Conservation in the Anthropocene

What does conservation look like in the Anthropocene era? That’s a question I found myself asking as I read Chris D Thomas’ stimulating book Inheritors of the Earth. If we recognise that human activity is now shaping the whole of the earth, what implications does it have for conservation? I’d suggest it has pretty serious implications, because many long established notions around nature and wilderness are disturbed by the idea of the Anthropocene. We can’t hope to leave nature alone and ‘untouched’ by human presence if our presence is ubiquitous. Nowhere can be reserved and set aside if the whole planet is changing. The global effects of human activity challenge our whole understanding of wildness and wilderness.

Thomas argues that we need “a conservation philosophy that is based on natural change, with humans centre stage: partly because we have already brought about so many changes to the world that cannot be ignored, and partly because humans evolved naturally and we are part of the natural system.” He sees four key principles to this new philosophy:

  1. Accept change. There is no fixed ideal for the world and its wildlife that we need to try and protect, because there have always been changes and fluctuations. By freeing ourselves from a fixed ideal, we can take more of a gains and losses approach instead, trying to maximise the gains and minimise the losses in biodiversity.
  2. Maintain flexibility. Given that the world is changing, some species will be better adapted to the future than others – but we don’t necessarily know which ones. Maintaining biodiversity keeps nature resilient (and this will reassure any traditional conservationists troubled by these conversations) and so we should try to preserve as many species as we can.
  3. Recognise that humans are natural. There’s a tendency to think of ourselves as separate from nature, and draw distinctions between natural and man-made things and landscapes. That’s an old dualism that allowed us to exploit the environment in the first place, and we should ditch it in the way we speak and think about nature. We are part of the ecosystem, part of the story of life on earth, and we should stop placing ourselves above it. A more integrated view encourages us to take responsibility, but also gives us permission to act. While we can intervene wisely or ignorantly, with beauty or with ugliness, our intervention does not diminish a landscape in and of itself. It does not of necessity ‘spoil’ nature.
  4. Live within planetary boundaries. It’s all very well giving ourselves permission to be proactive in our dealings with nature, but that has to be within a framework of natural limits. The planetary boundaries give us that framework, and if you need a reminder, I’ve written in detail about the them here.

There’s more to this discussion, and I’m aware of other people thinking about ‘Conservation 3.0’ and how we need a rethink. But there’s a lot in these four principles and I’ll come back to the topic another time.


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