Conservation is too often taken at face value. Criticise it, and you may find yourself accused of wanting to concrete over the entire countryside, and to have all the creatures that live within in slaughtered for fun.
The truth is, however, that even a country as densely-populated as the UK is less than 10% developed, and the majority of its population live in cities that are strangled by ‘green belt’ — rings of land protected by law. This furthermore means that only the wealthy can afford to live or build outside the city limits, meanwhile, house prices within it rise inexorably, and the size of properties gets smaller, and the local facilities and infrastructure struggle to cope. What price ‘conservation’, then? Freedom… mortgages that few people can afford… escalating rents… state-sponsored landlords and spiralling benefit costs… increased cost of living… decreasing living standards. Conservationists then argue that we need MORE green space to help us mentally recover from the stresses of modern life.
The green-space-as-public-amenity argument is thus shown as so much bunk. Conservation comes at a price, and that price is rarely discussed. Rather it is assumed that we’re running out of space for all things bright and beautiful, while we create prisons for ourselves.
There’s another kind of conservation too — the idea that without a conservation effort, species of flora and fauna will disappear. I put these arguments into two categories. The first is the ‘web-of-life’ or ‘biodiversity’ argument, in which ‘species’ are valuable because they exist as part of a network or ecosystem which has both intrinsic moral and material value — a natural order– on which our own existences depend, and that we should observe. The second is the idea that we like there to be creatures and some kind of wilderness. I have some sympathy with the second insofar as I think this subjective valorisation of ‘nature’ deserves a hearing in discussions about development; there should be a public discussion about the value of nature, since most people seem to like and value it. The former, however, I believe is an attempt to bypass that discussion, but to create political value of natural processes through blackmail: ‘conservation or death’.
Then there’s an even darker side of conservation. Just as conservation has its human cost in the UK, it has greater consequences where the humans it displaces are less wealthy and more excluded from political life. Many have commented on the ‘neocollonialist’ tendency of conservationists. A new Channel 4 documentary considers some of its excesses.
I’m not sure if this film will show here, or if non-UK readers will be able to see it. Here’s the link, if the above player does not work.
The film itself unfortunately takes a few tenets of conservation at face value, and doesn’t quite get to the bottom of it. Nonetheless, it makes some valuable, shocking points that remind us what conservation in its unchecked, political form really looks like: it puts humans below nature.