Environmental ethics: Are conservation efforts overlooking ethical values?

Protecting biodiversity is usually the explicit aim of conservation efforts, but are there other values in nature which need to be conserved? Does the unbroken existence and evolution of an ecosystem through time matter or is an artificially created ecosystem with the same species good enough? Was it only the total biodiversity of an area which John Muir sought to conserve in his efforts to protect wild places or some other value?

It is worth investigating this topic in order to better understand what values we are aiming to conserve in addition to biological entities and to be open to exploring alternatives to traditional conservation approaches. Looking at differences between conservation approaches can help identify these values to make sure they are not noticed only when they are gone.

Continuity of existence and link to the past

When moving from “pure”, unmanaged wilderness to managed ecosystems which are maintained through constant, moderate-intensity human intervention (as many nature reserves are), what has changed? Does anything exist in the pure wilderness which has been lost in the managed system? In terms of scientific interest and practical value to modern conservation, both types of systems have benefits and drawbacks, but the ethical values represented may not be immediately obvious. Of course, humans and their ancestors have been interacting with nature for millions of years and so there are very few places where humans have never influenced ecosystems. However, in today’s world of rapid development, areas with very limited human management can be identified.

Consider a nature reserve which relies to some extent on human management. Most ecological processes, such as the interactions between native predators and prey, or the breakdown of dead material, are allowed to proceed without hindrance but some processes are either prevented and limited or assisted and encouraged. Examples of this could include holding a rare ecosystem in a particular successional state through careful management to prevent its loss, removing non-native species or planting insect-friendly species to support pollinator populations. In the world we live today, where human activity continues to destroy, fragment and degrade vast areas of wildlife habitat and to introduce species, this kind of nature reserve seems vital to the practical conservation of biodiversity by counteracting these problems.

Managed heath moor in Scotland. Image by farcloser (Flickr).

But if this type of typical nature reserve was the only way in which nature was conserved, would any additional values have been lost? Pure wilderness areas have scientific value in terms of understanding how ecological processes occur without human influence (if the area is large enough for edge effects to be negligible) but also to study evolution of ecosystems and to gain information about ecosystems of the past. This last point directs us towards a key value protected by unmanaged and undeveloped wilderness areas: a link to the past.

Peter Singer, in Practical Ethics (2011), points out a parallel between our efforts to protect ancient monuments and buildings to maintain the never-to-be-recreated link to the past which they represent and the idea of conserving wilderness areas which have never been heavily modified by humans. Relative wilderness areas represent a link to the past and continuity of existence of nature, qualities which are highly valued in many other areas of life but are frequently ignored or considered to be sentimental extras in conservation efforts. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a good example of explicitly attempting to protect the link to the past but, outwith these “crown jewels of nature”, many examples of this value are already lost or at risk of being lost forever if specific efforts are not made to recognise and protect them.

The value of ecosystem processes

Are nature reserves and wilderness areas relied upon to protect any values other than the conservation of biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem services which humans rely on and allowing people a connection with nature? Imagine a dystopian future where human development and population increase has meant that remaining protected areas have been destroyed, but, to placate conservationists, Earth’s total biodiversity has been conserved artificially in captivity, in the form of seed banks, botanical gardens, zoos, etc. Are these the only values which would be lost or are there other, perhaps less tangible, values which would only be present in reserves or wilderness?

Perhaps, in addition to that of individual species, the intrinsic value of nature also applies to the ecological and evolutionary processes which take place. The intrinsic value of species is difficult to pin down and articulate but many feel that species are inherently valuable. However, the processes and interactions associated with these species in their ecosystems do not often have such a value attributed to them; they tend to be considered valuable only for the purposes of supporting overall biodiversity.

Considering species alone without ecosystems and their processes highlights how important these aspects could be in conservation. Obviously this is a fictional scenario and most conservation does occur at an ecosystem level, but captive breeding is often necessary to bring species back from the brink. Including ecosystems and their processes as aspects of nature with intrinsic value shows how risky allowing a species to get so close to extinction can be: it is not only straightforward extinction, which is a possibility, but also the loss of processes and interactions associated with this species if an isolated breeding programme is required to save it.  Ecosystems may change in its absence from the wild and it may not be possible to reconstruct fragile webs of interaction.

Bringing ethical values into the discussion

These additional values of unbroken continuation of existence and the intrinsic value of ecosystem processes are protected to varying degrees by existing conservation efforts. But, compared to saving species and biodiversity, their protection is less frequently an aim of conservation in itself. Destruction of wilderness in easily developed areas is sometimes “compensated for” by the creation of a new nature reserve; it is acts like this as well as the constant degradation of natural areas which risks the loss of this link with the past. It is important to recognise that this is not adequate and to give this value more consideration in conservation efforts and planning where it is still possible.

Investigating the idea of ecosystem processes having intrinsic value while this can still be conserved is also important. The high value currently associated with species and biodiversity was not always considered when society’s values were different and species less at risk. Open-minded discussions by conservation groups and others can hopefully highlight these additional values to avoid similar irretrievable loss of valuable aspects of nature that occurred while we weren’t looking.

Vanessa Berrie has a background in ecology and conservation science. At the moment she is especially interested in the topic of conservation ethics. If you want to learn more about environment and ethics, you can visit her blog Mind Wide Open.  


3 responses to “Environmental ethics: Are conservation efforts overlooking ethical values?

  1. Pingback: Nature Reserve: The Series | Fika After Fifty Digital Photography and Art·

  2. Pingback: Nature Reserve Red Maple | Fika After Fifty Digital Photography and Art·

  3. Barbra and I give a lot of thought to this: How can environmentally special areas be shown to have value in a way that connects with average people. Our belief and observation is that when people attach value to certain species, they tend to transfer that valuation onto a broader ecosystem and are more likely to make sacrifices necessary to protect that ecosystem and not just the key, highly valued species in it but all of it. The challenge is that this process (people coming to understand the value of ecosystems that are necessary to protect species they value) takes time; the world is already overflowing with too many people and adding more people every day. So time is of the essence. Zoos provide an apparently quick solution… but as much as we want to believe that zoos can be “arks” until humans figure things out, we’re doubtful.


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