Dr. Michael Soule: The “New Conservation”

Conservation Biology, October 2013
Volume 27, No. 5, 895-897
(c) 2013 Society for Conservation Biology
DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12147

Editorial: The “New Conservation”
By Dr. Michael Soule

A powerful but chimeric movement is rapidly gaining recognition and supporters. Christened the “new conservation,” it promotes economic development, poverty alleviation, and corporate partnerships as surrogates or substitutes for endangered species listings, protected areas, and other mainstream conservation tools. Its proponents claim that helping economically disadvantaged people to achieve a higher standard of living will kindle their sympathy and affection for nature. Because its goal is to supplant the biological diversity-based model of traditional conservation with something entirely different, namely an economic growth-based or humanitarian movement, it does not deserve to be labeled conservation.

Institutional allies and supporters of the new conservation include the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Long Now Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and the social-justice organization The Breakthrough Institute (Nordaus & Shellenberger 2011). The latter write – in the style of the Enlightenment – that, “We must open our eyes to the joy and excitement experienced by the newly prosperous and increasingly free [persons]. We must create a world where every human can not only realize her material needs, but also her higher needs.”

The manifesto of the new conservation movement is “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility” (Lalasz et al. 2011; see also Kareiva 2012). In the latter document, the authors assert that the mission of conservation ought to be primarily humanitarian, not nature (or biological diversity) protection: “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor” ). In light of its humanitarian agenda and in conformity with Foreman’s (2012) distinction between environmentalism (a movement that historically aims to improve human well-being, mostly by reducing air and water pollution and ensuring food safety) and conservation, both the terms new and conservation are inappropriate.

Proponents declare that their new conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Underlying this radically humanitarian vision is the belief that nature protection for its own sake is a dysfunctional, antihuman anachronism. To emphasize its radical departure from conservation, the characters of older conservation icons, such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Edward Abbey, are de-famed as hypocrites and misanthropes and contemporary conservation leaders and writers are ignored entirely (Lalasz et al. 2011).

The new conservationists assume biological diversity conservation is out of touch with the economic realities of ordinary people, even though this is manifestly false. Since its inception, the Society for Conservation Biology has included scores of progressive social scientists among its editors and authors (see also letters in BioScience, April 2012, volume 63, number 4: 242-243). The new conservationists also assert that national parks and protected areas serve only the elite, but a poll conducted by the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Hospitality Association estimates that 95% of voters in America want continued government support for parks (National Parks Conservation Association 2012). Furthermore, Lalasz et al. (2011) argue that it should be a goal of conservation to spur economic growth in habitat-eradicating sectors, such as forestry, fossil-fuel exploration and extraction, and agriculture.

The key assertion of the new conservation is that affection for nature will grow in step with income growth. The problem is that evidence for this theory is lacking. In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction, in part because increasing incomes affect growth in per capita ecological footprint (Soule 1995; Oates 1999).

Other nettlesome issues are ignored, including which kinds of species will persist and which will not if the new economic-growth agenda replaces long-term protection in secure protected areas?

Related questions include:

Would the creation of designated wilderness areas be terminated? Would the funds to support the new conservation projects be skimmed from the dwindling conservation budgets of nongovernmental and government agencies? Is conservation destined to become a zero-sum game, pitting the lifestyles and prosperity of human beings against the millions of other life forms? Is it ethical to convert the shrinking remnants of wild nature into farms and gardens beautified with non-native species, following the prescription of writer Marris (2011)? Will these garden-like reserves designed to benefit human communities admit inconvenient, bellicose beasts such as lions, elephants, bears, jaguars, wolves, crocodiles, and sharks-the keystone species that maintain much of the wild’s biological diversity (Terborgh & Estes 2010; Estes et al. 2011)?

The new conservationists assume the benefits of economic development will trickle down and protect biological diversity. Even if that assumption were borne out, I doubt that children growing up in such a garden world will be attuned to nature or that the hoped-for leap in humanity’s love for the wild will occur once per capita consumption reaches a particular threshold.

Most shocking is the dismissal by the new conservationists of current ecological knowledge. The best current research is solidly supportive of the connection between species diversity and the stability of ecosystems. It has firmly established that species richness and genetic diversity enhance many ecological qualities, including productivity and stability of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, resistance to invasion by weedy species, and agricultural productivity; furthermore, research shows that greater species and genetic diversity reduces transmission rates of disease among species (Tilman 2012).

In contrast, implementation of the new conservation would inevitably exclude the keystone species whose behaviors stabilize and regulate ecological processes and enhance ecological resistance to disturbance, including climate change (Terborgh & Estes 2010). For these reasons and others, conservationists and citizens alike ought to be alarmed by a scheme that replaces wild places and national parks with domesticated landscapes containing only nonthreatening, convenient plants and animals.

The globalization of intensive economic activity has ac- celerated the frenzied rush for energy and raw materials and is devouring the last remnants of the wild, largely to serve the expanding, affluent, consumer classes in industrialized and developing nations. At current rates of deforestation, dam construction, extraction of fossil fuels, land clearing, water withdrawal, and anthropogenic climate change, it is expected that the 2 major refugia for biological diversity on the globe–the wet, tropical forests of the Amazon, and Congo Basin– will be gone by the end of this century (Mackey et al. 2013).

Is the sacrifice of so much natural productivity, beauty, and diversity prudent, even if some human communities and companies might be enriched? No. The worth of nature is beyond question and our obligation to minimize its gratuitous degradation is no less.

There is no evidence for the proposition that people are kinder to nature when they are more affluent, if only because their ecological footprints increase roughly in proportion to their consumption. We also know that the richer nations may protect local forests and other natural systems, but they do so at the expense of those ecosystems elsewhere in less affluent places. A third thing we know is that anthropogenic climate change is probably the greatest threat to civilization (Gleick et al. 2010).

I must conclude that the new conservation, if implemented, would hasten ecological collapse globally, eradicating thousands of kinds of plants and animals and causing inestimable harm to humankind in the long run.

Finally, I believe that those who donate to conservation organizations do so in full confidence that their gifts will benefit wild creatures and their habitats. The central issue is whether monies donated to the Nature Conservancy and other conservation nonprofit organizations should be spent for nature protection or should be diverted to humanitarian, economic-development projects such as those proffered by the new conservation on the dubious theory that such expenditures may indirectly benefit biological diversity in the long run.

Traditional conservationists do not demand that humanitarians stop helping the poor and underprivileged, but the humanitarian-driven new conservationists demand that nature not be protected for its own sake but that it be protected only if it materially benefits human beings.

A more literary version of this essay that highlights the intrinsic value of biological diversity can be accessed at www.michaelsoule.com.

Literature Cited
Estes, J. A., et al. 2011. Trophic downgrading of plant earth. Science 333:301-306.

Foreman, D. 2012. Take back conservation. Raven’s Eye Press, Durango, Colorado.

Gleick, P. H., et al. 2010. Climate change and the integrity of science. Science 328:689-690.

Kareiva, P. 2012. Failed metaphors and a new environmental- ism for the 21st century. Available from http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=4BOEQkvCook (accessed April 2013).

Lalasz, R., P. Kareiva, and M. Marvier. 2011. Conservation in the an- thropocene: beyond solitude and fragility. Breakthrough Journal 2: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/ conservation-in-the-anthropocene/.

Mackey, B., I. C. Prentice, W. Steffen, J. I. House, D. Lindenmayer, H. Keith, and S. Berry. 2013. Untangling the confusion around land carbon science and climate change mitigation policy. Nature Climate Change 3:552-557.

Marris, E. 2011. Rambunctious garden. Bloomsbury, New York. National Parks Conservation Association. 2012. New poll of likely voters finds unity in public support for national parks. National Parks Conservation Association, Washington, D.C. Available from http://
www.npca.org/news/media-center/press-releases/2012/poll_ parks_support_080712.html (accessed June 2013).

Nordaus, T., and M. Shellenberger. 2011. From the editors. Break- through Journal 2:7-9.

Oates, J. F. 1999. Myth and reality in the rainforest: how conservation strategies are failing in West Africa. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.

Soule _, M. E. 1995. The social siege of nature. Pages 137-170 in M. E. Soule _ and G. Lease, editors. Reinventing nature? Response to postmodern deconstruction. Island Press, Washington,D.C.

Terborgh, J., and J. A. Estes. 2010. Trophic cascades: predators, prey and the changing dynamics of nature. Island Press, Washington,D.C.

Tilman, D. 2012. Biodiversity & environmental sustainability amid human domination of global ecosystems. Daedalus 141:108-120.


  1. As I noted in my bickering with Matt down below, this is people versus nature. Here’s the money shot:

    Furthermore, Lalasz et al. (2011) argue that it should be a goal of conservation to spur economic growth in habitat-eradicating sectors, such as forestry, fossil-fuel exploration and extraction, and agriculture.

    Forestry eradicates habitat? But megafires don’t?
    Fossil fuels do the same? Ever heard of energy density?
    Agriculture? What if all those urban dwellers had to grow their own?


    • Matthew- thanks for posting this.. it’s worthy of more attention. I actually wrote a paper 15 years ago about these same folks and their concepts of conservation biology.. will dig it up. Thanks again.. hadn’t thought of these folks in years.

    • Flexible stats, too: National Parks serve mostly a small percentage of well educated middle and upper class white Americans (“the elites”), yet 95% of Americans polled want to keep them. Two different questions. I’ll bet nearly 95% of Americans want our large corporations to continue to prosper, too, but 100% would like to see a better distribution (“to themselves”) of corporate profits. I wonder what percent of Americans would like to have the time and resources to actually be “served” by our National Parks? I’ll be that would be a higher percentage, too. Also, I’m guessing that a lot more than 5% of the population could care less, one way or another, whether we had National Parks or not. Wonder to did the poll, and what questions were asked.

    • I think the point is that, all things being equal, it might be preferable to seek “economic growth” in sectors that cause less environmental damage. These sectors are not generally associated with stable, quality jobs. However, I doubt anyone would argue that those named sectors, such as mining, agriculture, and forestry, should be zeroed out.

  2. I disagree that “National Parks serve mostly a small percentage of well educated middle and upper class white Americans (“the elites”).”

    I just did a google search for ‘national park usage demographics’ and came up with a few items that may shed some light on the issue. Unfortunately I didn’t get the most recent (2010) stat abstract from the US NPS to load (shutdown), but there was this:

    “the National Park Service (NPS) released a survey that shows that 78 percent of visitors to America’s national parks between 2008 and 2009 where white non-Hispanic, while Hispanics accounted for nine percent and African-Americans only seven percent. In comparison, the most recent U.S. census revealed that only 64 percent of the population was non-Hispanic white.” (http://www.gadling.com/2011/08/04/despite-population-diversity-u-s-park-visitors-are-overwhelmin/)

    Sure, while 78% of all NPS visitors were non-Hispanic white in ’08/’09, while making up 64% of US population, I’m uncomfortable assuming that all of that 78% are “well educated middle and upper class Americans.” Also, since that ’08/’09 NPS survey the Hispanic and other ‘non-white’ populations in US have increased while whites % have decreased. Isn’t the ‘non-Hispanic white’ approaching 50% soon? One assumes these population trends will also impact NPS usage demographics in the future.



    • Hi Matt: You might be right, and maybe the demographics are shifting. Also, my figures may be more representative of Wilderness users. My four-year degree was in Forest Recreation, and we had to do a lot of questionnaire designing and forest user research. I remember one line of research had to do with why Mexican and black families didn’t use Wilderness areas; also poor whites. The poor whites’ reasons were much the same as for many Mexicans and blacks — they couldn’t afford the time and cost. With blacks a surprising result is that there was an ingrained cultural fear of going “into the woods” with a bunch of white people — or taking recreational trips on water for similar reasons! There is some actual history to base those fears upon, but as time elapses, maybe those fears are fading away. Money and culture. With Mexicans (before the marijuana industry took off), it was mostly the exclusionary nature of these types of experiences, following economics. A typical response was they liked to vacation as families, and these types of ventures were both alien to their culture and (particularly in the case of Wilderness) typically excluded babies, young children, old people, and family members with disabilities.

      But that is based on 20-year old memories of studies I found interesting, but outside my research focus. Hopefully, things are changing. I don’t watch TV, but recently saw an Internet video where Oprah was visiting a National Park with her girlfriend Gale, and their lack of knowledge of what they were doing and why was almost comical. If I recall (short term memory isn’t all that good these days, either), there were also some racial observations regarding the lack of blacks in her comments as well.

      But your statistics are more recent and, hopefully, more encouraging.

          • Bob, I have an old National Geographic from the mid 80s that has a picture of a good-looking John Marker in a story about the Reagan era USFS’s struggles — written by some fellow with the Verlyn Klinkenborg mindset.
            Anyway, there’s photographs of wall-to-wall Latinos in the San Gabriel River on a hot day. If public lands are accessible and affordable, people (of all colors) will come.

            • Dave: As you were writing this, I was on the phone with John Marker, who is not so young anymore! Can you post the picture here, and also describe why so many Latinos are present? I think you are right about accessibility, but gas has been hovering around $4/gallon these days, and employment opportunities have not been good for most people the past five years.

              • Don’t have a scanner, dude. Not sure where I have that Nat Geo, either, I think it’s buried under some reloading junk in the Ammo Cave.
                But it was captioned about managing some pretty intense recreation in the front country around the LA basin, a long lens shot of hundreds of family members enjoying a nice soak and sunshine. I would NOT drink that water.

        • One would assume that the NPS is fully aware of this and if they would even bother with a 74 page report on usage demographics they’d take all this into consideration, right? Also, seems like we are only focusing on NPS nature/wilderness parks. Let’s remember the NPS runs a lot of historical parks around the country, which happen to be in urban areas of the East, for example.

          • Good point on the historical parks, Matt! I have read a lot of 74-page government reports, however, that seem to miss a lot of important details. Personally, I wouldn’t assume anything of the sort, and would be pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

            • Matt K, one thing that would factor in hugely about ethnic park attendance is —
              Whose History? White bread America or, say, a stop on the Underground Railroad? When I went to the Alamo, there were no Hispanics in sight, but plenty of big white hats.

  3. Matt, those numbers are confirmed by observation.
    Park visitors require disposable TIME as well as income, especially with gas at four bucks a gallon. NPS assets are, for the most part, far away from hub airports and/or metro centers. While getting into the park is a relatively cheap date, once you are at the gate, visitors are still snowy white because of the economics of getting TO the gate.
    Today’s visitors get their affinity from their upbringing in demographics that allowed at least the station wagon to Yosemite trips in whity-tighty America in past decades.
    One the sites are up, you will be able to look at the America’s Great Outdoors program, which targets future agency recruitment (Jewell was involved from the REI side, and you bet she understands her clientele and her spreadsheets) from nonwhite and urban constituencies to get kids on a college track.
    But the current model of NPS is a luxury, kind of like conservation biology being a luxury for a select, select few. You can’t tell me that environmentalism is a diverse pursuit. Black or brown Greens are pretty darn rare, for a lot of reasons — lack of both opportunity and exposure being first and foremost.
    And Sharon, you should pay more consistent attention to conservation biology, as it drives too much policy.

    • Matt: That idea is a little scary because it kind of makes sense in a way, and it certainly isn’t unprecedented when it comes to college admissions, federal employment and other such regulations. California gives driver’s licenses to illegal aliens now, and I’m guessing they are about 99% “non-white.” It sounds stupid and racist when applied to parks, but somehow seems to be “progressive” and even “ethical” when put into other contexts. And I’m not too sure these other efforts have a very good track record; it can be argued that these approaches can even seem counter-productive at times. College football players, meth distributors (Oregon drivers licenses, until recently), and non-taxed marijuana growers on federal lands are all examples of subsidized racism without any meaningful results, either for the general population or, arguably, most of the individuals taking advantage of these subsidies. Maybe parks are being replaced with video games anyway, given the price of gasoline these days.

  4. I was watching Stossel on Fox News Business last night and he was talking about affirmative action and universities.

    He went to a mall and was selling cupcakes. The sign said cupcakes $1.50 for asians, $1.00 for whites, and $0.50 for blacks. It was pretty funny watching the reactions of the races. It was an excellent way to show the silliness of affirmative action in my opinion.

  5. Pingback: “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures” | Inhabiting the Anthropocene

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