contry,democratic republic of congo people often cut trees and sell it for having income because life is difficult,there’snt jobs and that the reason why they destroy environment,kidding animals.

  3. The best way is to recognise conservation success and the champions who have enacted real change. I still havnt’t seen any evidence based paper that explores the success factors of those projects in a diversity of countries. For example, why have Nature Seychelles’conservation projects and those of MWF in nearby Mauritius led to downlisting of endangered birds in the Red List over the last 20 years but nobody else has achieved anything similar in the rest of Africa?

  4. “…to protect nature for its own sake… or …because it benefits our lives” I believe we shouldn’t have to choose between these two actions to secure a thriving planet. Both lead to the same positive or negative outcome, what brings them together is that both outcomes are dictated by our actions. As we look into conservation efforts we cannot be naïve and see the world only through our own eyes. It’s easy to say “let save that piece of forest land when it’s not us that rely on cutting down that very piece of forest land to bring food to our table today”. I agree there needs to be an all-inclusive strategy that upholds nature in its own right, but as you also say it will require engaging a diversity of people and their needs today. And Heather; excellent post. Ivan Cordero

  5. I, too, have been troubled by the lack of diversity in those who speak publically about conservation. It gives the mis-impression that conservation is for and by the privileged few. Not true!

    For example, my university recently showed an excellent film called “Eleventh Hour.” The film was mostly white male talking heads. I was confused. Where are the women? Where are the people of color? Where are all those from poorer countries?

    I am so glad you spoke out!

  6. I am originally from Africa.
    The strength of conservation efforts on that continent..may lie firmly in educating and encouraging her girls and women. Wangari Mathai is one prominent example, among others.