Species extinction is a great moral wrong

Sharing the Earth with other species is an important human responsibility

Nearly three decades ago, conservation biologist Michael Soulé published an article titled "What is Conservation Biology?" Its strong and enduring influence stemmed partly from Soulé's success in articulating an appealing ethical vision for this new field. At its heart was the belief that the human-caused extinction of other species is a great moral wrong.

"The diversity of organisms is good," Soulé wrote, and "the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad." Other species have "value in themselves," he asserted – an "intrinsic value" that should motivate respect and restraint in our dealings with them.

In a recent article published in the journal BioScience titled "What is Conservation Science?" Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier attempt to update Soulé's conservation philosophy, but lose sight of this moral commitment.[divider]

Update: Dr. Michelle Marvier has responded to this article in the comment section below.[divider]

No need to worry? (Photo of a polar bear on the Arctic coast of Alaska, by Alan Wilson for naturespicsonline.com)Specifying the ethical principles that they believe should guide conservationists, they give a prominent place to increasing human wealth and "working with corporations," while recognition of the right of other species to continue to flourish is nowhere to be found. In fact, the article's rhetoric serves to normalize extinctions and make readers more comfortable with them. For example, it describes concern for the local extinctions of wolves and grizzly bears in the United States as "nostalgia" for "the world as it once was" and suggests that people need not keep other species on the landscape when their continued presence is incompatible with our economic goals.

Unfortunately this position does not appear to be an aberration in this one article, but rather an essential part of the authors' view that conservationists should accommodate ourselves to the new realities of the Anthropocene Epoch (so named due to the pervasive impact that human activities now have on Earth's ecosystems).

An earlier essay that they published with Robert Lalasz, "Conservation in the Anthropocene," also contemplates mass extinction with equanimity – because such extinctions will not necessarily change whole ecosystems or inconvenience human beings. There, the authors argue that:

… Ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature … In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The American chestnut, once a dominant tree in eastern North America, has been extinguished by a foreign disease, yet the forest ecosystem is surprisingly unaffected. The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller's sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.

What is the Anthropocene Epoch?

According to some scientists, we live at a rare change of geological epochs: the shift from the Holocene (which began about 12,000 years ago when the last ice age ended) to a new epoch tentative named the Anthropocene, because of the immense and increasing human influence on the Earth. Human-dominated ecosystems now cover more of our planet's land surface than do wild ecosystems, while agriculture, construction and mining may move more earth than the natural processes of rock uplift and erosion The key question is whether we should reduce those impacts for our own good and the good of other species, or accept increased human domination of Earth.

Presumably these extinction events were indeed catastrophic for the species in question! And also, perhaps, for other species that preyed on or otherwise interacted with them. But such catastrophes do not appear to count morally for the authors; they are not real catastrophes as long as the "ecosystem functions" that benefit humans remain intact. This is shortsighted. There is an extensive body of ecological research showing that even though there is often redundancy in biological communities, as species are lost, ecosystems start to lose functionality and become more prone to collapse. Leaving aside the scientific absurdity that some of the most abundant tree and bird species in North America could disappear with "no measurable effects," there is an ethical blindness here that is even more troubling.

According to recent studies, humanity could extinguish one out of every three species on Earth during the next few centuries if we continue on our current habitat-destroying, resource-hogging path. In one sign of the times, in 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened with extinction due to the effects of global climate change. Those of us who love wild nature receive such news with lumps in our throats. Yet in response to this threat Kareiva, Marvier and Lalasz had this to say:

Even that classic symbol of fragility — the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block — may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals. Polar bears evolved from brown bears 200,000 years ago during a cooling period in Earth's history, developing a highly specialized carnivorous diet focused on seals. Thus, the fate of polar bears depends on two opposing trends — the decline of sea ice and the potential increase of energy-rich prey. The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again.

Such a glib statement ("seemingly stranded on a melting ice block") is both scientifically unjustified and morally obtuse. As Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, correctly points out, "no credible scientist believes that polar bears, who hunt from sea-ice platforms, will rapidly evolve to sustain themselves hunting harbor seals in open water." And equating past extinctions due to natural causes with the possible extinction of the polar bear due to human-caused climate change fails to acknowledge the human responsibility for this threat. Karieva and Marvier suggest that the polar bear's fate depends on "two opposing trends" as "the environment changes," — when it really depends on whether or not humanity substantially reduces our greenhouse gas emissions.

Extinguishing species through the continued expansion of human economic activities appears to be morally acceptable to Kareiva, Marvier and some other Anthropocene proponents, as long as this destruction does not harm people themselves. But this view is selfish and unjust. Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth's resources. If increased human population and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our population and economic demands, not make excuses that will just lead to greater ecological damage.

Conservation biologists, with our knowledge and appreciation of other species, are the last people who should be making excuses for their displacement or making light of their extinction. It is particularly inappropriate for Peter Kareiva to do so, given his position as chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving biodiversity. TNC's fundraising rests in part on appeals to a strong and widely shared moral view that other species have a right to continued existence. Much of the conservation value of TNC's easements and land purchases depends on society-wide moral and legal commitments to preserve threatened and endangered species and their habitats. Kareiva and Marvier state that they "do not wish to undermine the ethical motivations for conservation action," or presumably, conservation law. Yet their articles do precisely that, with potentially disastrous implications for practical conservation efforts, particularly in the long term.

To be clear: We do not think there is anything wrong with people looking after our own legitimate needs. This is an important aspect of conservation. Kareiva and Marvier are right to remind us that protecting ecosystem services for human beings is important. They are right that concern for our own wellbeing can sometimes motivate significant biodiversity preservation. We believe that people should preserve other species both for their sakes and for ours.

But it is a mistake to reduce conservation solely to concern for our own well-being, or to assume that it is acceptable to extinguish species that do not benefit humans. Such an overly economistic approach to conservation leads us astray morally. It makes us selfish, which is the last thing we want when the very existence of so many other life forms is at stake. Fairly sharing the lands and waters of Earth with other species is primarily a matter of justice, not economic convenience.

Natural species are the primary expressions and repositories of organic nature's order, creativity and diversity. They represent thousands of millions of years of evolution and achievement. They show incredible functional, organizational and behavioral complexity. Every species, like every person, is unique, with its own history and destiny. When humans take so many resources or degrade so much habitat that another species is driven extinct, we have taken or damaged too much and have brought a meaningful story to an untimely end.

At its core, the science of conservation biology affirms that knowledge about the living world should go hand in hand with love and respect for it. Biologist Colin Tudge put it well in his book The Variety of Life:

The prime motive of science is not to control the Universe but to appreciate it more fully. It is a huge privilege to live on Earth and to share it with so many goodly and fantastical creatures.

From this perspective, even one human-caused extinction is one too many. From this perspective, the goodness of the human career on Earth depends as much on how well we appreciate and get along with other species as on how well we do so with other people.

Michael Soulé is right: other species have value in themselves and a right to continued existence. Human beings should preserve them whether or not it is convenient or economically beneficial for people.[divider]

The authors adapted this article from an editorial they wrote for Biological Conservation.


The Authors

Philip Cafaro, PhDRichard Primack, PhDDr. Philip Cafaro (philip.cafaro@colostate.edu) is Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, an affiliated faculty member with CSU's School of Global Environmental Sustainability and Book Review Editor of Elsevier's Biological Conservation journal. His main research interests are in environmental ethics, consumption and population issues, and wild lands preservation. He is the author of Thoreau's Living Ethics and Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, among other books.

Dr. Richard B. Primack (primack@bu.edu) is Professor of Biology at Boston University and Editor-in-Chief of Biological Conservation, an Elsevier journal focusing on the protection of biodiversity.  His research concerning the effects of climate change on the plants and animals of Massachusetts is the focus of a new book coming out in March titled Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau's Woods.

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32 Archived Comments

Libby Ellwood, PhD February 12, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Carfaro and Primack succinctly put our collective egos in check by reminding us that biodiversity does not exist solely for the benefit of the human race. While humans are a necessary part of the conservation equation, as posited by Kareiva and Marvier, human needs should not be the basis for conservation decisions. If we are willing to let a few species go extinct in the name of population growth and corporate greed, when do we draw the line to protect biodiversity in all of its forms? What happens when we've removed enough ecologically "redundant" species that we find they were in fact essential for ecosystem health and productivity? It is a dangerously slippery slope.

Philip Cafaro February 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm

We have no problem with human needs factoring in to conservation decisions.The moral failure comes in focusing exclusively on human needs -- even when that means extinguishing other species.

We also see a value in looking for "win/win" conservation solutions that benefit people and other species. But on a finite planet with people and other species in competition for scarce resources, such solutions are not always available. In such a world, we need to accept some limits to human demands on the biosphere.

Brian O'Donnell February 12, 2014 at 6:22 pm

Dr. Cafaro and Dr. Primack have written a very important piece here. The moral argument for preventing the extinction of species is at the very core of conservation. There have been some recent proposals by Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier and others attempting to to move conservation away from protected areas. They largely ignore the moral responsibility we hold for preventing the extinction of species. I commend Cafaro and Primack for uniting conservation science with morality and recommitting to the great cause of conservation.

Karen Beard February 12, 2014 at 7:59 pm

This is a really interesting topic. In my undergrad course, we just reviewed Soule's "What is Conservation Biology", and then read Kareiva's "What is Conservation Science?", and Doak's "What is the future of conservation?". I asked them to evaluate this idea of a NCS and whether conservation biology should be more human-focused. It was interesting to read their responses. There was a diversity of opinions, and I don't think Utah State students are necessarily representative of the US students more generally. However, I think we need to do a better job of listening to our students and trying to understand what the newer generation of conservation biologists believe. A lot of undergraduates already have a value system that will dictate how future Americans will feel on these issues.

Richard Primack February 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Thanks for this comment. Regardless of where each of us stands on the issue, this sequence of papers has resulted in a valuable opportunity to teach students about values and priorities.

Harvey Locke February 12, 2014 at 8:49 pm

Well done. Species extinction is a great moral issue of our time. Our species practices too much species selfishness. Marvier and Karieva have done great harm by suggesting exticntion is acceptable.

Michael Kellett February 12, 2014 at 9:23 pm

I couldn't agree more. The Anthropocene boosters' arrogant, utilitarian views on extinction would be retrograde, even if this were a century ago. I imagine Charles William Beebe would say:

"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."

Richard Corlett February 13, 2014 at 12:19 am

I completely agree. Kareiva and Marvier are a non-random sample from a single human generation and I don't think their 'humans first' views are a majority even today. We will need wild species in the Anthropocene as much as we always did.

Jerry Freilich February 13, 2014 at 1:03 am

I am so pleased to see Primack and Cafaro challenging the mindless and mind-numbing assertions of Kareiva et al. I agree with everything in this article and would go farther. Primack and Cafaro don't even consider the argument that ecosystem services depend on functioning systems... and that no one knows at what point those systems will stop functioning as species after species is removed. "The first job of an intelligent tinkerer is to save all the parts" is a famous quote attributed to Aldo Leopold. Any argument that suggests that it's OK to throw away this piece or that piece is simply foolhardy. Shame on Kareiva and his well-funded employers for spouting this dangerous, unscientific, world view.

Kieran Suckling February 13, 2014 at 5:09 am

There have been several good rebuttals showing the scientific errors and historical distortions in the recent spate of articles by Peter Kareiva which denounce what he asserts is "orthodox" conservation and calling for a more central focus on supplying resources to humans and cooperating with large, international corporations. In this essay, Cafaro and Primack cut to what I think is the heart of the question: the lack of an ethical standard in the writings of Kareiva and Marvier.

Soule's "What is conservation biology?" expressly announces that we have an ethical duty to not drive other species extinct and to prevent others from doing so where we can. In their attempt to establish a new concept of conservation in "What is conservation science?," Kareiva and Marvier mirror Soule's structure, thus it is not surprising that they state in the beginning that they will also provide a normative standard. Tellingly, though, the promise is not kept. Instead, they put forth a number of practical postulates, such as "conservationists should work with corporations". They only ethical norm in the paper is an aside asserting that above all, conservation should not harm humans.

Cafaro and Primack hit the nail on the head in pointing out that Kareiva's refusal of an ethical relationship toward other species is what allows him treat extinction as simply one affect among many of development that should be balanced where possible. Kareiva's refusal of ecological baselines has a similar effect: since we are bound neither by ethical norms nor ecological baselines, we can transform nature in any way we wish. The only hint of ethic--and it is not really developed--is the clear belief that transformations which harm the delivery of ecosystem services to humans is a bad.

In response to a BioScience letter noting the lack of an ethical underpinning to "conservation science," Kareiva and Marvier state that ethical issues should be left to philosophers and are not necessary to their vision for conservation. What they fail so see, however, is that every vision is necessarily based on an ethical premise. Visions such as Soule's which acknowledge and discuss the ethical premises tend to be consistent, clear and compelling. Visions such as Kareiva's which obscure their premise, tend to be inconsistent, muddled, and too vague to rally a following.

In many ways, the question of whether we have an ethical duty to conserve other species is the core question of what conservation means. If we do not, we become resource managers and take up questions of waste, production and distribution of resources, equity among human communities, and how to create/preserve delivery of future ecosystem services. If we do, we take up questions of species survival, the limits of resource extraction, the relationship between evolved traits and ecological conditions, and equity among those benefiting from and those harmed by resource extraction.

Given how long, how often, and how publicly environmental ethics have been explicated and debated, and how central they are to the Soule essay that Kareiva and Marvie expressly rewrite, it is difficult to imagine that they simply forgot to describe an ethic. I would suggest, rather, that a clearly expressed ethic would have undermined the essay's muddled attempt to play all sides of all coins. It would have forced the authors to acknowledge (or perhaps recognize) that their vision leads in a very specific and historically common direction. Gifford Pinchot, I suspect, would feel very at home with the "new environmentalism."

Kieran Suckling

Executive Director

Center for Biological Diversity

Philip Cafaro February 14, 2014 at 11:27 pm

Kieran Suckling is right that several excellent articles have been written exploring the numerous scientific errors marring the two Kareiva and Marvier pieces we critique. Among them are his own “Conservation for the Real World” <http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/debates/conservation-in-the-anthropocene-a-breakthrough-debate/conservation-for-the-real-world> and Doak et al.’s “What is the Future of Conservation?” https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/abstract/S0169-5347(13)00262-0>.

He is right too that despite protests to the contrary, K & M are advocating for a particular conservation ethics—even though they are happy to disclaim it when it suits their rhetorical purposes. It is indeed a souped-up version of Gifford Pinchot’s “wise us” philosophy, which is fine as half of a good conservation ethics, but selfish and ultimately self-defeating and dangerous when proposed as the whole of it.

For a good historical account of K & M’s ethical precursors see Curt Meine’s essay “What’s So New About the ‘New Conservation?’” forthcoming in a new book titled Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth” <http://www.amazon.com/Keeping-Wild-Against-Domestication-Earth/dp/1610915585/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1392419790&sr=8-2&keywords=keeping+the+wild>. Edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler, “Keeping the Wild” explores alternatives to charging happily further into the Anthropocene epoch.

Robin Pakeman February 13, 2014 at 9:27 am

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” John Donne, Meditation XVII.

I wonder if a difference in the views between the authors and those of Kareiva, Marvier, Lalasz et al. is whether morals extend beyond the human race to other species. John Donne puts forward the idea that the whole human race is affected when one person dies. How far he wanted that logic to extend to other species can’t be known, but I would argue most people involved in conservation would see other species as “a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine”. They feel a moral responsibility for other species and feel diminished when one is lost.

Where these differences spring from is an interesting sociological question. Maybe some of those with an anthropocentric view hold that species are purely there to be exploited as we have that ability (or have been given that right by a higher power). Consequently, they can be apparently uncaring about the loss of individual species if they can be replaced functionally by others. However, you could ask “where is the pride in being a good steward?” That is not to say that understanding the functional resilience of communities isn’t a useful discipline, but if we don’t stress communities too much then there isn’t much risk of them failing if the resilience is not there.

Maybe another difference is the ability to stand back from the loss of species and see the long view of evolution. Long after humans have disappeared from the earth, there will still be life and niches to evolve into (cockroaches taking over the world!). However, we should also be able to step back and see species loss as barometer for the health of the planet. Continuing the focus on polar bears, an ice free Arctic might be a boon for shipping, but how might that effect the rest of the global system. If there is enough ice to sustain the bears, then there may be enough to sustain current northern hemisphere weather patterns.

Finally, a further difference may be a pragmatic one - effectively giving up on some species as they are doomed. It might be that resources might be better spent on others that can be saved, whilst others have to sink or swim on their own. However, that is effectively stepping back from the fight that conservationists have always had with other interest groups. If we don’t fight for iconic species like polar bears, do we lose our moral authority to ask the wider public for help to protect pandas, elephants and the like? If we don’t fight, do we lose our self-respect as moral beings?

Devictor February 13, 2014 at 11:14 am

Many thanks for this very stimulating post.

The recent tendency to call for a more “pragmatic” approach to conservation and to give up with moral justifications based on intrinsic values is, to my view, missing key aspects of what is necessary for any conservation agenda to succeed. Two lines of arguments supporting this post came to me.

1) Whether we want it or not, we individually and collectively share several moral sensitivity and rationality. This is true among conservationists (See Sandbrook et al. The value plurality among conservation professionals, Conservation Biology, 2011), but this is also true among countries, NGOs, conservation movements and people. The call for aligning conservation goals with the mainstreaming view of the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment and the corresponding spread of instrumental values to virtually all components of biodiversity is just non-sense to many people including politicians (the utilitarian views was explicitly rejected by Bolivians in the last CBD summit).

>Forgetting that “Species extinction is a great moral wrong” is simply forgetting what many people think and feel. It is thus missing the fact that conservation is a value-laden discipline.

2) The new-conservation movement embodied by Kareiva is neither “new”, nor covering all aspects of conservation. No need to use the buzzword of anthropocene here. The debate between conservationist and preservationist dates back to the famous fight between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, more than 100 years ago. Since then, there has been a coexistence of several justifications. Focusing on natural resources and on a so-called “functional approach” have also been proposed (and criticized) several decades ago. The scientific and economic backgrounds are still very weak in terms of metrics, methods, predictions and generality of how one can relate biodiversity to function and to services. The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning theory (BEF) has been misused ad nauseam to promote the “ecosystem service” approach in academic publications. Fine. But it is not providing any ways to predict what level of biodiversity is needed for many, if not all services. Besides, many services need poor diversity or can be replaced by technology.

>Conservation is a scientific discipline, not just a slogan.

So many thanks again for this post. This essay is comforting and encouraging for teachers and young conservationists.

Some of us are trying to promote the pluralism of ethical values at stake in conservation biology and are indeed intrigued by this so-called “new shift” that some are trying to push.

Amanda Gallinat February 13, 2014 at 3:44 pm

As a conservation biology student, I find Cafaro and Primack's article to be an orienting reminder of the responsibilities of conservation biologists. Acknowledging the economic value of biodiversity is often the most effective strategy for gaining public and political support of conservation. Indeed, the conservation of biological diversity is costly, and communities should weigh those costs against other priorities to determine what scientific and humanitarian deserve immediate support. However, conservation biologists have a larger responsibility here than the general public, to communicate the respect that species deserve regardless of their value to humans. And if leaders in the field, like Kareiva, lose sight of the intrinsic value of biodiversity, who will remember?

Philip Cafaro February 13, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Thanks for your comment, Amanda. Your final point was one of our main motivations for writing the piece. Conservation biologists are well placed to speak up for the rights of nature and to argue that people should treat other species with respect and restraint. If we don't, who will?

Michelle Marvier February 13, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Of course human-caused extinction is a moral wrong. Our recent papers started from the assumption that we, as conservationists, want to preserve as much nature and as many species as possible. But, while the right of species to exist is a value in which we believe, we recognize that there are many moral wrongs in this world and people hold a wide variety of good values.

Some people, for example, care deeply about alleviating human suffering. We have tried to draw attention to the idea that conservation could be a means to that end. Concern about people is what motivates Beth Tellman to want to do conservation in El Salvador (http://www.snap.is/magazine/hotspots-for-people-new-conservation-strategy/). Conservation can appeal to the humanitarians among us, as well as the die-hard nature lovers. This is an opportunity to broaden the tent.

Conservation is cultural and political, and we need to embrace the diverse cultural views on conservation and what it means to do conservation (http://www.snap.is/magazine/phil-levin-decolonizing-conservation/). There is not one true conservation, but rather many diverse forms of conservation – one of which places a love of species at its core.

For Cafaro and Primack to write about morality is well and good. But in our papers Peter and I were writing as scientists, and therefore trying to use data to assess problems and devise solutions. Our hypothesis is that prioritizing places and strategies and actions that advance both conservation and other human values will broaden support for conservation. In contrast, we believe that prioritizing places based on counts of species (e.g., biodiversity hotspots), with no regard to benefits to people, will not be as effective for conservation as a whole. We have also hypothesized that although protected areas are an important piece of the solution, a broader set of approaches is needed (see "New conservation is true conservation" http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12206/pdf). Specifically, we need to also pursue conservation in places where people live and work. Not "instead", but "also".

This dialogue should be about effectiveness, not grandstanding about who loves nature the most.

Philip Cafaro February 17, 2014 at 3:26 am

Marvier now states that she believes that anthropogenic extinction is morally wrong. However, the two articles she wrote with Peter Kareiva that we respond to in our editorial deny and even mock that position. We note some of the ways they do so in the essay above, and Doak et al.’s “What is the Future of Conservation?" in a recent issue of "Trends in Ecology & Evolution" provides further examples. Marvier states that she was writing “as a scientist” in the two articles in question. But no serious scientist believes that polar bears are likely to avoid extinction by changing their diets or hunting techniques in the way they suggest, or that widespread species such as the passenger pigeon or American chestnut tree can be extinguished with “no noticeable effects”— two of many scientific howlers that mar their articles. Given the cavalier and muddled way she and Kareiva discuss the threats to endangered species and the impacts of species losses in their articles, its hard to know how seriously to take her new statement of moral concern. After all, Kareiva and Marlier explicitly state that conservation should be reoriented in service to economic growth, and that such growth can and should be allowed to trump the continued existence of other species, when they stand in the way of our economic objectives. That doesn't sound like they think other species have a right to continued existence free from anthropogenic extinction.

Michelle Marvier February 18, 2014 at 1:18 am

Philip, you seem to want to paint us as not caring about species, and I doubt there is anything I can say to convince you otherwise. I would like to move on to work that I think can make a positive contribution instead of this, and so I will. But for the record, we never "explicitly state that conservation should be reoriented in service to economic growth, and that such growth can and should be allowed to trump the continued existence of other species, when they stand in the way of our economic objectives." Nowhere have we written that economic growth should trump species. Nowhere have we said its okay to just throw species away if they’re inconvenient. What we did do is define conservation science at the start of our Bioscience paper, a definition which includes: "The distinguishing feature is that in conservation science, strategies to jointly maximize benefits to people and to biodiversity are pursued." Jointly! Get it? We want both... We want thriving nature, chock full of all sorts of species, because we love nature for its own sake and because healthy nature benefits people, especially the rural poor. Yes, we know that economic activity can produce environmental degradation. But we are also sensitive to loss of job opportunities – not because we do not care about species, but because most of the world does not have tenure like you and I do, and many people wake up every day worrying about whether they can keep their job or make ends meet. We want to pursue species protection but be very sensitive to consequences for people. Moreover, we think that in most circumstances people can figure out a way to have both. We don't think that achieving both will be easy, and if you aren't interested in pursuing this goal, that's totally cool. You keep on doing what you're doing, and I sincerely hope you thrive in your work. But for some people, this idea of jointly serving nature and people is an exciting challenge for the field. We all want the same thing. We just have different ideas about what strategies will most effectively get us there.

Richard Primack February 18, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Marvier and Kareiva state they are writing as scientists. However, in their articles, they assert that there are no or few observable ecosystem consequences to the extinction of common species and keystone species. This is contrary to an enormous body of ecological literature demonstrating that the loss of such species causes serious harm to biological communities and the ecosystem services that they provide. Marvier and Kareiva claim that they are advocates for human betterment, yet the loss of such species is harmful to the long-term interests of people. The article by Doak et al. 2014 in Trends in Ecology and Evolution documents this and other scientific flaws and errors in Kareiva and Marvier's article in great detail. What is particularly troubling about their articles is that they will likely be used by governments and corporations as justification for the ongoing degradation of the environment and extinction of species by human activities. Cafaro and I would be interested in knowing if Kareiva wrote this article as his own opinion or if this reflects the official policy of the Nature Conservancy.

Michelle Marvier February 18, 2014 at 4:50 pm

In a separate comment posted here I described how some of the thinking in my recent papers evolved from my teaching. I do not work for the Nature Conservancy, so how could papers that I coauthored possibly be the official position of TNC? They are not. We pointed out that the extinction of some formerly extraordinarily abundant species did not have enormous consequences – a point that other scientists have written about and that is an interesting observation for ecologists to acknowledge. That is not the same thing as saying extinction never has consequences nor is it the same thing as saying extinction is acceptable. (We never claimed that the loss of a keystone species is inconsequential, since by definition the loss of such a species does have substantial consequences for the community) Science must address observations that seem counter-intuitive, even if they are inconvenient for current agenda-driven ideas. Chestnut comprised more than one-quarter of all canopy trees in parts of eastern North America—yet in the aftermath of its disappearance, the forests are still functioning. Yes, a few moth species went extinct and there likely were other changes that simply were not documented at the time. But if you dropped in from outer space and didn’t know that chestnuts used to be there and are now missing, would you look at these forests and conclude that something is seriously amiss? I doubt it. Clearly, extinction is a sad loss that we want very much to avoid, but as ecologists speaking to society, we cannot be telling the public that all extinctions will have catastrophic consequences for ecosystems, just as we cannot be telling them that all extinctions will be inconsequential.

Reed Noss February 13, 2014 at 6:31 pm

What troubles me most about the attitude of Kareiva and Marvier is that they position themselves as the true scientists holding the torch of objectivity, while Soule and his ilk are a bunch of romantic, anachronistic, and misanthropic tree huggers with no understanding of the modern world of conservation. Unfortunately, this rhetoric plays well to the popular press (who portray Kareiva and Marvier as mavericks challenging the status quo) and to many younger scientists and conservationists who long to be seen as objective, who never had to take a course in philosophy or religion, and who give little thought to the problem of right and wrong.

In fact, as others have pointed out, Kareiva and Marvier have a normative ethic - they just seem incapable of stating it coherently. Their ethic, as I see it, is one of pure unbridled anthropocentrism, i.e., only people matter.

Normative ethics are not within the domain of science. Still, as a scientist, I see no objective support for the belief that humans are fundamentally superior to all other living beings. Sure, we like to think we're superior, but this attitude is similar to, and every bit as pernicious as, racism or sexism. Clearly, we are better than most other species in some attributes (e.g., cognitive reasoning), and far inferior to many species in other ways (photosynthesis, chemoreception, flight, swimming, etc.). As G. Evelyn Hutchinson put it, every species is master of its own niche.

If we accept that humans have intrinsic value (which Kareiva and Marvier implicitly do, along with virtually all major philosophical and religious traditions), then it follows that each species has intrinsic value. It is not rational to think otherwise. To drive a species extinct is simply wrong.

Reed Noss

Ronnie Hawkins February 14, 2014 at 5:50 pm

I agree with your assessment, Reed. Soule and his generation of conservation biologists were the true mavericks who challenged centuries of anthropocentrism with a clear-eyed vision of what our human species is doing to the rest of the biosphere and a courageous normative stance aimed at turning the tide. There IS no "objective support" for the ontological superiority of human beings; it is merely an assumption that has been woven into many human cultures, one that requires correction. As living beings, we value our own lives, and as intelligent beings cognizant of the larger phenomenon of Life as it has evolved on this planet, we should be able to extend our moral sense to include all of its forms, individually and collectively; Charles Darwin espoused such a value orientation well over a century ago. Moreover, to evince an inability--or a refusal--to call out contemporary economics for what it is, a humanly constructed game played with abstractions that have no real existence other than as collectively shared beliefs in the heads of us all-too-clever primates, is hardly the mark of a maverick. Indeed, it is hardly befitting a "true scientist" at all.

Les Kaufman February 13, 2014 at 6:33 pm

I am grateful for Cafaro and Primack's timely rebuttal to the current shift of attention in the conservation community from resisting anthropogenic mass extinction of species, behaviors and habitats, to conservation based solely on the immediate value of nature to human well-being. Having worked closely with BINGOs in the last ten years I have witnessed, and greatly lament, the complete abandonment of paradigms based upon efficient protection of endangered species (hot spots), the intrinsic value of nature, and morally obligated stewardship and repair of damaged natural systems. That said, there is some utility in the approach that Kareiva so strongly and single-mindedly advocates. In fact I currently lead a team of researchers dedicated to understanding ecosystem service flows and tradeoffs, and to scenario casting for ES consequences of specific management interventions. Ecosystem service analysis is one of my favorite tools. Like wrenches or screwdrivers, ecosystem service and economic valuation schema can be extremely useful in their limited contexts, but one would hardly look to a wrench for the meaning of existence or the answer to all of life's problems. To me, that is what militant "value of nature" advocates are getting us into. This was not the intent of those who initially crafted the notion of ecosystem services and developed the means of applying the concept in practice. Large conservation NGO's and the donors who support them can do enormous good by projecting and following a wise, sophisticated, and nuanced program to ensure the survival of the living world, a program rooted in pragmatism but perched upon an ethical high ground. Unfortunately, this isn't the latest trend. The monotonic embrace of pragmatism that we are seeing today, which comes at the expense of a longer, deeper vision of our conservation mandate, has the potential to do great harm. Thank you to these authors for bringing this issue to the fore.

Mac Hunter February 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

One of the things that troubles me most about this debate is the lack of historical perspective that allows Kareiva and Marvier to call their proposal "New conservation" and no one (even Michael Soule in his recent editorial in Conservation Biology) challenges them on this. The term conservation, as applied to natural resources, was imported from food science by Gifford Pinchot, founder of the US Forest Service, and Pinchot was focused primarily on managing natural resources sustainably for broad public benefit. I tend to credit Aldo Leopold with extending the term to include conserving species endangered with extinction although there were other actors like William Hornaday. Like Soule, Cafaro, and Primack I am personally most concerned with avoiding extinctions of populations and especially whole species, but the tent of conservation is a broad one that certainly includes conserving natural resources (or "ecosystem services" in more fashionable language) for human welfare.

Erle Ellis February 14, 2014 at 2:34 pm

It is so terribly disappointing to see such useless divisions forming among those who have dedicated their lives to biodiversity conservation. By turning questions of "what are the most powerful ways to conserve biodiversity?" into questioning "humans vs. nature, which side are you on?", this disagreement cannot help but degrade the effectiveness of conservation efforts. We are all in this together. We need to pursue every and all avenues to effective conservation. Arguing over who is more ethical wont save a single species or hectare of habitat, but it will certainly turn off large numbers of people. Without excited, engaged, dedicated people, conservation fails. Fighting over ethical high ground is the surest way to make that happen.

Philip Cafaro February 15, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Erle Ellis mischaracterizes our article. Nowhere do Primack and I say we are "more ethical" than Kareiva and Marvier. We disagree with them (and Erle Ellis) regarding the proper ethical principles that should guide conservation.

Kareiva, Marvier and Ellis argue that conservationists should embrace the human domination of nature, rather than set limits to it. They believe that human societies should preserve those species that it is in our interest to preserve and that we may extinguish the rest, if they get in the way of our economic projects .

Primack and I disagree. We believe that human societies should limit or prohibit economic activities when those activities threaten to extinguish other species. This is an ethical belief that was first given strong legal force in the United States with passage of the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s. It is a position that has strong support among many people in many societies around the world.

David Skelly February 14, 2014 at 3:03 pm

There are two flaws in this article. Both are important but one is relatively small while the other reflects a deep issue that the conservation science community must address.

The smaller flaw is that the authors have substantially misrepresented the work they are critiquing. A careful reader of their writings will have a difficult time reconciling the critiques here with what Kareiva and Marvier have written. Nowhere have they argued that extinction is not a moral wrong. And they have repeatedly argued that their goals are aligned with those broadly shared by conservation professionals. Here are their words from the article in question: “Conservation as Soulé framed it was all about protecting biodiversity because species have inherent value. We do not wish to undermine the ethical motivations for conservation action. We argue that nature also merits conservation for very practical and more self-centered reasons concerning what nature and healthy ecosystems provide to humanity.” They couldn’t be any clearer; it is not a zero sum game.

Nevertheless, Cafaro and Primack and other critics are clearly confronted by the ideas communicated by Kareiva and Marvier. Their reactions reveal what I believe is a much deeper and more fundamental problem. The authors of this piece state pretty clearly that they believe there exists a specific moral view which must act as a foundation for the scientific practice of conservation. Beyond the transparent hubris of such a position it ignores the huge amount of evidence that science as a pursuit of understanding is strengthened, not weakened, by diversity. Diversity of background, of education, and, yes, of ethical views can only act to bring different approaches and perspectives into play. This diversity fosters challenges to otherwise hidden assumptions, promotes new kinds of tests of ideas, and will help all conservation practitioners to base their actions on a sound understanding of the systems they work in. This is a goal we should all support and work for.

It will also, incidentally, have an enormously positive influence on participation in conservation. Kareiva and Marvier, in effect, present an argument for big tent conservation. In going beyond traditional constituencies, we can get more people in any society engaged in actions with positive benefits for species beyond our own. Since its founding, conservation has embraced ambitious, global scale goals for biodiversity. The diversity of ethical views held by human communities across our planet is staggering. If we are to succeed in conserving global biodiversity we must be able to engage in wildly different human contexts. Moralistic barriers will not help us achieve these goals.

Philip Cafaro February 15, 2014 at 12:14 am

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You quote Kareiva and Marvier accurately in your post: they do say: “we do not wish to undermine the ethical motivations for conservation action.” But that is exactly what they do in their articles, and it is hard to believe that this is simply accidental. A partial list of the ways do this includes the following:

1) Failing to actually say that other species have a right to continued existence, that they have an intrinsic value that human beings should respect, that they are morally considerable, or any of the equivalent ways one might express that position. By setting up their conservation philosophy in contrast with Soule and others who do state that other species have a right to continued existence, the implication is clear.

2) Arguing that statements affirming other species’ intrinsic value are always misleading and hypocritical: mere covers for people’s own selfish motives (hikers want hiking trails, scientists want study sites, etc.).

3) Blurring the lines between anthropogenic extinctions and extinctions over the course of deep time, thus undermining a sense of human moral responsibility for those extinctions.

4) Clearly affirming that people who live in wild areas have a right (their term) to continue to live in them, while failing to affirm any similar rights for other species who may make such wild areas their home and may not exist anywhere else.

5) Clearly affirming that poor people in the developing world have a right (their term) to the benefits of economic development, while failing to affirm that other species have rights to be protected from economic development when it threatens their existence.

6) Asking us to reorient conservation around furthering human wellbeing without honestly facing up to the fact that it is attempts to further human wellbeing that are driving the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.


Look, Kareiva and Marvier present their articles as attempts to reorient the conservation movement. They are advocating a particular conservation philosophy along with a complementary conservation ethics. And it is explicitly an anthropocentric ethics. They believe that if other species stand in the way of the pursuit of wealth or "economic development," then they are expendable. That's a popular point of view in many quarters. But we disagree with it, for reasons we state in our piece above.

Ronnie Hawkins February 14, 2014 at 4:14 pm

As a philosopher with extensive training in the biological sciences, I am often amazed by the inability of many scientists to place their own species in larger perspective, given our current state of knowledge. Genomic and proteomic studies have disclosed the striking degree of commonality among all organisms; we humans occupy but a tiny niche within the vast Tree of Life. This knowledge must be integrated into our moral outlook; our earlier belief in a sharp ontological distinction between human and all other life was wrong, and indeed many philosophers have acknowledged as much with respect to individual organisms. Conservation biologists above all, however, should have the ability to see in perspective not only relationships among individuals but relationships among species, and the view from the crow's nest shows us that one single species, our own, has proliferated to a degree that is not sustainable over time and has encroached on the living space of other species in a way that is neither respectful of their being nor prudent for our own. That is the way the supposedly dispassionate eye of science should read the present biospherical configuration and its current trajectory, and scientists as educators should be striving to awaken the rest of humanity to this picture and the need for changing course.

But instead of orienting to this larger picture and leading the effort to reverse present trends, Kareiva and Marvier have added their voices to the clamor that desperately aims to deny and obscure our vision of what's really happening here on Earth. They appear unable to distinguish between our socially constructed notion of "wealth," measurable as quantities of an abstract symbol--money--that we human primates have invented, and the real wealth of living species interacting sustainably in complex systems. Kareiva and Marvier speak of "realism," but the reality of _what a large number of humans happen to believe at a moment in time_ is not the same kind of reality as that which is the domain of science to investigate and integrate into our common understanding. Philosopher John Searle terms the former sort of "reality" _ontologically subjective_; it is a collectively shared system of beliefs that exists only in our heads, and _that can be changed_ so as to better correspond with actual, "objective" reality, should scientists and other educators find the courage to make it so instead of conforming to the social pressures pushing an outdated worldview.

Life itself is a phenomenon that is ontologically objective, and we humans, as one manifestation of that phenomenon, rightly appreciate it as something intrinsically valuable. As we persist in activities that increasingly threaten the continued presence of that phenomenon, which takes many forms on this finite planet, we can at least find the honesty to acknowledge what we're doing, and stop attempting to justify genocide at the taxonomic level--across the board and extending to our own--with the fantasy that somehow more of the same will bring "economic prosperity" to seven billion humans and counting. Perpetuating such a fantasy is neither scientific nor moral.

Miguel Pascual February 14, 2014 at 4:56 pm

You do not need to agree with every statement in Kareiva and Marvier’s articles to feel compelled by their essential views. Far from an aberration, the perspective of pariahs, or a call from the corporate world to abandon ethical views, as this article and responses to it appear to indicate, their ideas strike a chord with many people and organizations around the world that also care about nature, about the well-being of non-human species, or about biodiversity for its intrinsic value. Reducing the debate to a quarrel between defenders of nature and defenders of people, not only misrepresents the main issues, but also wastes an opportunity to expand the part that conservation sciences and conservation programs play in shaping our world.

Conservation Biology (CB), as conceived by Soule and others during the 1980’s, had tremendous impacts. It put an academic and public spotlight on the rapid loss of species, it formalized many principles regarding the viability of populations, shaping them into a scientific discipline that many of us teach in our courses, it gave a meaningful and strongly-felt purpose for a generation of ecologists, and it attracted many academic resources to applied problems that were previously dedicated to basic biology and ecology. At the same time, it reduced the tremendous complexities of managing our actions regarding the natural world to a species-based problem, with a simplified currency to measure failure or success: biodiversity. I believe the biodiversity-centered view is also an off-track of the work of others in North America before the 1980’s that defined “conservation” in a much broader way (e.g., Stewart Udall’s 1963 book “The Quiet Crisis”, with Introduction by John F. Kennedy). In other parts of the world, the "purist" biodiversity perspective is sometimes perceived as a very North American idea and the proposals by Kareiva and Marvier are taken more naturally.

The regard of human actions and needs as an externality kept CB developing in parallel and largely disconnected from more traditional disciplines related to natural resource management, taught at departments next door, such as fisheries, forestry, agriculture, or wildlife sciences, and which may be considered natural siblings of CB. It is fair to say that conservation biology has greatly evolved since the 1980’s. As some authors contributing to the larger debate have expressed, modern conservation work is increasingly adding social axes and incorporating people into conservation plans. Many of us feel that not enough. The sluggish progress in incorporating conservation actions into development programs and the repeated failure of conservation efforts in our local communities provide daily remainders of this. Human actions and expectations need to be factored into the equation, not as a necessary evil, but as a fundamental piece of our view of nature. It is the only way to establish a science based on a realistic view of the world and, more importantly, one that can contribute in a significant way to preserve the things we value in this world. In doing so, I believe it is pertinent to understand that human wealth is not the same as human well-being, as this article implies by switching between these terms along the text. They provide very different management objectives.

Kareiva and Marvier propose it is time to examine some of the deep roots of conservation biology. We can keep orbiting the discussion around moral and ethical issues and motivations or we could seize the opportunity to carry out a much needed revision of the successes and failures of conservation biology at 30 years of age.

Hunter February 14, 2014 at 6:50 pm

I agree with Profs. Marvier, Carfaro, and Primack that species loss is a moral wrong and a tragedy. The major issue question conservation, and environmental science that informs conservation policy and politics, is how do we prevent such loss and conserve ecosystem services? There is no doubt we now live on a human-dominated planet. As such, some species will be lost no matter what philosophy one espouses, and a great many dangers lie ahead and tragedies to suffer. But what are we going to do about it? Kareiva and Marvier articulate and design strategies embraced by many environmental scientists- we must work with industries, communities, and policy makers to conserve nature in concert with human livelihoods, business profits, and in developed landscapes. Why? Because it is one strategy that works based on empirical evidence. Another strategy that works if for scientists and advocates to focus attention on threatened species and fight against human interests and activities that put those species at risk. We need both approaches, even if the approaches sometimes conflict. We do not need aggressive in-fighting that environmental opponents can capitalize on. I teach and conduct research in a major University's environmental science and management program that teaches graduate students - wave after wave of them - to enter all levels of society and different institutions with a goal of solving environmental problems using a vast variety of methods. Many similar university programs use the same strategy. Our students have no moral dilemma fighting for individual species, and working with corporations and people in poverty to solve their real environmental problems. These students use sophisticated approaches, often relying on conservation and spatial planning for multiple uses of nature, and thinking seriously about environmental and social justice. So if Kareiva and Marvier are wrong, so are the environmental schools of Yale, Michigan, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, Stanford, Washington, Wisconsin, etc. Many of us stand by Kareiva and Marvier because they are serious about solving problems, have had success, and are working hard to develop a diversity of strategies that we desperately need.

Ronnie Hawkins February 15, 2014 at 4:27 pm

I have no disagreement with those who espouse the need for a diversity of strategies in stemming the rate of species losses. Indeed, we need conservation biologists who are able to engage with people in all walks of life, accepting belief systems "as they are now" and working with them to help make their consequences on the ground a little less destructive wherever possible; as philosopher Arne Naess once observed, "the frontier is long." But the crucial insights of Soule, Naess, and others must remain the touchstone of conservation biology: that our human species has grown so disproportionately large and voracious that it is exterminating other species with increasing rapidity; that there is no objective justification for our claiming an inherent "right" to do so; and, therefore, that the present trajectory of our collective human activities needs to be reversed. It is, above all, a matter of self-honesty: we acknowledge the truth of what's happening and why, recognizing our human agency (species do not just "disappear"--we are destroying them), and we admit, with humility, what our hard-won science is telling us in so many ways, that we are a _part_ of the evolutionary flowering of life on this planet, not a disconnected "master" floating above it with a mandate to manipulate. Once this reality is faced, there are many, many paths for an individual to take in making amends for interspecific wrongs. As I understand the gist of Phil Cafaro's comment above, Kareiva and Marvier give lip service to the wrongness of anthropogenic species extinction, but they fail to manifest the honesty and humility that should accompany actually grasping what the situation is. As long as we allow ourselves to dwell inside a conceptual bubble that takes for granted a human right to dominate other life, we are, as Reed Noss points out, indulging in a self-deceptive fantasy as pernicious as racism and sexism. And it's not true that all "ethics are relative"; while there are different theoretical approaches to ethics, all philosophically adequate theories condemn the "myself above all others" orientation, as well as its extension into "my own group above all others." The fact that grasping the big picture of species relationships at this time in Earth's history also forces one to confront the fact that the same processes extinguishing nonhuman species today threaten the existence of our human species tomorrow simply adds to our appreciation of the urgency with which we need to start reversing our trajectory. When Kareiva and Marvier speak approvingly of working with corporations and pursuing "economic development," they reveal their own stuck-ness in the contemporary belief bubble, their inability to see the that these are the very processes that are propelling us ever faster into the biospherical graveyard. Reading their prescription for a new "conservation science" is like watching the oil rigs greedily converging upon a melting Arctic. Can't they see their own role in hastening, not preventing, the looming disaster?

Philip Cafaro March 8, 2014 at 8:52 am

I agree (and think Richard Primack would agree) on the need for "a diversity of conservation strategies" to maximize conservationists' effectiveness. Like Hunter, we help teach the next generation of land managers, wildlife biologists, sustainable business entrepreneurs, etc. at our respective research universities, trying to help them "think seriously about environmental and social justice" and what truly sustainable societies would look like. In my classes that includes considering human responsibilities toward other species and the question of how much of Earth's limited resources humanity has a right to monopolize. Young conservationists need to learn how to articulate their moral beliefs and speak up for nature. That's part of what Richard and I were trying to model with our editorial … It seemed obvious to us that K & M were dismissing the moral considerability of other species in their earlier articles and so we framed the editorial as a rebuttal to them. We still think we interpreted their words straightforward and fairly, but perhaps it would have been better to focus instead on our own positive arguments for the moral imperative to preserve other species.

Jerry Freilich February 14, 2014 at 7:17 pm

I'm impressed with the thoughtful and articulate replies in these comments about the Primack and Cafaro paper. But I am very surprised by the continual return of the conversation to ethics. I have no problem with taking an ethical response to conservation and I applaud those who argue for an ethically based reason for saving species. But ethics are relative and offer every culture wiggle room for espousing whatever cockeyed belief is current at the time.

In the end we conserve species because they are parts of the ecosystem that supports us. We conserve species because throwing away the parts of the machine will eventually cause the machine to stop working. We conserve species at the peril of our own lives. That's my view of the anthropocene... humans surviving at the mercy of a functioning ecosystem... a precious and precarious ecosystem with millions of tiny parts about which we understand next to nothing. What immense hubris and what shocking arrogance to propose that we can conveniently throw away whichever parts we consider "nostalgic!" I've spent my life protecting other species because they make my own life possible. Thanks to Robin Pakeman for posting the quote from John Donne. Indeed.... "Don't ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." What more do we need to say?

Mark Costello February 15, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Unfortunately the article criticised that accepts species extinctions as the price of human comfort is not alone. For example, most 'Protected Areas' confuse conservation of natural biodiversity with management of biodiversity for human use (e.g. hunting and other harvesting). Over 90% of Marine Protected Areas allow fishing that alters food webs and ecosystems. Yet, the public might expect an 'MPA' actually protects biodiversity at both populaiton, species and ecosystem levels. It is well established that ecosystem change, which includes habitat change, ultimately results in species extinctions which are just one symptom of irreversible loss of biodiversity.

Michelle Marvier February 15, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Thank you, Karen Beard, for your comment about the diversity of opinions among your students. Indeed the idea for our Bioscience paper came from my teaching. For a few years running, I had my class read Michael Soule’s “What is conservation biology?” paper and then I asked them to work in small groups to address two questions – What, if anything, is missing from Michael’s functional and normative postulates? And What additional postulates would fill those gaps or help guide conservation in the context of the world twenty years later? The students consistently pointed out that people were the key missing ingredient. They noted that people were the main drivers of both the threats and the solutions, so people had to be a bigger part of the framing of the field. I thought it would be fun to write a paper in the same format as Michael’s, incorporating some of these ideas. Peter and I wrote that paper in what we thought was a playful and provocative style. We did not mean for our paper to supplant Michael’s, but only to augment it. We are sorry this was not more clearly expressed. But of course our work has flaws – conservation is messy and complicated, and we are just two people offering our view. We are baffled though as to how our message has gotten so twisted. We never said it’s fine to throw out species that are not useful to people. What we did say is that, given that we can’t do everything everywhere, it could be a good strategy to prioritize conservation in places and on species that are useful to people, in part because that seems like a moral thing to do (helping people is not a bad thing) and in part because it could build public support for conservation of other places and other species. As you point out Karen, there already exist many opinions on why and how we should do conservation. And that’s great. We don’t all need to agree, and yet we can still work together toward our common goal. And in response to some of the other posts, I can only say that in addition to loving nature, yes, I do love people. Unabashedly. I even love people with whom I disagree. And the nature I first loved was a hill in urban South San Francisco – not exactly a biodiversity hotspot. But it is where I started to learn about plants, and butterflies, and snakes. I am glad no one told me I was not supposed to love that hill because its meadows were brightened with non-native mustards. And finally a more general plea - let’s do try to lighten up a little here. There is joy to be found in ideas, in writing, in conversations, and in nature of all kinds. We will never convince one another of anything, probably not by any means, but especially not by grumpy browbeating. It may not be obvious from this exchange, but we are all on the same team – team conservation – I hope people outside the field do not get the wrong idea about that.

Virginia Matzek February 15, 2014 at 11:04 pm

Richard Conniff offers some coolheaded thinking on this debate on his blog:


Philip Cafaro February 17, 2014 at 4:37 am

In the end, the question of whether or not Primack and I have correctly characterized Kareiva and Marvier’s papers is not of primary importance. The really important question is what role preserving nonhuman species and wild ecosystems should play in conservation in the 21st century. We think they should remain key goals of conservation and that where people’s economic activities threaten to extinguish other species or further the taming of the Earth, those economic activities should be opposed. Conservationists need to work harder to help create societies that recognize ecological limits to growth—not cheerlead for the endless growth economies that are destroying Earth’s biological diversity.

Reed Noss February 15, 2014 at 10:50 pm

Some of the defenders of Kareiva and Marvier, in their comments in this discussion, give the impression that Kareiva and Marvier are honestly and professionally presenting a pragmatic case for "big tent" conservation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kareiva and Marvier are able to make their extreme arguments about extinctions being inconsequential and nature being endlessly resilient only through a series of distortions, misrepresentations, factual errors, and (one suspects) outright lies. I urge readers to refer to the recent (February 2014) paper by Daniel Doak and coauthors, "What is the future of conservation?" in Trends in Ecology and Evolution 29(2):77-81. In the online supplementary information (Table 2) for that article, Doak et al. meticulously examine many of Kareiva and Marvier's fallacious statements, for example about American chestnut, polar bears, orangutans, and the Georges Bank cod fishery, and expose them for the falsehoods they are. An honest debate must begin with getting one's facts straight!

LaReesa Wolfenbarger February 17, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Here's a clarification about what Karieva and Marvier write about the resilience of nature in their BioScience paper:

"The ability of nature to recover from many types of insult does not provide humans license to inflict unfettered environmental damage. Recovery occurs only after humans stop polluting, overfishing, and clearcutting, and even then, nature might rebound in ways that are unexpected and novel. Moreover, nature is not universally resilient; in some cases, ecosystems can undergo a state change from which recovery is unlikely on timescales relevant to humans. Nonetheless, the prevalence of recovery is a very different story from the apocalyptic collapse of ecosystems that environmentalists commonly herald, and conservationists should take advantage of the natural resilience of ecosystems."

Winthrop R Staples III February 16, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Species super individuals, collective life forms can be harmed, are morally considerable and have immense intrinsic value which makes their unnecessary for human species survival extinction by human action - a great moral wrong. However, my work in environmental ethics “For a species moral right to exist: the imperative of an adequate environmental ethics” found additional reasons. I propose that we also use the most powerful of these in our collective conservation efforts.

Quite simply, the mass extinction of a large fraction of earth’s species by 2100 that our business-political leaders, and biologists like Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier who ‘work with corporations’ , concede will occur if they keep on with business as usual – significantly increases the probability of human species extinction. Probabilities are even higher that a major civilization threatening event, like the medieval Black Death, that could be caused by the extinction of but one species that controlled the vector of a highly lethal emergent pathogen will occur, if we continue to “accommodate ourselves to the new realities of the Anthropocene Epoch”. Biologist readers of this should also consider that any of a number of likely scenarios they might construct - causing continental scale disruption of major lines of communication and transportation, could genuinely be humanity threatening, because human populations are now so huge, and usually not locally self sufficient for the necessities of life.

The relative ambivalence of our alleged representative policy makers to the interwoven threats to both human and nonhuman species existence surpasses the meaning of the words “great moral wrong”. Unfortunately recent technological innovation, rising inequality and the “infinite imagination” (former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers) they claim will save us from any catastrophes caused by their pursuit of ever more profit and power have in the short term allowed them to escape environmental degradations of their creation – by externalizing damages onto the rest of us and none human life. Presently this encourages them to take increasingly lethal risks with our biosphere, and places their current behavior and their planned Anthropocene Epoch in the category of a moral horror.

Biologists should loudly declare at every opportunity that as Aldo Leopold wrote: we biologists do not in fact know sufficiently what makes ecosystems, let alone the earth’s biosphere “tick” to risk the destruction of 50% of all interacting and interdependent species by 2100. The suggestion of our business leaders, and their bought and paid for economists, that suffering caused by a catastrophic biotic, market like “down turn”, imagination and the profit motive will necessary enable us to put the species remnants back together into a healthy and equally productive whole is just another one of their Ponzi schemes.

Phillip Levin February 19, 2014 at 4:20 pm

I thank the authors for continuing the dialogue on this important topic. As the authors point out, morality and ethics are at the root of our discipline, and I appreciate the authors’ and the conservation community’s passion around the appropriate position of humans in our conservation ethic. Cafaro and Primack certainly raise a number of important points, and I think, further the discussion on this issue. It is, thus, disappointing and ironic to see so many of the comments on this post about ethics filled with personal attacks and judgments about motivation. A reasoned discussion about the appropriate balance of intrinsic and instrumental values in conservation is critically important. As we focus on the ethics underlying conservation, let us concentrate on ideas and science rather than name-calling and (potentially) slander. We face a conservation crisis. What are we going to do about it? I don’t claim to know the answer, but I am fairly certain that calling people liars and bad scientists is not going to solve the problems we all share.

Ted Nordhaus February 21, 2014 at 1:18 am

Cafaro and Primack attempt to tar Kareiva and Marvier as indifferent to the plight of threatened species and handmaidens to multinational corporations. The claim is both transparently false and obscures a deeper conflict. Kareiva and Marvier have spent their careers fighting to protect threatened species and habitats. But both have also concluded that if conservation efforts are going to succeed in developing economies, then those efforts will need to align themselves with the economic aspirations of the global south. They advocate working with multinational corporations because in many cases those corporations are more sympathetic to conservation efforts, if only in defense of their global brands, than are the local operators and state owned enterprises that would otherwise be the only game in town.

In these ways, Kareiva and Marvier sit at the end of a decades-long process wherein the conservation establishment has gradually shed itself of its colonial roots. Thanks to those efforts, conservation has expanded its gaze, from one that imagined that nature might be walled off from human society to one that increasingly understands conservation within the context of human development and understands that any large scale effort to advance conservation globally must work with the processes of human development and modernization, not against them.

While they dress up their criticism with soaring rhetoric about the "existence rights" of species, what the authors’ actually have in mind is not so pretty. "Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth's resources," Cafaro and Primack write. "If increased human population and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our population and economic demands."

If there were any question what exactly they mean by this, Cafaro, in a recent conversation with the journalist, Richard Conniff, leaves little doubt. When asked what he proposes to do about the people living in the places he wishes to protect, Cafaro replies, “I favor moving them out, compensating them, and creating areas where wildlife can live.” Developing nations around the world, unsurprisingly, have taken an increasingly jaundiced view of such blandishments and understandably prefer to develop their own resources to benefit their own people rather than foregoing such development in exchange for the charity of Western conservationists.

Kareiva and Marvier's transgression has been to a) state the blindingly obvious, that the existence rights of non-human species will be negotiated with other stakeholders who have other priorities and concerns and b) suggest that conservation science would be better served if it took seriously the part about the science, rather than organizing itself around the quasi-religious views about nature and ecosystems that the discipline's founders continue to cling to.

The explicit demand of Soule, Noss, Suckling, and the authors is that conservation science must serve their normative preferences. Cafaro and Primack complain that Kareiva and Marvier fail to distinguish between human caused extinctions and past, naturally occurring extinctions, as if such a distinction could be supported scientifically or epistemologically, which it cannot. They object to Kareiva and Marvier's observation that the extinction of the American Chestnut has had little evident impact upon the basic functioning of the ecosystem of which it was a part. The complaint is not that the observation is wrong, but that it fails to account for the perspective of the chestnut. Again and again, Cafaro and Primack, Soule, Noss, and others attack Kareiva and Marvier for being unscientific when their objections are actually definitional and normative. "Everyone" knows that human caused extinctions are different than natural extinctions, that ecosystems are whole systems that are functionally diminished when biodiversity declines, that a polar bear that cross breeds with a grizzly bear and hunts seals on land rather than on ice is no longer a polar bear. Kareiva and Marvier's sin has been to point out the differences between the actual conservation science and the social and political interpretations that politically prominent conservation biologists and advocates have imposed upon it.

In this context, the voices of Cafaro, Soule, Noss and others are the voices of reaction, imagining that the "rise of the rest" might be stopped and that they, developed world conservation scientists and advocates, might decide what humanity's "fair share" ought to be. Thankfully, they won't be the ones making those decisions. Pragmatic conservationists will spend less time arguing about existence rights and fantasizing about forcibly removing people from “in name only” parks and more time listening. A successful 21st century conservation movement will situate itself within the hopes and dreams of the rising south rather than demanding that they subordinate those dreams to the abstracted, normative demands of an aging and outmoded conservation ethic.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Kieran Suckling February 22, 2014 at 2:03 am

Ted and Michael,

Could you explain your assertion that "human caused extinctions and past" can't be "scientifically or epistemologically" distinguished from "naturally occurring extinctions"?

A tremendous amount of scientific work over many decades has examined records and causes of past and recent extinctions. The consensus that humans are causing a massive increase in the background extinction rate, the likes of which have not seen for many million of years, is very, very strong. It is as strong as the consensus that human are causing a massive increase in atmospheric greenhouse gasses the likes of which have not been seen in at least 800,000 years (quite likely 2+ million years).

Are you of the opinion that scientists can't distinguish human from non-human caused extinctions? That the evidence is not strong that humans have dramatically increased the extinction rate?

Kieran Suckling February 22, 2014 at 5:45 am

I'm puzzled by your assertion that I and others "attack Kareiva and Marvier for being unscientific when their objections are actually definitional and normative." We have very clearly attacked Kareiva and Marvier on BOTH grounds. Several publications, including some published by yourselves, have carefully documented the factual errors made by K&M (cod recovery, polar bears benefiting from global warming, etc.) as well as their distortions of science and history. In this essay, Cafaro and Primack, take up another problem with K&M: their failure to discuss the ethical underpinning of their vision and the manner in which that obscured ethic pretty clearly excludes an ethical relationship to other species. To say that there are BOTH moral and scientific problems in no way implies one has confused one with the other. As I point out above, however, the scientific and ethical problems of K&M seem related to the question of boundaries and limits. In different but powerful ways, science and ethics often point to and inform the limits of the negotiable world. Ethically, it is wrong to kill condors with unnecessary lead bullets. Scientifically, we know with a high degree of precision the level of lead which is fatal to condors. Stakeholder negotiation (despite all the whining of the NRA) can not change the danger point of lead contamination. Nor will stakeholder negotiation (though some will try) make a moral wrong into a right. You would not, I'm pretty sure, suggest that whether racism is acceptable or not is a non-moral issue to be determined by stakeholder negotiation. Nor sexism. We assert the immorality of racism and sexism in the full knowledge that racists and sexists do not agree, and in the knowledge that addressing them in social institutions and laws is necessarily a process of negotiation. But neither the existence of disagreement nor the social necessity of negotiation in any way changes the fact of their immorality and unacceptability. Anthropocentrism, especially as it plays out in extinction, is exactly the same. Your choice to adopt one but not the other, like your many statements disavowing scientifically established standards (e.g. for when CO2 concentration are likely to cause dangerous tipping points and catastrophic social impacts) and ethical standards (e.g. the moral wrong of driving other species extinct) is easily traced to the traditional, very well-established notion of modernism that accepts no limits or fundamental consequences to expansion and development.

Philip Cafaro February 22, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Ted Nordhaus mischaracterizes our article. Nowhere do Primack and I make any assertions about Kareiva's or Marvier's feelings about species extinctions. We disagree with them and with Nordhaus regarding the ethical principles that should guide conservation. Unlike Nordhaus, we see an immense moral difference between natural extinctions and extinctions knowingly caused by individuals or corporations pursuing their economic goals. Distinguishing between natural events and human choices is essential not just to getting conservation right but to any intelligent discussion of ethics or politics, and we are surprised that Nordhaus would call it into question. Finally, its worth pointing out that Nordhaus' anthropocentric approach to conservation is not shared by all or even most people in the developing world. For example, in 2008 the people of Ecuador added a new chapter on the rights of nature to their national constitution. The additions, proposed by a constitutional convention and ratified by popular vote, included the following: "Article 1. Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes." "Article 4. The State will apply precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems, or the permanent alteration of natural cycles."

Ted Nordhaus February 23, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Cafaro and Primack write: "The diversity of organisms is good," Soulé wrote, and "the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad." Other species have "value in themselves," he asserted – an "intrinsic value" that should motivate respect and restraint in our dealings with them. In a recent article published in the journal BioScience titled "What is Conservation Science?" Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier attempt to update Soulé's conservation philosophy, but lose sight of this moral commitment." Not sure how one could characterize that as anything other than a very clear assertion about Kareiva and Marvier's feelings about species extinctions. And once again in his comment, as in the article, Cafaro conflates conservation science with his ethical preferences. Differentiating natural and human caused extinctions normatively is not the same as differentiating them scientifically. Cafaro and Primack repeatedly characterize empirical statements that Kareiva and Marvier make about conservation science as if they were normative. The conflation is no accident. As we note in our comment, the demand is that conservation science conform to the authors' normative preferences. Finally, for the record, nothing in the Ecuadorian constitution has prevented the nation from exploiting its oil wealth. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2014/0222/Ecuador-s-development-dilemma-Will-oil-win-out. Like "in name only" parks, abstract constitutional amendments such as the one Cafaro cites have not proven enforceable when confronted with compelling economic demands.

Ray Hilborn February 26, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Most of this dialog misses the key point; how do we best protect endangered species and biodiversity? It shouldn’t be about who cares the most about extinction, but how do we prevent it. The key point that Kareiva and Marvier make is that the frontier for conservation in practice is in human used areas, and the best approach to preventing extinction and protecting biodiversity involves working with the people who use those areas. In marine conservation the “old conservation” has one tool, protected areas. Unless we are going to close almost all of the oceans to fishing, the real progress in preventing overfishing, by-catch of threatened species, and fishing impacts on habitat is by the conservation community working with fishing groups. In some cases this may involve working with them to identify areas to protect, but primarily it involves finding conservation solutions that provide appropriate incentives for fishing fleets to solve these problems.

Marine ecosystems have some major differences to terrestrial ones, the primary difference is that sustainable human use involves keeping the ecosystems largely intact, whereas on land human use often involves major ecosystem transformation in the form of agriculture. So protected areas have a more significant role on the land, but still most terrestrial biodiversity is not in parks, and most of the loss of biodiversity on land will occur outside parks. Preserving biodiversity outside parks is going to happen by working with the people who use those areas.

Lets discuss how to protect species and biodiversity, not who cares the most.

Ted Nordhaus February 26, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Thanks for asking Kieran. We can, of course, make scientific attributions regarding the various causes of extinctions over time - whether from asteroids, methane concentrations, human activities, etc. But there is no scientific or epistemological basis for labeling one set of those causes natural and another set unnatural unless you contend that humans are extra-terrestrial beings. Moreover, the range, density, and mix of species in many of the landscapes that you wish to protect have in large part long since been almost entirely shaped by human activities. Large scale deforestation and hunting by paleolithic humans, for instance, eliminated mega-fauna and profoundly transformed the ecosystems that conservationists like you now fight to preserve. Given that humans were responsible for their extinction and now in all likelihood have the capability to bring them back, do mammoths and saber-tooth tigers have existence rights too? If so, how are we to navigate conflicts between the existence rights of species that are endangered and those that are already extinct? What about less charismatic forms of life? The small pox virus? Yersinia Pestis? How about poison oak or Africanized Bees? Chickens and cows? If we stopped eating them, there would be no reason to keep them around ecologically. Do novel ecosystems have existence rights? Given how profoundly humans have influenced most biomes on the planet, is there any important ecosystem that you could classify as "not novel?"

Absolutist moral constructions like "existence rights" offer little guidance as to how we ought to navigate these kinds of questions. Nor does misrepresenting the claims of those with whom you disagree. Kareiva and Marvier did not say that climate change would be good for polar bears. Nor have we ever made any representation as to whether and at what point atmospheric concentrations of carbon were likely to result in catastrophic climate tipping points. The IPCC says 450. Hanson, McKibben, and others say 350. What one considers safe is not a purely scientific question but rather a normative one, largely determined by how one regards long-term climate risk. When you talk about catastrophic climate impacts, what you are really talking about, for instance, is basically a world that looks much like the one that many in places like Somalia or the Congo live in today. How you think about that risk depends on where you sit. If you are a Somali, you'd probably choose to burn fossil fuels today and take your chances with climate risk decades from now. If you sit in the Berkeley Hills, as I do today, the risk looks very different. For the same reason, the trade offs between condors and lead bullets in the American West have profoundly different moral dimension than do the trade offs between using African forests for firewood and bushmeat and saving species that also depend on those forests. Ultimately, you'd want Africans to not need to use their forests in those ways in order to survive. Indeed we would argue that that is a precondition for lasting conservation success. But that will require that African nations develop a fair amount of their resources. Treating those tradeoffs as if they were the same as condors and lead bullets is at best tone deaf and at worst repugnant.

Philip Cafaro March 1, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Ted Nordhaus is right: Kareiva and Marvier don't say that global warming will be good for polar bears. They say that global warming might be good for polar bears. But I've never read anything by a serious scientist agreeing with them.

Kieran Suckling March 2, 2014 at 6:28 am

ON EXTINCTION AND ETHICS. I figured you’d go here, because the only way to assert that there is no ethical or philosophical distinction between human-caused and non-human caused extinctions is to say: since human are natural, the extinctions we cause are natural. This argument is both utterly correct and utterly fatuous. It makes the Introduction to Ethics 101 error of confusing ethics and naturalness. If you play it out, your eradicates all ethics in all spheres. Racism, sexism, homophobia, pedophilia, slavery, murder, and war are global human practices, thus they are natural, thus there is no ethical standpoint from which to judge them. But, of course, you won’t play it out. Instead you wave the magical wand of anthropocentrism and we suddenly have an ethical duty toward other humans, but not toward other species….I keep putting environmental rights in the context of civil rights, women’s rights, and other social justice movements because they arise at the same time in the same social milieu and together challenge power structures which naturalize arbitrary divisions in order dominate and control others. While most progressives view the widening circle to encompass nature, The Breakthrough Institute appears to be locked into a traditional modernist worldview which divides the world in humans and resources.

Kieran Suckling March 2, 2014 at 8:40 am

ON THE BREAKTHROUGH INSTITUTE’S COLONIALISM. The Breakthrough Institute often speaks on behalf of poor and Third World people. As in response to me above, TBI presents itself as representing the desires and interests of the Third World to western environmentalists. The message is always the same: our primary interest is in development and we care not very much about extinction of other species, deforestation, and climate change. Colonialists have always presented themselves as speaking on behalf of poor nations and people, have always communicated modernization agenda, and of course, always aggressively suppressed contrary interests. This is exactly The Breakthrough Institute’s consistently patronizing, colonialist attitude toward people in developing and poor nations. Such people only exist, and only win the right to be represented, to the extent that they further TBI’s modernist agenda. If they depart from it, they are apparently not sufficiently non-western, thus are excluded from the discourse….Somalians and Congolese, they tell me above, don’t have “western” concerns about extinction, deforestation and the environmental ethics. In fact, they do. There are Somalian and Congolese environmental groups fighting to stop extinction, deforestation, desertification, and the destruction of wildlife habitat and functioning ecosystems. And as Phil Cafaro pointed out above, Ecuadorans voted in a biocentric constitutional amendment. These non-conforming people don’t get represented in TBI’s colonialist cartoon because they don’t toe the TBI line. We’re supposed to believe that the United States is an extraordinarily complex, conflicting intersection of radically different interests, but the Third World is unified and simple and TBI knows what “they” want. And those that want conservation of wildlife, renewable energy, and a break from deadly coal plant pollution? They don’t count….Which brings me back to condors. TBI finds it repugnant that I worry about the extinction of the California condor when people in the poor nations it imagines itself speaking for are struggling to survive. Ever the colonialist, though, it refuses to acknowledge the interests of dozens of nations, hundreds of conservation groups and many thousands of people across South America, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa who are themselves fighting to save vultures, including people in Somalia and the DRC. The belief that all species have a right to survive and we have an ethical responsibility to share the planet with them is found in every nation on earth. That it survives even in the direst of human situations is a testament to its profundity. If there is a repugnance here, it should be toward The Breakthrough Institute’s suppression of these values and people in its cartoonish, colonialist representation of poor and underdeveloped nations.

Ronnie Hawkins March 3, 2014 at 12:07 am

Ted Nordhaus seems to want to present himself as an anticolonialist, which is a noble sentiment if the situation is framed in terms of the imposition of an exploitative imperative by colonial masters upon a dominated human population. He fails to see, however, that the exploitative approach, the orientation solely in terms of "use" toward other living beings, when untempered by acknowledgment of relationship and reciprocity, is itself a distortion of healthy human living, whether the dominated are human or nonhuman. His dismissal of the ideals set forth by the people of Ecuador seems to indicate that he takes "the hopes and dreams of the rising south" now to be consonant with the aspirations of those who were historically the colonists, the white Europeans who taught those they came in contact with to think in terms of an abstract monetary system preferentially over apprehending reality directly, and to interact in an extremely violent way with nature once it has been conceptually stripped of any other than use-value. Questions regarding "existence rights," as Nordhaus puts it above, necessarily raise the existential issue of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. Human-caused extinctions are different from "natural" extinctions to the extent that we are a self-aware species with agency. How aware are we? Well, some of us--from global south, north, east and west--are aware that what pass for "compelling economic demands" are very often con games that benefit the few (of whatever subgrouping--historically colonialist or historically colonized--is now holding the reins of power) at the expense of what is truly all "the rest," and we are also aware, as members of _Homo sapiens_, that the intentional extinguishing of our coevolutionary partners in an insane rush toward no other end than that of amassing quantities of "dollars" or equivalent humanly constructed symbols within such con games is profoundly repugnant, to our reason as well as to our moral sense. What kind of agency do we have? Well, what to do about "places like Somalia or the Congo" is a huge moral problem for our species--yes, "you'd want Africans to not need to use their forests in those ways in order to survive." Do any of us think that "those ways," or more industrialized ways of destroying forests, are ultimately going to deliver to them the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by the residents of the Berkeley Hills? Of course not, nor are those lifestyles going to be sustained all that much longer by Berkeleyites themselves. It is indeed tragic that we humans did not respond, as a species, 50 years ago, when concerns about exponential human population growth first surfaced; those who shouted down that discussion, preventing the attainment of awareness and agency among the members of our diverse societies over the intervening decades that would have allowed a voluntary slowing of our collective demand on the planet, surely did a favor to no one. But now we can at least be honest about the dimensions of the problem we collectively let develop and now face, and direct our agency toward salvaging what's left of the natural world, in Somalia, the Congo, and all the other places that are being ravaged, by climate change and in so many other ways, so as to maintain the fantasy that someday everyone will be as affluent as those privileged enough to live in Berkeley. And that's going to require ripping through that damaging fantasy, not continuing to promote belief in the "development" of "resources," wherever in the world humans find themselves; we have to find another way of living, all of us.

Ted Nordhaus March 4, 2014 at 1:12 am

Actually Kieran, it is your ethical stance that is bottomless, and in the end completely absurd, not mine. Amidst a lot of other nonsense, Ronnie Hawkins is right about one thing, the ethical basis for saving non-human species is in recognizing our differentness, not eliding it. We are self-aware beings with agency. We are capable of appreciating other species in non-utilitarian terms. That is the ethical posture that might motivate us to save as much of our natural heritage as possible. It is also the ethical posture that has been the basis for extending civil rights to non-european men - that they were humans, not animals, possessed of all of the natural rights as european men. It was and is a profoundly anthrocentric posture, not an ecocentric posture. Kieran choses not to address the more problematic questions I raised because his ethical commitment to ecocentrism can't deal with them. Where does the commitment to existence rights end? Why condors and not bacteria? Why elephants, which are threatened by humans, and not mammoths, which were exterminated by humans, or brontosaurus, which went extinct for other reasons. A principled and unbending commitment to existence rights cannot make any useful distinctions between these categories. In fact, Kieran's preferences are arbitrary - condors, not small pox, elephants, not mammoths - and as such anthrocentric, not ecocentric. Kieran likes condors and wants to save them. Good for him. I'd like to save condors too. The difference, and what is at stake in debates over the new conservation, is that by subordinating conservation science to his normative preferences, Kieran wants to avoid dealing with any possibility that his preference might have highly negative consequences for others. Hence, he wants to talk about condors and the NRA, not Africans and their forests, or worse, to pretend that Africans justifiable desire to live modern lives is a grand western conspiracy, not an authentic expression of a desire for a better life.

Kieran Suckling March 6, 2014 at 3:52 am

To justify driving species extinct, you say humans are entirely natural, just like asteroids and other species that have caused extinctions. But to justify humans as the only ethical concern, you argue the opposite: that we’re categorically different other species and asteroids. This need to make contradictory arguments stems from the arbitrariness of the binary opposition you draw between ethical responsibility toward humans and other species. Like all culturally deep binary oppositions, it pretends to describe “nature” (i.e. the way things are), when in fact, it is created and enforced by the power of particular interests….You wonder why I support the existence of condors and elephants, but not bacteria, smallpox and mammoths. But I said absolutely nothing against the existence or value of bacteria, smallpox, and mammoths. Didn’t even mention them (or pupfish, tigers, burying beetles, dolphins or butterflies for that matter). These supposed “Kieran’s preferences” are entirely your invention. Similarly your assertion that I believe the desires of poor people to have more and different resources "is a grand western conspiracy" is a flat out lie. I didn't say anything remotely like that. You, Ted Nordhouse, made that up. And as a culture, making up wild assertions is one of The Breakthrough Institute’s most common forms of argumentation. It gins up the most extreme and unacceptable position it can think of, projects it onto its opponents (environmentalists want people to be poor! the entire environmental movement has been diverted to Keystone XL! environmentalists oppose all use of fossil fuels in the Third World!), then announce that its opponent is obviously bankrupt....As I noted above at greater length (and you haven’t responded to), it is a category mistake to think a fundamental ethical commitment will provide you with simple answer to all dilemmas. Ethical commitments to gender, race, workplace and sexual orientation equality do not provide simple, singular answers to all questions of policy regarding gender, race, work and sexuality. The commitment to making room for other species is no different. However, as I pointed at length above (which we haven't responded to either) the commitment to other species has very real world policy and action implications which are visible on the ground in every state and nation on the planet….Your complaint that I want to “subordinate conservation science to my normative preferences” also misses the point. The complaint I, Cafarro, Primack and others have voiced regarding Kareiva and Marvier’s outline of conservation science is that while it clearly reflects an anthropocentric ethic, it fails to identify and discuss that ethic. As a result, their vision is internally inconsistent. In a recent piece, for example, they say conservation science will not domesticate nature or disband wildlife reserves, but Kareiva has expressly called on scientists to “domesticate nature” and sell off wildlife reserves. We compare them unfavorably with Soule’s vision of conservation biology which openly discusses its ethical commitment and show how it informs the focus. It is not a matter of “subordination” because every conservation has an ethical underpinning. It’s a matter of whether there will be an honest revelation and discussion of the ethic, or obfuscating hand waving. Kareiva and Marvier very much go for the latter. In this regard, btw, I give TBI great credit. You folks are generally clear about your anthropocentric ethic and commitment to the 18th century modernist tradition. Kareiva and Marvier want to be all things to all people. Their “vision” is consequently a hodge podge of contradictions, evasions and old ideas repackaged as new concepts.….p.s. There are 10,000 species of bacteria on and in your body right now. They are critical to every major function of your body from birth to digestion to thinking. “You” would be dead without “them.” You’d do well to step back and contemplate the role of other species in your life and culture before dismissing them as side shows to the one-and-only human drama

Ted Nordhaus March 4, 2014 at 1:47 am

Cafaro continues to misrepresent Kareiva and Marvier, claiming now that they have written that "global warming might be good for polar bears." Here is what they actually wrote: "Even that classic symbol of fragility -- the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block -- may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals. Polar bears evolved from brown bears 200,000 years ago during a cooling period in Earth's history, developing a highly specialized carnivorous diet focused on seals. Thus, the fate of polar bears depends on two opposing trends -- the decline of sea ice and the potential increase of energy-rich prey. The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again." Readers who have not already made up their minds might ask themselves why Cafaro and his fellow inquisitors need to misrepresent K&M's views so blatantly.

Liam March 6, 2014 at 4:42 am

Cafarro is clearly correct. Polar bears "may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals" is absolutely saying that global warming may be good for polar bears. This opinion is way outside the mainstream of polar bear science. The number of polar bear scientists who think that bears will survive the loss of sea ice, which they have evolved to use a seal-hunting platform, due to increased number of harbor and harp seals is vanishingly small. Are you seriously defending this view as scientifically credible, as opposed to emotionally optimistic?

Jessica Reimer March 5, 2014 at 5:56 pm

As someone who considers myself a young conservationist, it is very frustrating to read comments regarding the debate of the future of conservation. It seems that everyone has lost sight of what the end goal is: to harmoniously live on this one planet that we call home. The fact is humans are not going anywhere. Our population is continuing to grow, and it is this pressure that will continue to stress our resources and place people at the forefront of political, economic and social issues. Unfortunately, the environment is seen as a separate entity from the global issues of poverty, food and water security, human rights, disaster risk, income security, human health, and education – when really the environment plays an integral part in the long-term solutions that affect sustainable social and economic change. If seen in this light, Kareiva and Marvier are approaching conservation from a practical standpoint – they are not attacking the inherent moral right for species to exist. Instead, they are arguing that if we want to maintain, and even restore, biodiversity and ecosystem function, which are critically important for BOTH supporting human populations and for their own inherent value, then conservationists must see their efforts as part of a broader goal to reduce human and environmental injustices. They explicitly state: “The distinguishing feature [of conservation science is that] strategies to jointly maximize benefits to people and to biodiversity are pursued; it is a discipline that requires the application of both natural and social science to the dynamics of coupled human-natural systems” (Kareiva and Marvier 2012). I think we can all agree that essentially every system is now a “coupled human-natural system.”

Conservationists have a very real opportunity to be champions, not only of the environment, but of the future of humanity. The interconnectedness of our work with our lives and the lives of everyone everywhere provides such an incredible opportunity to influence how humanity and the environment exist together in the future. We shouldn’t waste time in-fighting and distracting ourselves from the shared goal of environmental and human well-being. Maybe this is a debate that must run its course so that we can eventually compromise somewhere in the middle – if that is the case, then I sincerely hope it can settle down sooner rather than later so that we can focus on the very real issues that we all care so much about.

Ronnie Hawkins March 5, 2014 at 10:32 pm

I am delighted to hear from a young conservationist, and I agree that the goal is for all of us lifeforms to live harmoniously on this planet that we call home. But I must ask: for how long do you believe that "our population [will be] continuing to grow"? Do you think that the surface of the planet is flat and infinite, stretching to infinity in all directions? As a conservationist, I'm sure you don't, but I think that, for many people who live mostly in the abstract, conceptual world of money and other ontologically subjective "objects" that really exist only in our heads, there is still very little grasp of the fact that we live on a three-dimensional, finite planet. Do you really believe that working with corporations to further "develop" what we call "resources" is "part of a broader goal to reduce human and environmental injustices"? Yes, pretty much every ecosystem within the biosphere is now a "coupled human-natural system." But should such systems be anthropogenically "controlled" to extract maximum "use-value" out of their nonhuman components? I really do wonder how the generation now coming into a certain degree of agency looks at the future. There are so many trends that it seems we all know, if we are honest with ourselves, are unsustainable. Are you standing up to the forces that want to continue to blast out greenhouse gases globally in order to pretend that "business as usual" can continue indefinitely? Are you working hard to imagine alternative ways of living for human beings that will have a chance of being sustained over time, maybe for a much smaller population that might survive some sort of "punctuating" event in our own species' evolution? I really hope so. But I do think that one major component of the needed change is for us--particularly for us of the "western," industrialized culture--to re-learn how to relate to other living beings as something other than "resources," or even, as you continue to put it (steering away from recognizing awareness and agency in nonhumans, as individual organisms, and as populations and species?) as "the environment." I agree, there's been way too much "in-fighting," but I see the debates as having been between those who have seen that we cannot continue on as we have been--not in our continuing population growth, and not in our continuing consumption of "resources," and those who have been in denial about this impossibility. Can we now be honest with ourselves about the need to turn around our extreme _yang_ trajectory, and then try to figure out other ways of living while we still have enough already drilled and fracked and otherwise "harvested" "resources" to even contemplate alternatives?

Philip Cafaro March 8, 2014 at 8:15 am

Jessica, I like your idea of "living harmoniously" on Earth as a good "end goal" that conservationists can all share. But if we seek a harmony with other life forms and not just ourselves, that implies human societies accepting limits to our numbers and economic demands. Otherwise the trajectory is clear: ever more people and our life-support systems, and ever fewer numbers and kinds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish … Read "Global Biodiversity Outlook 3" (2010) from the Secretariat for the Convention on Biodiversity for a relatively recent and very sobering summary of the trends … By all means, let's find win/win solutions to benefit people and nature where we can. But let's also try to redefine what it means for humans to "win," in less materialistic and ecologically domineering terms.

Jessica Reimer March 13, 2014 at 5:44 am

Philip, I completely agree with what you said. We do need to find ways to change the human impact on ecosystems and species. In that sense, I would argue that finding novel approaches to conservation is not only necessary, but absolutely critical. While traditional conservation practice of preserving and restoring land has been essential to saving many species and ecosystems, and is still needed, that practice alone has not kept development from doing damage over the past 100 years. If we are to reduce the rate of biodiversity and ecosystem loss, we can not ignore the billions of people who need access to clean water and nutritious food and energy and health care and a steady income. Human justice issues are directly connected to environmental issues, and if we can simultaneously address both by shifting the way that we do conservation, even if it means partnering with multilateral corporations, then I do not see why conservationists would not take advantage of that opportunity. This is what I believe Kareiva and Marvier were arguing for. Ultimately, humans must adopt a more sustainable, global environmental ethic. But while that ethic is being built, we must work quickly to address environmental issues within the framework that governments and businesses and organizations pay attention to - and largely that attention is focused around people.

Ronnie Hawkins March 8, 2014 at 8:27 pm

I would like to voice one last concern in this discussion, that being with the proposed terminological alteration to which even some supporters of Cafaro and Primack's position seem to be timidly acquiescing rather than challenging. What are the larger implications of changing the name of the discipline "conservation biology" to "conservation science"? My understanding of the meaning of "science" is that the term refers to humanity's collective endeavor to understand the nature of the reality in which we find ourselves embedded, in all its many dimensions--geological, biological, cosmological, and so on. "Biology" is therefore a subdivision within science, the science of life, the study of a phenomenon that does indeed exhibit unique characteristics, a phenomenon of which our own human lives are manifestations but which has taken a multitude of forms in its evolution on this planet. (Western philosophy, fortunately, is finally emerging from the grip of a misleading reductionism that suffused modernist culture with the erroneous cartoon of existence as a matter of nothing but billiard-ball atoms colliding randomly in the void.) My point here is not to debate the metaphysics of mechanism, however, but rather that the primary goal of science, from the time of Aristotle, to that of Newton, to that of Darwin, and still today, is one of _understanding how things are_; it is only after this understanding has been integrated into a society's worldview that people can make wise decisions about how to use their new-found knowledge. My concern with this proposed name-change is that "science" is being used here to indicate the function of knowledge largely in its derivative role of manipulation, in service of social structures which are themselves relatively uninformed of the larger picture of reality that science in its true sense presents to us. This distortion of meaning is by no means limited to the biological sciences in our present era; scientists in many fields seem to be devoting more and more of their time to pleasing the granting agencies rather than to probing for truths that might bite the hand that feeds them. Since contemporary biology informs us of our human place within the biosphere, however, it both necessarily has normative implications and necessarily contributes centrally to an adequate worldview. Conservation biology, as the "crisis discipline" defined by Soule, is informed not only by current species relationships and trajectories but by an understanding of our place in the scheme of things and our responsibility for the changes that burgeoning humanity has wrought. The proposed move to "conservation science" seems to prefigure a subversion of the discipline into being explicitly the handmaiden of social institutions presently controlled by those with very little understanding of who and what they really are, or of what their symbol-games are doing to Life on Earth.

Lizzie Mcleod March 12, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Kareiva and Marvier’s paper makes a few key points: 1) conservation can succeed only if people embrace its mission; 2) it is important to work with corporations to improve their practices based on their large environmental impacts; 3) we should seek to optimize both conservation and economic goals; and 4) we need to embrace the principles of fairness and gender equity in our conservation work. These ideas are not revolutionary, they simply make practical sense. If we are to succeed, we will need to diversify our partnerships, develop better messaging and communications, build the social and economic case (in addition to the environmental case) for conservation, and incorporate the needs/concerns of a broader base, including marginalized groups.

The fact that Kareiva and Marvier do not focus their paper on the intrinsic value of nature or species protection does not establish that they believe these are not important. In their words “Conservation as Soulé framed it was all about protecting biodiversity because species have inherent value. We do not wish to undermine the ethical motivations for conservation action. We argue that nature also merits conservation for very practical and more self-centered reasons concerning what nature and healthy ecosystems provide to humanity.” Further, Kareiva and Marvier’s careers, focused on protecting threatened species and ecosystems, suggest that indeed they do believe these are important. Their paper simply focuses on the “other side of the coin,” reinforcing the point that we need to make conservation more relevant to people if we have any hope of making an impact at the scale needed to reverse the current degradation.

We know too well that biodiversity is decreasing rapidly worldwide, while threats continue to escalate from local to global scales. The “doom and gloom” messages that plague the conservation movement have not stemmed the tide. We seem to be working harder, longer, and with greater resources, yet biodiversity continues to decline at unprecedented rates. I do not think anyone would argue that more is needed for us to achieve our conservation goals, and that status quo is clearly not working, so we need to broaden our toolbox. We need to think outside the box and discuss and evaluate new partnerships and approaches. This should not threaten us. This does not mean that we abandon our values or that we are selling out to big corporations. This does not mean that we give up focusing on the importance of biodiversity. What it does mean is that we need to frame the discussion to ensure that humans are recognized as a fundamental part of the ecosystem, and that if we can find solutions that benefit both people and nature, we are more likely to be successful in protecting nature.

Kareiva and Marvier were criticized for not providing an ethical underpinning to conservation science. They explicitly differentiate their paper from Soulé’s statements of values and tenets of an ecological philosophy to guide conservation actions: “We deviate from this approach and, instead, offer practical statements of what conservation should do in order to succeed.” Perhaps they could have said, “To complement this approach, we provide practical statements of what conservation should do in order to succeed.” As they recognize, “conservation is fundamentally an expression of human values… and people’s attitudes and actions help to shape and reshape the world that will be left behind for future generations.”

Kareiva and Marvier emphasize the need to appeal to a broader base, establish new partners, and make conservation more relevant by highlighting that there does not always have to be an economic trade-off between people and nature, and in many cases, protecting nature can also support other social/economic goals. To turn this into a debate over morality is not productive. Our energy is better spent working collaboratively to seek solutions to current environmental challenges. However, what IS productive, and to me, what stands out based on this critique and the comments generated, is that we, as a conservation community, need to do a better job talking about our values, what motivates us in our work.

For those in the conservation community, these values are as complex as any other group: appreciation for the diversity of species, complexity of life, spiritual/cultural significance of species and the environment, beauty of nature, wildness, ability of nature to create or inspire a sense of wonder/awe, and more. Many of us are inspired by these, but do not discuss them openly with our colleagues. We spend more time talking about data, evidence-based practices, measures, etc. Perhaps, it is here, that we can take a lesson from philosophers, psychologists, and faith-groups.