Conservation science must move from a view of how animals can benefit us


If we continue to value nature and other species solely on the basis of what they can give us, we will not be able to radically transform our relationship with them.

Photo: Pixabay/Nickbar

The accelerating loss of other species around the world is so significant that many experts are now calling it the sixth mass extinction. It is largely due to an unprecedented loss of vital ecosystems such as forests and wetlands, the result of social and economic systems geared towards constant growth.

The latest United Nations Biodiversity Conference, COP15, whose second session is due to take place in October 2022, aims to implement ambitious measures to stem biodiversity loss. The ultimate goal is to establish harmony between man and nature by 2050.

However, in a recent academic paper, we argue that key players such as the body of conservation scientists that produce biodiversity reports for the UN, continue to prioritize human well-being above all else. This prioritization may stem from an anthropocentric culture that generally views humans as separate and more valuable than other species.

To effectively address our extinction crisis, we argue that we need more than just technical advances or policies that remain mired in anthropocentric assumptions. Rather, we need fundamental changes in the way we perceive and value nature and other species.

human supremacy

Anthropocentrism results in the treatment of other species and nature as objects and resources for human purposes. This assumption still underlies the way many people approach conservation.

In environmental science and resource management, the concepts of ‘natural resources’ and ‘ecosystem services’ reflect the prevailing anthropocentric approach to assessing natural value, particularly through economic cost-benefit analyses.

Such approaches ask how much a given natural entity, such as a forest or an animal species, is worth, and then attempt to assign a monetary value to it. Examples are policies based on trading carbon credits or paying countries not to clear their forests.

Biodiversity scientists are still human-centric

COP15 will be partly informed by the work of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the conservation scientists’ equivalent of the IPCC’s group of climatologists. The most recent IPBES Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, published in 2019, promotes the term “nature’s contributions to people” as a more inclusive framework for capturing natural value beyond simple economic indicators.

The stated aim is to emphasize that nature and other species are “not just commodities” and to highlight the range of nature’s contributions, both tangible and intangible, to “the quality of life of people “.

Creatures large and small face the threat of mass extinction. (photo: Pixabay/12019)

The report is commendable for attempting to include a wider range of worldviews and environmental values ​​as the basis for biodiversity conservation. We maintain, however, that its approach remains human-centric. Non-human species are still valued only instrumentally, according to what they can bring us.

The relationship between humans and natural entities is always centered on the perceived usefulness of other species in helping humans lead a “good life”. There is no explicit reference to the good life of our earthly parents, to what they might need to prosper.

The report also fails to defend the inherent value of all people on Earth. We believe this is a profound flaw for any platform that seeks to promote the fundamental cultural transformations needed to achieve the UN’s goal of “harmony with nature” by 2050.

Towards ecocentric conservation

An alternative would be to expand the science and policy focus on conservation of ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘nature’s contributions to people’ to explicitly include people’s moral obligations to nature. We argue that this would require a shift towards ecocentrism, a moral view in which every species and ecosystem type is seen to have intrinsic value.

This type of moral sentiment, which is based on much religious and philosophical work, essentially means that non-human organisms and environmental systems have value in themselves, and not just as means to human ends.

From this perspective, we would ask ourselves not only what nature can do for us, but also how we can contribute to the health and resilience of the entire biosphere and all the living beings that animate it. With this approach, we would also ask ourselves how we can ensure that other species have what they need to have a “good life” too.

Resources to relatives

Motives matter. If we continue to value nature and other species solely on the basis of what they can give us, we will not be able to radically transform our relationship with them. Their lives are priceless and their loss cannot be quantified or recovered. After all, extinction is forever. Their proliferating absence not only threatens our existence, it constitutes a serious ethical breach.

As the final session of COP15 looms, it is essential to recognize that the innovative policies that are needed to prevent biological annihilation cannot be rooted in entirely anthropocentric premises. An adequate response to the biodiversity crisis requires a fundamental shift in our values ​​in which we view other species as relatives and all of Earth’s diverse environmental systems as inherently valuable.

This article was written by Heather AlberroSenior Lecturer in Global Sustainability at Nottingham Trent University; Bron Taylor, professor of environmental and social ethics at the University of Florida; and Helene Kopinina, Senior Lecturer at the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University in Newcastle. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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