Let the market save the wilderness?

The previous two posts have dealt with the Harper government in Canada, in particular, and with the doctrines of neoliberalism, in general.

This post focuses on another arm of the neoliberal beast: “New Conservation.”

The traditional conservation movement is being challenged by a new species of “environmentalist” with the goal of reframing conservation efforts by replacing “conserve” with “manage.”

The core of this approach is the idea that the only way that we can motivate the level of political and financial support needed for conservation is to give up on trying to save the earth, the animals, the plants, or the climate because they’re intrinsically worthwhile or valuable. Instead, their argument goes, it’s only when we frame the struggle for survival in terms of entirely human goals and needs that success will be possible.

This market-driven approach to conservation piggybacks on the idea of the “anthropocene.”

The “anthropocene,” as the word suggests, is an age dominated by us, the primates whose population has so overgrown that our lust for resources is changing, not just the local habitats where modest bands of our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived, but the entire world, into which our bloated populations are spreading.

In a recent Aeon article, “Imagining the Anthropocene,” Jedediah Purdy writes:

The most radical thought identified with the Anthropocene is this: the familiar contrast between people and the natural world no longer holds. There is no more nature that stands apart from human beings. There is no place or living thing that we haven’t changed. Our mark is on the cycle of weather and seasons, the global map of bioregions, and the DNA that organises matter into life. The question is no longer how to preserve a wild world from human intrusion; it is what shape we will give to a world we can’t help changing.

On the surface, this might seem to be a rational, practical attitude. Who could deny that we have an enormous and profound impact on the natural world? Surely any solution that has a chance of success must recognize this impact. Pollyanna solutions just aren’t realistic. Let’s not try to undo all the changes that we’ve wrought. Let’s manage them.

The great threat in the neo-cons’ argument is that their approach seems to be a “win-win,” with the managed conservation of natural areas of direct use to us cast as an efficient and sufficient protection of nature.

So far, perhaps so good. But this view of our place in the world reveals some very familiar — and very negative — doctrinal assumptions.

As Brandon Keim puts it in “Earth Is Not a Garden,” (also in Aeon), the bottom line of this new view of conservation is “Earth: it’s all about us.”

The garden in Keim’s title reflects a vision of a world run like the managed ecosystems of a traditional English garden. Gardeners don’t let things run wild. They select and cultivate the species they want, while they restrict or eliminate those that don’t benefit the garden.

This is a view in which other species have no value in themselves, only value to us. New Conservationists don’t talk about “wilderness.” They speak of “ecosystem services” instead. That’s services to us, of course.

And it’s here that New Conservation happily crosses paths with neoliberalism. What better way to manage “ecosystem services,” to determine which habitats and species have sufficient value to justify our investment in them, than the free market?

According to Protecting the Wild, “new conservation science” advocates argue that “the primary objective of conservation should be to protect, restore, and enhance the services that nature provides to people.” To achieve this goal, conservationists “need to ally with corporations and other significant economic actors.” They “should increase their focus on urban areas and on landscapes and species most useful to humans.”

The neo-cons’ approach to nature is entirely anthropocentric. Ours is an “extraction- and use-focused culture, which has viewed the landscape almost exclusively through the lens of economic possibility: ‘How can I profit from this place? Can I log it, or mine it, or graze it? How can I make it my garden?’”

This is a particularly ugly moral stance. The opposite of Singer’s “expanding the circle,” this is neoliberal circling of the wagons. It’s all about “me, me, me.” When markets rule, utility is so narrowly defined that there’s room in the mirror for just us – and those few useful or marketable species that enhance our lives. Methane-spewing cattle, you’re in. Pygmy marmosets, not so much.

The moral rejoinder, again from Protecting the Wild:

“The fundamental choice for our species is whether we will continue striving to be the planetary manager, the gardener-in-chief, or become a respectful member in the community of life. With every action to reassert the dominion of beauty, diversity, and wildness over the Earth—each hectare protected, each habitat secured—we tug the universe a bit more toward justice.”

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