Academic journal article Environmental Values

Future Directions for Conservation

Academic journal article Environmental Values

Future Directions for Conservation

Article excerpt


The use of target baselines or reference states for conservation and restoration has become increasingly problematic and impractical, due to rapid environmental change, the paradigm shift in ecology from a static to a dynamic view of nature, and growing awareness of the role of cultural traditions in the reconstruction of baselines. The various responses to this crisis of baselines will to a significant extent determine the future direction of nature conservation. Although some hold onto traditional baselines and others try to refine or redefine the reference concept, the debate is currently dominated by two widely diverging reactions to the crisis: while the so-called 'new environmentalists' or 'new conservationists' declare the whole baseline notion obsolete, replacing a backward-looking approach with a forward-looking one, the 're-wilders' push the baseline back to a deeper, more distant past. This article provides a critical assessment of the debate on these conversation options, with a special focus on the differences between Old World and New World perspectives.


Conservation baselines, Old World and New World perspectives, novel ecosystems, anthropocene, rewilding


New World and Old World conservationists use different historical baselines or reference states. Ecological restoration in the New World comes down to returning habitats or ecosystems to the way they were when Europeans arrived to settle the area--for North America, the year 1492 is a holy baseline; for Australia it is 1770, when Captain Cook first landed there. Ecological restoration in the Old World, on the other hand, uses the pre-industrial (and not the pre-settlement) landscape of the mid-nineteenth century as a baseline, and aims to return ecosystems to their condition prior to large-scale modernisation (Ladle et al., 2011).

These different baselines correspond to Simon Schama's distinction in Landscape and Memory between two kinds of Arcadia, the primitive and the pastoral. 'There have always been two kinds of Arcadia: shaggy and smooth; dark and light; a place of bucolic leisure and a place of primitive panic' (Schama, 1995: 517). Whereas primitive Arcadia is inhabited by people who behave like wild animals, pastoral Arcadia is a place from which all dangerous creatures (such as the snake and the lion) have been banned and the ideal animals (such as the cow and the bee) behave like conscientious and industrious citizens. Primitive Arcadians are 'hunters and gatherers, warriors and sensualists' (ibid.: 527), who seek shelter against the elements in caves or simple huts; pastoral Arcadians, on the other hand, are agriculturists, who have replaced hunting and gathering with farming and herding, and who have exchanged a nomadic life for a sedentary life.

Both New World and Old World approaches struggle with the problem that target baselines have become increasingly troublesome and impractical (Gillson et al., 2011). On the one hand, the New World idea of a pristine wilderness devoid of human effects has been defated, since it became apparent that many wilderness areas had been profoundly affected by humans before European conquest and settlement. On the other hand, it is clear by now that preserving or recreating typical Old World cultural-historic landscapes is rendered almost impossible by strong anthropogenic drivers, such as climate change and habitat fragmentation.

There have been two widely diverging reactions to this crisis of conservation baselines. One wing of the conservation community has abandoned history altogether, shifting the focus from the past to the future, and from 'restoration ecology' to 'intervention ecology', under the invocation of the emerging Anthropocene, the 'age of man'. The other wing has moved the baseline back to an even deeper, more distant past, adopting what has been termed 'rewilding' or 'resurrection ecology'. …

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