Natures neighbours

Nature's renewal demands that conservationists break through the limitations of existing strategies. Not only do conservationists need to learn to look differently at nature, therefore, but also to think differently about people. Specifically, they need to foster new relationships between people and nature. The challenge is not to preserve (or even restore) 'the wild', but peoples' relationships with the wild.

Throughout the 20th century, conservationists saw nature as something beleaguered, and needing protection. They had little doubt that nature occurred in a given state and within fixed bounds, and that human action was changing the first and eroding the second. The whole ethos of game and nature reserves and national parks (Chapters 4 and 5) left no doubt that their prime concern was to conserve nature in the special places where it still thrived. Even today, conservationists often believe that the preservation of all components of biodiversity can only be achieved in areas largely free of human alteration, and they focus their efforts on lands with minimal human presence.32 But such areas are few, and the prodigious effort devoted to the conservation of distant lands and species detaches conservation from the world's urban majority, and imposes it on often unwilling rural people. Nature cannot be preserved only in parks, however well-located.33

Living nature's only limit is the earth itself. Inside the biosphere, nature is continuously in flux, changing at multiple scales in response to internal and external forces. No protected area system can capture and contain that diversity. Conservation therefore cannot be restricted to the protection of diverse places or rare species alone. As discussed in Chapter 5, this has become an accepted element in thinking about protected areas, with increasing interest in landscape-scale conservation initiatives, 'conservation beyond parks'.34 Quite apart from the various ecological arguments for landscape scale conservation, the critical reason why what British policy-makers call 'the wider countryside', outside designated reserves and conservation areas, is important is simply that most people live there. Without conservation action where they live, they are destined forever to live in landscapes stripped of their natural diversity. Why does this matter? Because without contact with nature, people's capacity to understand and engage with it withers.

This has been argued many times by conservationists, but it bears repeating. Edward Wilson notes that although the destruction of living diversity is anathema to conservationists, most people regard it as perfectly acceptable.35 This is as likely to be true of the New York taxi driver, the Texan golfing executive, the malnourished Mumbai rubbish picker or the Brazilian rainforest smallholder settler. Some are rich, others poor, but it is likely that none would feel directly engaged with or responsibility for other species, beyond the few for which they have immediate need. Why do they not feel more broadly and deeply about the fate of nature? Because they do not know it. Edward Wilson argues that the better an ecosystem is known, the less likely it will be destroyed.36 In her book exploring why people love nature, Kay Milton points out that knowledge is not emotionally neutral. She argues that we perceive meanings in our environment as we engage with it, indeed it is these meanings that enable it to become known. Those meanings give things value, and from value follow emotion and feelings, which in turn motivate action.37 In a world where British schoolchildren are better at recognizing imaginary Pokémon characters than wildlife, the implications for their willingness to engage with and champion

nature are grim.

The future of conservation will turn on the extent to which a strong individual connection to nature and natural processes is maintained for the world's people in the 21st century. Robert Pyle suggests that such a sense withered in the 20th century. Moreover, even the enthusiasm for the environment demonstrated by the growth of the Western environmental movement (Chapter 3) masks a profound change in the nature of the contact between people and nature. In the industrialized world, engagements with nature are superficial, epitomized by nature recreation, and 'shallow contact leads to shallow conservation'.39 Those who know less, recognize less, care less and therefore act less, a cycle of loss and disconnection from nature that Pyle calls 'the extinction of experience'.40 When that happens, 'hope, spirit and existence all suffer'.

On the other hand, Edward Wilson observes that wilderness 'settles peace on the soul because it needs no help; it is beyond human contrivance'.41 This is an illusion, of course. The very idea of wilderness reflects the scale of the human appropriation (both physically and conceptually) of nature (Chapter 5). Wilson's view of the importance of the idea of wilderness is as a metaphor, speaking of unlimited opportunity in nature. Such nature is not only found in remote areas, and conservationists must not confine their concern for nature to areas that they feel comfortable defining as 'wilderness'. As Robert Pyle argues, reconnection with nature cannot be achieved by any strategy that is solely confined to special nature in special places. The solution for conservation cannot be some idealistic 'return to Eden', whatever the theoretical merits of conservation efforts in the biodiverse shards of habitat remaining on the Earth. Much of the opportunity facing conservationists lies not in remote regions of the world, but much closer to home.

Once conservationists start to devise strategies for conservation where people actually live, they have to face the fact that 'nature' is usually profoundly influenced by human action. Where land is converted to agriculture, or a mix of agriculture and other uses, charismatic larger species such as primates and large carnivores and herbivores tend to have disappeared. However, other adaptable and fast-reproducing mammals usually persist, as do many birds, plants, insects and a whole taxonomic miscellany of lesser organisms, above, on and below the earth.42 The fact that wildlife habitats in northwest Europe were not (in North American terms) very 'wild' never bothered conservationists in the United Kingdom much, because many millennia of agriculture had created diverse and sometimes stunningly attractive wildlife habitats. Indeed, much of the effort of the conservation scientists from the 1950s onwards was spent working out how to protect such anthropogenic habitats, and replicate such benign systems of land management once the economy had made the activities that created them


Elsewhere, of course, human action has left severely degraded landscapes of low diversity. Here habitat restoration, or what Robert Pyle rather nicely refers to as 'resurrection ecology', the bringing back of extinct habitats, has a real potential.44 Throughout the 20th century, conservationists used the argument that nature was pristine, and foully threatened by human action. In the 21st century, the usefulness of this myth will decline. It is already a constraint on conservation vision. Where humans have been destructive, they must be creative to restore the diversity of nature. The enhancement of the living diversity of unreserved lands is a vital challenge.45 Edward Wilson urges us to go beyond beyond 'mere salvage' to begin the restoration of natural environment, to 'enlarge wild populations and stanch (sic) the haemorrhaging of biological wealth'. There can be, he argues, 'no purpose more inspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us'.46

If conservation is to take seriously diverse ideas about what nature is, it is local people who should be the originators of restoration projects, the arbiters of what nature, their nature, should be like. Nature does not just come in fixed formats. As John Rodwell comments, 'biodiversity is not the recipe found in a book, it is the many dishes that can be made from it; not the musical score but the multifarious performances'.47 The engagement between people and nature can be genuinely creative, proof that it is the process that matters most, not just the pattern that conservationists have so long concentrated upon.

Conservation internationally needs to recognize that people care about the nature around them. The British organization Common Ground has long argued that the distinctiveness of local environments matters.48 Sue Clifford points out that everyday places are as vulnerable as the rare. It is when people lose identification with place that ownership changes hands and a spiral of decline begins. Unless a place has meaning for people, it is unlikely to be well cared for. This is becoming a recognized element of conservation in busy industrialized countries like the United Kingdom, but is has profound implications internationally. Whatever efforts are made to enforce the defence of protected areas, or to create genuinely participatory community conservation, they will come to naught unless place and the nature in it have meaning for people.

John Cameron believes that it might be possible to engender love of place as a means of achieving conservation objectives. Arguably, experiencing a deeper relationship with one place can open someone up to a deeper affiliation with all places.49 Landscapes, and the stories embedded within them, provide an opportunity for conservation in the 21st century to build a new constituency in the public mind.50 As Sue Clifford points out, community involvement presupposes the existence of a community: conservationists must re-imagine their thinking and practice to find and support communities that value their local place and local nature.51

Enthusiasm for biodiversity hotspots and protected areas should not therefore blind us to the conservation importance of more mundane landscapes. Even farmed land in the Third World matters in terms of its living diversity. Since the Sahel drought of 1974, it has been known that trees and shrubs in the Sahel are important for migratory warblers such as the whitethroat. The management of fields and pastures, and of woody vegetation within the landscape, are highly significant to the Palaearctic-African migration system.52 The ways people micro-manage areas such as African farmlands therefore has a global conservation importance, not for hugely rare species, but for the survival of the wider local living connections that comprise the biosphere.

Such intensively-managed land is both a challenge and an opportunity in the search for a strong popular foundation for conservation in the developing world. Conservation in Europe and North America is empowered by a broad social movement. In the South it is powered by international (largely European and American) ideas promoted by tiny national minorities in turn driven by international conservation NGOs and aid donors. The costs of conservation are so great that beyond such 'hotspots' as foreign subsidy pays for, the only landscapes and species that are conserved in poor countries will be what ordinary people in those countries themselves think is important, and are willing (and able) to pay for. People in some countries may come to want the national parks that international conservation has persuaded their governments to set aside, and their economies may develop to such an extent that they can be paid for. But how will ordinary people in those countries build the close engagements with nature that might lead them to care enough for wildlife to make this happen? A concern for nature comes first from wildlife close to home, not from remote biodiverse hotspots. The conservation and enhancement of the biodiversity of ordinary landscapes in the developing world is a vitally important challenge for conservation in the 21st century.

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