Response to Inclusive Conservation of Tallis and Lubchenco

Heather Tallis and Jane Lubchenco published a commentary  titled “A Call for Inclusive Conservation” in the November 2014 issue of Nature.  The essay sought to broker a truce or compromise between two philosophical positions in the conservation movement today that can be characterized as “new conservation” which promotes human utility as the primary goal of conservation and the traditional conservation approach that seeks to protect large natural landscapes like parks and wilderness.  The authors also note that most scientists and conservation leaders tend to be white males.  [i] Here is a link to the original essay.

I believe Tallis and Lubchenco had two main themes in their piece. One point they stress  is that a more racially, culturally, and sexually diverse conservation movement would benefit the global environment.

I do not think most thinking conservation advocates would disagree with their assessment. I believe there is broad support for greater inclusiveness in conservation.

The second theme of their piece is where things get a bit more nuanced. They see a split in the conservation movement between supporters of what might be called ethical concerns for the intrinsic value of Nature as articulated by conservation biologist Michael Soule[ii] and others; and those who are more comfortable with advocating utilitarian and humanitarian reasons as the main goal of conservation exemplified by TNC’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva and Professor Michele Marvier.[iii]

In their piece, Tallis and Lubchenco suggest that “advocates of intrinsic values assert that ethical arguments for conservation should be sufficient.” Rather a better way to articulate the position is that many of us believe conservation has its best chance of long-term success when it has an underlying ethical justification and goal.

I have no problem using more practical humanitarian arguments for protecting Nature if they also achieve the ethical conservation goals of preserving biodiversity and wild landscapes.

However, hitching conservation to human utilitarian purposes is risky. It inevitably makes it easy to justify nearly any development and to denigrate parks as passé [iv]. Such a position is often premised upon the notion that development is inevitable and the best we can do is reduce its most egregious effects[v].

Part of what drives such conservation strategies is the idea that greater economic development and population growth will garner more support for environmental protection once people become more comfortable and economically secure. But this is a defacto acknowledgement of perpetual growth. [vi]

While there is certainly room to use resources more efficiently and thus reduce the ecological footprint, in the end, both economic and population growth are ultimately the major threat to natural systems and biodiversity.

There is an inherent danger in the assumption that human utility is the measure to judge Nature’s value. Even if this is done in the name of correcting social and economic injustices, or a means of relieving poverty—all worthy goals—we must remember that such an attitude is still akin to racism and colonialism. It puts the human species ahead of all others and justifies expropriating the planet for the benefit of a single species at the expense of the many.

Without an ethical basis and foundation for conservation, we risk losing any rationale for protecting the vast majority of all life that does not have an immediate and obvious utilitarian value to human society.

Some argue, and certainly it is implied by many proponents of the “new conservation,” that parks and other protected landscapes are no longer viable strategies for protecting nature. One of the arguments used to devalue parks is the observation, that at least in the United States, most national park visitors are white and middle class individuals.

According to critics, the limited use by minorities makes these parks irrelevant in today’s world.[vii] (This conveniently ignores that parks are well established around the world and used by many races and cultures.)

However, this critique also fails to acknowledge that parks serve more than human needs. They are habitat for many species of plants and animals that often have no other home. If you believe that there is intrinsic value in protecting biodiversity, then one sees a value in parks and wildlands regardless of human utility.

The protection of biodiversity and wild Nature purely for intrinsic value also is an act of humility. It is a statement that we recognize that we do not understand the complexity of Nature—even what may be good ultimately for humans. Humility is the foundation of any code of right and wrong. And it is wrong to view the world’s great diversity merely in terms of its utility to humankind.

The end of apartheid, slavery, oppression of women, and many other injustices were not won primarily upon pragmatic reasoning. Underlying all these efforts was a deep moral commitment to the idea that humans have an intrinsic right to equal treatment and respect.

In the same manner conservation’s long-term success will hinge on how well we are able to articulate a moral and ethical reason for right of all life to exist.

Author’s Bio: George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 37 books, most recently Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth.

[i] A Call for Inclusive Conservation  November 2014 Vol. 515 pages 27-28

[ii] Soule, M. Cons. Biol. 27 895-897 (2013)

[iii] . Kareiva, P. and Marvier, M. Bio. Sci. 62 962-969 (2012)

[iv] Christensen, J. quoted in John Muir’s Legacy

[v] Shellenberger, M. and Nordhaus T. Economist Debates Wilderness.

[vi] Willers, B. Sustainable Development: A New World Deception. Cons. Bio. Vol. 8, No. 4 (Dec. 1994) pp 1146-1148

[vii] Christensen, J. quoted in John Muir’s Legacy Questioned as Celebration of his Death Nears by Louis Sahagun Los Angles Times November 13, 2014



  1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    Right on, George! The main trouble with the so-called “new conservation,” whether it comes from Nordhaus & Shellenberger, Kareiva and Marvier, or this latest pair, is that it does not include a coherent ethical point of view. These people never so much as mention intrinsic value or ethics or the precautionary principle. One is therefore entitled to regard their writings as intellectual rubbish.

  2. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Another spot on assessment. While I support inclusiveness, these types of arguments are just, in my view, more attempts to try to break down wilderness protection for human uses. While the majority of naturalists and conservationists had been white males (and that doesn’t mean they were wrong and automatically negate their ideas!), there were quite a few instances of men and women of color who felt the same, and probably many we’ll never know about. It was the times then – only the privileged had the money and time for education and philosophy, and it was usually white males. Trying to associate conservation with racism and elitism is an insult to those of us of all backgrounds who want to protect our disappearing wildlands and wildlife.

    You’re right – disguised attempts to put human use and utility (translation: money) ahead of conservation is just going down the same road as always. I wish we would get to the point where the idea is what is important, not the gender or race of the thinker.

    I’m going to repost this article from the LA Times again – because it’s similar. Making wilderness relevant already for some means adding mountain bike trails and human recreation, and ‘sustainable’ exploitation (whatever that means).

    John Muir’s Legacy Questioned in Modern Times

  3. don Avatar

    Utilitarian of course means economics. This is the medium in which all things must pass to be considered credible and pragmatic, reflecting an economic determinism. From this then biodiversity will only have import if it contributes to the market economy.

    Challenging this view implies not only a critique of this human centric perspective but also the very form of economy as we know and experience it. This economic critique is political, in that only by changing the existing political power structure can we also hope to change the manner in which we organize ourselves economically, and thus also make room for species other than human (and other domestic animals).

    No doubt this view is seen as daunting and beyond the purview of those who wish to subsume conservation to economic determinism.

    It should be noted that determinism/pragmatism/credibility is not limited to the utilitarian conservationists, but is also seen in publications of conservation organizes that are in the forefront of preserving biodiversity; they too are compelled to argue the compatibility of their strategy/programs with economy, i.e. the imperative of growth, in order to sound reasonable.

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Although Tallis and Lubchenco speak of the need to hear the voices of native people and women, what they write about in a concrete way is “partnering with business.”

    While some businesses might find it profitable to conserve nature, business as a whole has always affected nature primarily in a negative way by producing externalities (negative spillovers) that harm nature and often harm “social objectives” too. An example of the latter would be to drive wages so low that people cannot live on them.

    Proponents of the view expressed in the paper should ask themselves which sector of society is almost always on the side of fewer regulations, especially pollution control? It is business, with a few exceptions.

    The goal of business is to make profits for the owners. Given a market system this goal is rationalized and the harm of seeking self-interest is often ameliorated by the forces of competition and consumer choice. However, the market system alone has no way of curbing negative externalities (or promoting positive ones). Yet the hope of those who seek to partner with business is that positive externalities (spillovers that help nature) will somehow happen and thus serve conservation.

    I think this is a dream, and the real conflict here is not between those who hold the value of nature as an end in itself versus those who would protect because that is good from humanity.

    Business donations to advance social goals and/or to protect nature are usually given for purposes of public relations — seen as an unfortunate cost of doing business.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar
      Louise Kane

      This utilitarian conservation movement is unfortunately embodied in the trophy hunting is conservation model. Trophy hunters argue their self serving financial contributions justify killing even endangered species. Ralph articulated one good issue here. The killing is promoted as a concern for the species when their financial contributions are really just an unfortunate cost of doing business that allows them to continue to advance trophy hunting and killing. Thanks George for another great rebuttal.

      1. Gary Humbard Avatar
        Gary Humbard

        The tribes that live in Sub-Sahara Africa don’t care about ideology, they need food, clean water, health care, schools, safety and other necessities to survive. There are examples where trophy hunting (if managed correctly), has significantly benefited the local people and wildlife and should not be labeled as inherently destructive. If it means well managed trophy hunting is working to protect elephants and rhinos against poachers, and thus conserve these animals, and provide financial income to the local population, then why condemn it.

        1. Kathleen Avatar

 (Gary Humbard’s link to the “benefits” of trophy hunting) is a right-wing think tank (property rights, free markets, etc.) with ties to the Koch brothers. Anyone surprised that wildlife would be commodified in *that* universe?

          Here’s a PERC piece titled “The Benefits of Climate Change”

          Here’s PERC on wilderness (“land of no use”; “is no use good use?” etc.)

          Here’s PERC on the “tragedy” of the bison commons, the slaughter of the great herds: “…the rapid depletion of a particular resource may or may not represent a tragedy of the commons, depending on alternative uses of all the scarce resources in question.” What use is held up as an alternative to wild bison? Cattle.

            1. Louise Kane Avatar

              Thanks Kathleen for posting the links. If the trophy hunters had the same passion for really conserving habitats and species for their intrinsic value, managers would be much better poised to work through real conservation solutions in challenging locations instead of being stuck in the killing is conservation utilitarian mode.

          1. Nancy Avatar

            Loved the comparison of cod to lobster, Kathleen. And did you notice the advertising at the head of the PDF file? That was a first.

          2. Gary Humbard Avatar
            Gary Humbard

            Did you read or view any of the above links?

            The video on wilderness was mainly pro-wilderness showing some amazing skiing in wilderness areas in Montana and the article on bison did not advocate for cattle, but explained why cattle replaced bison (economics).

            We make our children go to school to learn and tell them to try different things and then we close our minds and label organizations and criticize people when they have different ideas than us.

            1. skyrim Avatar

              Where is your reply to the Facebook piece? Do you concede or dispute the numbers presented?
              So far your participation has been matter of fact and (Karl Rovish) “stayin’ on point”.
              Really curious as to motivation here. Indulge me please.

              1. Gary Humbard Avatar
                Gary Humbard

                Skyrim, my only motivation is to learn the best solutions in conserving wildlife and wild places. I do not dispute the Facebook numbers. I hope income derived from wildlife viewing instead of wildlife killing is the best incentive for the local indingenous population because ultimately the fate of wildlife is in their hands.

        2. skyrim Avatar

          Gary This is nothing more than a myth being perpetuated by the killing industry and all of it’s (paid?) minions.

          1. skyrim Avatar

            Sorry. Did not see that this has been already posted above by Kathleen. Thanks Kathleen

  5. Kathleen Avatar

    “There is an inherent danger in the assumption that human utility is the measure to judge Nature’s value….such an attitude is still akin to racism and colonialism.”

    And, of course, speciesism, which is seldom acknowledged but which fuels capitalism and vice versa. In fact, speciesism is literally defined by your next statement:

    “It puts the human species ahead of all others and justifies expropriating the planet for the benefit of a single species at the expense of the many.”

    So why is speciesism so seldom addressed–or, perhaps more accurately–why is it aggressively ignored? Is it because violence against animals is so normalized that we scarcely recognize it and probably know, at some level, that we benefit from it? Speaking against the slaughter of sentient wild nonhuman animals (wolves, coyotes, prairie dogs, cormorants, et al.) is easy–we give up nothing. (Nothing, other than the considerable time & effort put into activism!) But speaking against the prolonged cruelty and slaughter of sentient “food animals” demands more of us; once we acknowledge *that* violence and expropriation of life, and continue to eat their bodies, their reproductive products (milk, eggs), and wear their skins (UGG boots, suede jackets, leather shoes), we’re complicit in the violence.

    46 million sentient turkeys will have suffered hideous existences in factory farms just for tomorrow, Thanksgiving…are they included in the “all” in this statement? “…how well we are able to articulate a moral and ethical reason for right of all life to exist.”

    This isn’t meant to be an attack on you, George (in case it sounds like one)–I agree entirely about the need to acknowledge and articulate sentient nonhumans’ intrinsic right to life. At the same time, let’s be honest about our society’s moral schizophrenia when it comes to the animals we stand up for and the animals we exploit.

  6. JohnR Avatar

    Sorry, I don’t understand the term ‘New Conservation’. Hunters and anglers have advocated for utilitarian conservation for decades, including species specific conservation. Ecosystem and parks conservation has been around for decades as well. With hunters generally not allowed to hunt inside national parks. George, if you elaborate on this – I would appreciate it. 🙂 Thanks.

  7. JB Avatar

    For once I wholeheartedly agree with George; and I see Brian and WM are largely in agreement on the other active thread. Will wonders never cease?!

  8. Rob Avatar

    I see a very important third split here. In addition to the two viewpoints mentioned, intrinsic and utilitarian, there is a split within the utilitarian perspective between those who use the utilitarian justification for preserving and protecting ecosystems and their functions – you might call this non-consumptive utilitarian – they argue that protecting intact ecosystems benefits humans by removing pollutants and providing clean water and air, reducing runoff and flooding, allowing recharge of aquifers, preserving genetic biodiversity that might be useful in improving food crops, etc. Indeed most environmental advocates quote the many studies that include the actual cost benefit of a single tree or an acre of forest in providing these ecological services. This non-consumptive utilitarian view couples nicely with the intrinsic view and provides additional sound arguments useful in convincing the more pragmatic fence sitters to support the preservation and protection of parks and intact ecosystems (though the diehard intrinsics will say these additional arguments should not be needed). The other side of the utilitarian view is the potentially dangerous one, the argument goes something like – it is important to protect these areas for what we might be able to exploit from them later – e.g., gas, minerals, lumber, etc.

    The few examples given in the essay seem to be the non-consumptive – food security, clean water, and the value of birds, but the vague references to partnering with business are not clear to me. This would imply some type of exploitation, but they do not offer a concrete example.

    The one thing here that is certainly true is that this not a new idea, and to be honest, in 30 years of fighting for the protection of natural land on the local level, I’ve not seen the divide between the two arguments they claim exists. The two arguments appeal to different audiences and the truth is we need them both to continue to support conservation. All-in-all I agree with the view expressed in the essay, with the exception of what I have called here the consumptive utilitarian. Preserving land to be developed or exploited in the future is not what true conservation is all about. Of course that begs the distinction between conservation and preservation. But that’s a discussion for another day.

    1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
      Kirk Robinson

      My angle on this is a little bit different, Rob. I welcome your distinction between the two varieties of utilitarian concern; and I even think there is some room for both of them in a fully developed rationale for conservation. However, I think the main point is that so long as all we have is a utilitarian reason for conservation, then there will be competing interests vying for different uses of nature, which poses a huge risk to conservation in the end. So we also need an ethical rationale for conservation – one that makes it plain what the goal is and why it is important (beyond merely providing us with lumber and clean water, etc.) And there can be no such ethical argument without granting that natural systems, species, animals, etc. have intrinsic value – value quite apart from all things human. So we need to continually make sure we are articulating this message clearly and powerfully as a necessary condition for bringing about conservation. But it doesn’t follow that the ethical argument for conservation is the only good argument that can be given for conservation, or even that it alone is all we need.

      1. Rob Avatar

        I agree completely. I am personally in the intrinsic camp, but have spent enough time trying to make the case for conservation with government officials, people on the far right, developers, people who have no contact, understanding or appreciation whatsoever for the natural world that, I know the ethical argument doesn’t always have meaning to others the way it does to those more aware and enlightened about nature. Our educational system is failing us badly in this regard. We need multiple arguments to reach those who only have concern for something that directly benefits them. It is sad but true.

        Have a good holiday.

        1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
          Kirk Robinson

          And I agree completely with that, Rob. The only thing I would add is that we can and should do a lot better job of articulating the ethical argument than we’ve done so far.

  9. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    I was going to say that humans being humans, you cannot remove the corruption aspect to trophy hunting on both sides of the issue – so it can never be a management tool, and it will never be of much benefit the poor. There will always be poaching, ignoring laws and regulations, and money ‘mishandling’.

  10. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Since we are talking about exploitation of developing countries:

  11. Leslie Avatar

    Utilitarian interests are driving pollutants in our pristine wilderness

  12. Greg Costello Avatar

    Very nice George! One issue overlooked by the “all get along” essay is the underlying motives driving the “two camps.” that are set up as opposing views.

    Too many years as a lawyer has taught me to always look deeper. For the New Conservationists I’ve struggled to understand their game, particularly the disparagement of other conservationists and conservation organizations. And while it may not apply in this case, it is always wise to see if there is there is a “follow the money” trail. I can’t help but note that the Breakthrough Institute didn’t exist prior to the “Death of Environmentalism” sh*tstorm, and of course TNC is now lead by a wall street banker and increasing market share is a fairly basic business proposition. Explaining our nation’s conservation problems in terms of a failed approach/perspective of your competitors, when your audience involves the very funders of your competitors, well, enough said. And then let’s not forget the tendency of academia to engage in controversial what-ifs in the name of scholarship with little regard for what the real world looks like.

    The intrinsic value side is not immune to these motivational questions. There can be too much focus on purity, too little acknowledgment, ironically that humans are species that have been part of the landscape for a long time, and that nature is resilient. Truth be told many of us probably would much prefer to be able to get lost in an untrammeled wilderness and not encounter another human for a year. But, if we draw our line in the sand on this path, we leave ourselves open to criticism as being exclusionary and elite, and rightly so. It is a fine line; I always try and remind myself to ask, what does Nature need, not what do I want.

    Thanks for a great response George.

  13. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    I am so tired of this notion of human supremacy, and its arrogant, misguided perception that non-human beings exist merely to be exploited and controlled for human use.

    Of course nature has intrinsic value, and exists for its own sake. It’s unbelievable to me that there would even be any debate about this, but then again, humility is a quality that seems to be sorely lacking among human supremacists.

    I agree with George when he writes above:

    “The protection of biodiversity and wild Nature purely for intrinsic value also is an act of humility. It is a statement that we recognize that we do not understand the complexity of Nature—even what may be good ultimately for humans. Humility is the foundation of any code of right and wrong. And it is wrong to view the world’s great diversity merely in terms of its utility to humankind.”

    Well stated, George. You are right.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      ++ Joanne. I do believe there is a handful of people that believe this way and they are putting actions into motion. Explore this webpage.

      I watched two videos and in one of them I saw two people that I recognized. One I know, she is an activist from the Ponca Tribe here in Oklahoma. The other is from Indigenous Environmental Network. But there were more than activist present.

      I was just glad to see people are acting and passing laws in their countries that are meant to protect nature and its inhabitants.

      This short video of a lawyer from South Africa speaking was interesting.

      It may not be as evident here in America, but more people are starting to push back against the system that drives our exhaustive consumption and the animals and ecosystems that are paying the ultimate price of over consumption.

  14. Kyle Gardner Avatar
    Kyle Gardner

    Thanks for posting George! Your book “Keeping the Wild,” with Crist and Butler is excellent!

    This “debate” is not new, stretching back to the turn of the 20th century. Nor is it much of a contest: Either we preserve wild ecosystems and creatures for their own intrinsic value, regardless of human constructed notions of utility, or everything is commodified, turned into a private good and parceled out to the highest bidder strictly for human use. And it’s no surprise that the ascendency of the utilitarian view is a major product of corporate “partnering,” to describe it in a civil manner.

    One need only read a few of the op-ed pieces written by Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist at TNC, to realize just how dangerous is the utilitarian perspective for the well-being of the wild. The Kareiva camp dismisses extinction, ignores climate change, cherry-picks its way to “nature’s resiliency,” lauds greater levels of control, poo poos numinous experience, demands we accept a diminished wild, and has sold its ethics to corporate persons for cash. The debate is not about ecofeminism or poor communities of color. This is about true environmental justice, across the full span of creation. Do we “afford” wild habitat and creatures their proper due, from a valid ethical foundation, or do we chop it all up, sell it off, and embrace neoliberal nature valuation? Are we truly Homo sapiens or not?

    The implications of the neoresourcist mentality are clear and need to be fully deconstructed to illustrate the cold calculus. Most of the work (little better than op-ed pieces) lacks intellectual rigor, there are too many breezy generalizations, a straw man is essential for the framework, the evidence is cherry-picked, and they utterly fail to make the case that theirs is the moral high ground. In fact, the ethics are ghastly and will only perpetuate destruction.

    The apologists of the Nature piece can’t be serious that we ought to open the playing field to even greater levels of anthropocentric folly. More civility? No – this is far more than an academic debate. The very essence of the neoresourcist argument is uncivil. The prescription applies heavier doses of same old toxic medication that brought about the unfolding disaster, except adds a happy face.

    Fortunately, there are plenty of outstanding writers exposing the ethically stunted neoresourcist position, Foreman, Soule, Kingsnorth, Monbiot. Despite the temporary ascendency of the corporate state, and its new minions in the corporate–academic complex, plenty of folks are fighting back in support of preserving places and creatures for their own sakes, for their own intrinsic value, irregardless of how they might fit into human designs. More civility? Not as long as the stakes are this high.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Yes!!! Thanks for a great post.

    2. Nancy Avatar

      + 1 Kyle.

  15. Patrick Avatar

    I agree with the points raised in the essay. I wonder whether the instrinsic conservationists could frame the debate in such a way as to shift the discussion away from preserved areas where a clear line could be drawn in the sand, to degraded public and private lands, where efforts to restore native ecosystems and processes could enhance biodiversity and improving ecosystem services, while also providing a more sustainable economic viability to an area. As an example, by converting land currently devoted to commodity crops back to more diverse prairie that could be used to support a well-managed rotational or patch-burn grazing system, one could still generate a saleable product (livestock), while increasing biodiversity and reducing runoff and pesticide use. The restored areas would be better than what currently exists, and could be used to connect fragmented native landscapes. The same principle might be applied to forest tracts that are currently managed as a single-species plantation. Thus, those guided by the intrinsic worth of nature could cede lands already in production to the utilitarians and allow such lands to remain in use, but demand these lands be better managed with biodiversity and ecosystem services in mind.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner