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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Is Focusing on Human Needs Like Saying “Yes’ to Extinctions?

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 15, 2014

My latest for Takepart (the web site of the movie company Participant Pictures):

When modern conservationists seem to put human welfare ahead of the needs of wildlife, are they betraying the movement’s central tenets? That’s the argument made by the authors of a new editorial in the journal Biological Conservation. In fact, it’s less an argument and more like an angry accusation, relying heavily on the phrase “great moral wrong.”

The editorial taps into a growing uneasiness among some conservation biologists about the direction of the conservation movement as it struggles to find the most effective role in an era, the so-called Anthropocene, in which human expansion seems to be having a devastating effect on almost every species and landscape on the planet—via habitat destruction, poaching, bush-meat hunting, pollution, and climate change.

Prominent environmental groups—among them The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International—have responded to this change with an increasing emphasis on how deeply human survival depends on the things nature provides: “ecosystem services” like clean water, crop pollination, flood control, putting oxygen into the atmosphere and pulling carbon dioxide out, wildlife habitat, and recreation.

This shift in emphasis means that environmental groups now often work side by side with old adversaries, from indigenous communities crowding around conservation areas to Fortune 500 companies looking to clear-cut, mine, harvest, or otherwise exploit the landscape. The shift to a more human-oriented approach has sometimes resulted, notably at Conservation International, in an exodus of species-oriented biologists.

What gets lost in the process, according to the editorial, is the defining environmental belief that any extinction caused by humans is “a great moral wrong.” The coauthors are Richard Primack, a biologist at Boston University, and Philip Cafaro, a philosophy professor at Colorado State University, and they are also, respectively, editor and book review editor of Biological Conservation.

They direct much of their attack at Peter Kareiva, the iconoclastic chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and Michelle Marvier, a conservation biologist at Santa Clara University and coauthor of the textbook Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature.

Kareiva and Marvier’s recent attempts to redefine conservation have put so much emphasis on increasing human wealth via “economic development” and “working with corporations,” according to Primack and Cafaro, that they completely neglect “the right of other species to continue to flourish.” Kareiva and Marvier use rhetoric, they say, that contemplates “mass extinction with equanimity, in part, apparently, because such extinctions will not necessarily inconvenience human beings.”

When I asked Kareiva about the attack, he pointed out that the articles Primack and Cafaro mention were chiefly directed at other biologists, for whom a statement of opposition to mass extinctions would have seemed superfluous, at best. “The point was to say, ‘Hey, biologists, learn some economics; learn social science. It’s relevant.’ ” He added that he entered the conservation movement as a species biologist “totally from the ‘let’s sue ’em; let’s stop logging” side of things. But experience fighting for spotted owls and salmon had made him think the approach produced more political fireworks than results and often shut out people who might otherwise participate in conservation.

Global companies that “care about social license to operate” and about public and shareholder opinion can be “pretty cooperative,” he said, especially if you point them to choices that allow them to protect habitat while also getting the resources they covet. “They become conservation allies,” he said. But he added, “No successes yet, lots of collaboration, and we’ll see how it turns out.” 

Kareiva also argued for an increasing focus on letting local communities share in the management of conservation areas, as a way of providing them with both the means to survive and incentives to work for wildlife preservation. In a formal reply to be published in Biological Conservation, Kareiva and Marvier argue that taking account of 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 hot spots), with no regard to benefits to people, will not be as effective.”

Cafaro is unpersuaded. When conservationists look to rich people and corporations for progress, he told me, “there are certain topics you maybe don’t bring up. If you’re talking with someone worth $500 million, you might not talk to him about income inequality” or the hazards of an economic system built on relentless growth.

Cafaro also opposed appeasement of people who intrude on national parks and protected areas. “I favor moving them out, compensating them, and creating areas where wildlife can live,” he said. “I see this as a matter of justice to other species. We don’t have a right to be everywhere.” Or as he and Primack put it in their article, “Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth’s resources. If increased human numbers and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our numbers and economic demands.”

Where does this quarrel leave the rest of us? Up to now, the conservation movement has largely followed the kind of absolutist, and sometimes obstructionist, approach Primack and Cafaro seem to be advocating. That strategy has been successful at persuading nations around the world to designate a remarkable share of their territory as parks and protected areas. But they are mostly paper parks, without budget, staff, or in many cases, wildlife. Species continue to be exterminated and spiral toward extinction.

That suggests Kareiva and Marvier are right to question present methods and propose a new way forward: Self-interest is the most powerful force in the universe. So there may yet be progress in simply reminding people that there is still time to protect the natural world—and the species—we depend on for the food and drink on our tables, the pleasure in our hearts, and the future of our families.

Check back in 10 years to see if honey works any better than vinegar.


17 Responses to “Is Focusing on Human Needs Like Saying “Yes’ to Extinctions?”

  1. Kareiva, when I spoke with him, seemed to be much more adept at blowing up conventional conservationist thinking than at pointing out new ways forward. (He was vague about the details on that.) Cafaro, on the other hand, seemed stuck in 1960s outrage, in ways that also don’t advance the way society treats conservation issues. Here’s what I woke up this morning thinking: Instead of wasting their energy in bitter and divisive squabbling, maybe they should be collaborating to play good cop-bad cop with the culprits who are actually causing environmental destruction?

  2. Robert Hii said

    Based on personal information from Indonesia, Kareiva is right. Cafaro’s purist approach, while a needed element in conservation efforts is one that has yielded too little meaningful impact on conservation of species or ecosystems.

    The old ways have had decades to prove that it works and in my opinion, they have not. Its time to look at new approaches, engaging companies and governments, to bring a more practical solution to the ground.

  3. Richard is correct that when he called me I was vague about ideas—I was between sessions at the AMS meetings in Atlanta, trying to find a room for a talk, and distracted. But we have lots of specific ideas.

    First check out the Natural Capital Project which has over twenty specific projects around the world ( “NatCap” mainstreams conservation by making the benefits people derive from nature explicit and transparent.

    Second, our efforts to broaden the conservation tent include LEAF (see

    And yes, I wish we had better documentation of what works and does not work. In general conservation has not been terrific at really testing the effectiveness of its different efforts — but the field has learned and is learning, and most conservation NGO’s are making a serious effort to monitor their impact ( But these are new ideas. For that reason we have also launched a science effort that aims to work at the convergence of ecology, conservation, economics and action to examine these new ideas. A good example of this is a study of how natural defenses can help provide coastal resilience (see

    Richard is also right in suggesting that this bickering and in-fighting is a waste of energy and time. Professor Marvier and I never meant to demean or discredit any of our conservation colleagues. We have the utmost respect for Michael Soule, and in fact wrote about his paper out of respect –if we did not respect it, we would not have paid any attention to it. I suggest folks read our Bioscience paper and ask themselves if we were disrespectful. We think there is room for all possible strategies and values in service of conservation –from radical to compromising, from utilitarian to intrinsic value, from pragmatic to purist. It is only with a broad based coalition that we will be able to address the big challenges facing conservation – climate change, land conversion, and degradation of freshwater and marine systems. There is not one and only one “true conservation” –there are many faces and reasons for conservation. We should muster them all in a joint effort.

    As Professor Marvier writes,

    “At the end of the day, all conservationists — both “new” and “traditional” — very much want to stem the tide of extinction. We all want abundant, beautiful natural spaces. We all agree that the relatively pristine places on our planet are a top priority for protection and that protected areas will continue to be an important part of conservation” (see for full essay)

    Peter Kareiva

    • Robert Hii said

      Thank you for those links Peter. I will check them out and see if they might apply to situations in Borneo.

      Main one being protected forest encroachments by local communities for timber and protected wildlife.I’ll be using the pangolin as an iconic species as it is the most heavily poached in the area. While conservation groups have suggested law enforcement, tougher jail sentences etc, these will not deter a person who is hungry.

      To stop this person from continuing his illegal activities, we have to work with him to find alternate means of survival.

  4. Posting this on behalf of Philip Cafaro:

    Many thanks for taking the time to interview me and Kareiva and write up your take on these matters. You are right that self-interest is a powerful force, but it isn’t everything. Appeals to fair treatment of others, whether human or nonhuman, have proven effective many times in the past, including when deployed by conservationists. It is hardly “pragmatic” to undermine them in the way Kareiva and Marvier do in their articles.

    Self-interest is important. But how people define our self-interest will make a big difference in setting the terms for what sort of conservation we are able to achieve in the future. Looking down the line, it is hard to imagine preserving much wild nature in the context of endlessly growing human economies. Hence Primack and my suggestion that conservationists work harder to advocate for genuinely sustainable economies that recognize ecological limits to growth. Karieva and Marvier call this “scolding capitalism” in one of their articles. We call it necessary to the long-term success of conservation–even an anthropocentric conservation that only concerns itself with human well-being.

  5. Richard is absolutely right to point out the futility of internecine squabbling. These debates get ‘academic’ in a hurry. Anybody who has done on the ground conservation knows that success requires flexibility, persistence and, above all, cooperation from local human populations. We need new ways to connect with those populations, period. It is perhaps too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that those advocating for ‘new conservation’ are also pushing for the end of traditional conservation models. The truth is that different models will work in different places. What’s wrong with that? In the end, conservation scientists, much like physicians, are all pointed in the same direction. The public is unlikely to be enthralled by the sight of surgeons and internists picking on each other. Time to move on.

  6. […] conservation focuses on human needs, is it saying “yes” to extinctions? Richard Conniff examines the debate — and Peter Kareiva responds to Conniff’s satisfaction. (Strange […]

  7. We have posted the following comment at Elsevier, which appears to be stuck in moderation. Hopefully the editors will allow it to be published:

    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

    • Prakash Kashwan said

      Ted, wonderful points. Increasingly though the ‘developed’ versus ‘developing’ countries, or the West versus the East, dichotomies may be as misleading as the nature-society distinctions have been in the past. A large number of developing countries (or, governments, to be precise) are interested in the finances and resources that international conservation has to offer. Therefore, developing countries are ‘buying’, literally, into exclusionary conservation. Increasingly, such actions of developing country governments are being ‘armed’ by conservation groups in the north. See, for instance,

  8. john farnsworth said

    I write from the perspective of someone with an office down the hallway from Michelle Marvier, someone who, over the span of the past decade, has come to appreciate the method behind what might first seem to be madness.

    Those of us who teach environmental studies at the undergraduate level are all too familiar with the student who, after having taken the first few courses of an introductory series, wanders into office hours wondering whether it’s even remotely possible to save the planet. “I was okay learning about the carbon cycle,” one dejected student recently told me, “until we got to ocean acidification.”

    Things are bad out there; we all know that. In the midst of it all, Kareiva and Marvier have pointed out the diminishing returns we’re getting from tired environmental rhetoric and some of the stale science behind it. Sometimes it hurts to hear this, especially for long-in-the-tooth environmentalists like myself who once thought everything would be okay if we could just get DDT banned. Regardless, the heresy that human self-interest can actually benefit the environment should not come as such a shock, and focussing on ecosystem resilience rather than its fragility is hardly immoral. I remind myself of this every time I spot a peregrine or an osprey, both of which I view as symbols of resilience.

    A couple months ago I plopped down in the chair by Michelle’s desk and announced that I’d just received a grant to assist with California Condor restoration. I’m happy to report that she did not grow horns or bare her fangs, but instead asked what she could do to support my efforts. Clearly, she’s not the anti-biodiversity demon that some correspondents are making her out to be.

    • Farnsworth is writing to let us know that his colleague Marvier is a fine person, even if what Kareiva and she write “might first seem to be madness”. However, that is not the issue. What we are discussing is what Marvier and Kareiva actually wrote. People like Farnsworth should read read their articles, and see if they agree with what Kareiva and Mariver wrote, not what they tell you and others that they meant to say.

      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.

      Cafaro and I revised our editorial for Biological Conservation into a more accessible article form for the on-line magazine Elsevier Connect. Over 40 comments have been posted in response to our article. Readers of this blog may want to follow that conversation as well:

      • Michelle Marvier said

        Richard [Primack], I already responded to your questions on the Elsevier blog. Again, I do not work for the Nature Conservancy. Papers that I coauthored cannot possibly be and are not the official position of TNC. Please do not persist in your apparent presumption that I did not play an important role in the framing of these ideas – it is offensive, and not just to me.

        You claim that our articles provide “justification for the ongoing degradation of the environment and extinction of species by human activities.” Quite to the contrary, our articles will help to convince governments and corporations to engage in conservation, specifically because conservation can be in the best interest of their own bottom lines (corporations) and the well-being of their constituents (governments).

        And, as I already responded on the Elsevier blog, 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.

      • john farnsworth said

        Richard B. Primack said, “People like Farnsworth should read read their articles, and see if they agree with what Kareiva and Mariver wrote, not what they tell you and others that they meant to say.”

        Is this the same Richard Primack who published the study comparing Thoreau’s phenology to current first-flowering dates in Concord? That was commendable scholarship.

        The suggestion that I haven’t read my colleague’s papers is unworthy of the type of scholarship referenced above. Not only have I read their papers, attended their conference presentations and sat in on their classes, but I have assigned “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility” to my Environmental Thought classes. I’m happy to report that the level of the discourse about Kareiva and Marvier’s theories was a bit more elevated in my classroom than it has been on these blogs.

        I myself am not a conservation scientist, and as such it fascinates me that so much of what is being attacked about the basic Kareiva/Marvier thesis is its philosophical underpinning. In essence, they have questioned the wisdom of taking a deep-ecology approach to practical conservation issues, and as a result have been subjected to cries of “Heresy!”

        I will admit that on any given day I’d rather be reading Thoreau than Kareiva. Alas, my lot in life was to spend for more time perusing Edward Abbey’s journals than Thoreau’s. (Incidentally, I was the author of a study that Peter once got attacked for quoting: As for Kareiva, he sometimes engages in Abbeyesque rhetoric, and his provocations can sit heavy on the hearts of those of us with romantic dispositions about nature, biodiversity, and the preservation of endangered species. However, it is all the more important that we romantics listen to what is being questioned in his scholarship.

        If after that listening/reading process a few of us want to remain as deep ecologists, transcendentalists, “Earthiests” or whatever, we should do so without casting moralistic aspersions on hardworking, pragmatic scientists with whom we might disagree.

  9. Michelle: I’m not sure chestnuts are the best example for making your case. The loss of this species was devastating both ecologically (contributing to the dramatic loss of wild turkey, among other species) and economically (with very large costs to the logging, lumber, and tanning businesses).

    See, for instance,Davis, D.E. 2005. Historical significance of American chestnut to Appalachian Culture and Ecology.


    Davis, D.E. 2005. Historical significance of American chestnut to ……/davis‎
    Pennsylvania State Unive…
    The American chestnut played a major role in the economy of the … events in North American environmental history compare with the loss of the American

  10. Very important debates. I would like to point out that the developed versus developing countries, or West versus East dichotomies are as misleading as are the nature-society distinctions. A large number of developing countries (or, governments, to be precise) are interested in the finances and resources that international conservation has to offer. Therefore, developing countries are ‘buying’, literally, into exclusionary conservation. For a parallel debate, see,

  11. […] conservation focuses on human needs, is it saying “yes” to extinctions? Richard Conniff examines the debate — and Peter Kareiva responds to Conniff’s satisfaction. (Strange […]

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