Conservation in a Human-Dominated World

By Western, David | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Conservation in a Human-Dominated World


Western, David, Issues in Science and Technology


To advance conservation throughout the world, we must foster fairness and democracy based on sound principles and good science.

Forging a tangible connection among environment, development, and welfare is a formidable challenge, given the complex global interactions and slow response times involved. The task is made all the harder by quickening change, including new ideas about conservation and how it can best be done. Present policies and practices, vested in government and rooted in a philosophy that regards humanity and nature as largely separate realms, do little to encourage public participation or to reinforce conservation through individual incentives and civil responsibility. The challenge will be to make conservation into a household want and duty. This will mean moving the focus of conservation away from central regulation and enforcement and toward greater emphasis on local collaboration based on fairness, opportunity, and responsibility. Given encouragement, such initiatives will help reduce extinction levels and the isolation of parks by expanding biodiversity conservation in human-dominated landscapes.

The problems that beset current conservation efforts are daunting. Three factors in particular threaten steady economic and social progress as well as conservation: poverty, lack of access rights linked to conservation responsibilities, and environmental deterioration. Poverty and lack of access rights, especially in Africa, will keep populations growing and will fuel Rwandan-like emigration and political unrest. With short-term survival as its creed, poverty accelerates environmental degradation and habitat fragmentation. The peasant lacking fuel and food will clear the forest to plant crops or will poach an elephant if there is no alternative. So, for example, tropical forests--home to half the world's species--are being lumbered, burned, grazed, and settled. Forest destruction precipitates local wrangles between indigenous and immigrant communities over land and squabbles between North and South over carbon sinks and global warming.

We cannot rely on the trickle-down effect of economic development and liberalism to eradicate poverty, solve access problems, or curb environmental losses--at least not soon. It was, after all, unfettered consumerism in the West that killed off countless animal species, stripped the forests, and polluted the air and water. And the same consumer behavior and commercial excesses are still evident, depleting old-growth forests and fighting pollution legislation every step of the way.

The policies, practices, and institutions needed to imbed conservation in society should therefore aim to change the perceptions of conservation from a cost of development imposed by outsiders to an individual and public good central to human advancement and welfare. To succeed, conservation must be as widely understood as hygiene and as voluntarily practiced as bathing.

The rise of modem conservation

The modem global conservation movement began in 19th- century Europe, triggered by the impact of population growth and industrialization on the environment. Growing affluence, education, mobility, and democracy saw popularly elected governments whittle down the aristocratic monopoly on natural resources, including forests, game, and fish. By mid-century, Germany had set aside national forest plantations to maximize timber yields and regulate hunting. By the turn of century, jurisdiction over natural resources had passed largely into government hands throughout the Western world. In the United States, the first national parks had been set aside to save grand natural monuments such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Coinciding as they did with mass migration from farm to city, the new conservation laws placed wildlife not only in government hands, but also effectively in those of the urban majority. Having retreated from nature, the urban populace began to see nature itself as a retreat from the grime and ugliness of industrial cities. …

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