A False Dichotomy of Values
My motivation to make this call came from an unexpected place: conservation’s own history.
I’ve been sitting with my own opinions on this debate for about three years, assuming that the field would eventually converge on one position or the other. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the debate has moved from scientific discourse to personal attacks. The allure of such a tussle has elevated the tension to the public media; and the polarizing effect of the exchanges has given some of conservation’s funders, partners and students pause.
Increasingly frustrated, but unsure what my voice would add, I still stayed quiet. Then I read the book After the Grizzly, about California in the late 1800s and the early start of the American environmental movement.
In between bizarre stories of grizzlies on display in San Francisco and reminders that women’s hats were one of the biggest threats to native birds, the book’s author Peter Alagona told me something I didn’t know: instrumental values—and even their monetary valuation—have long been part of the modern conservation movement alongside intrinsic values.
George Grinnell and his colleagues gave sweeping speeches about the grandeur and purity of nature at the same time that they commissioned reports on the economic values of insects and birds. When they met with the Audubon Society, they talked about nature’s splendor and innate right to exist—and when they met with businessmen, they talked about the monetary value of birds for agricultural pest control and other benefits.
I looked a little further, and found that instrumental values in conservation appeared in Colonial India around the same time. In 1861, Hugh Cleghorn, a British timber manager in India, said:
“If conservation be needful in temperate climates, how imperative is it in the tropics, where the supplies of water, and consequently of food and other produce, are in a great measure dependent on the existence of forests, especially in all the elevated parts of that vast country. If the facts which prove the value of preserving forests and regulating the cutting of timber on certain fixed rules, were generally known, every official in India would cordially cooperate in the work of conservation.”
A century later, intrinsic and instrumental values were still side-by-side in conservation discourse. Margaret Murie, in her 1962 book Two in the Far North said: “My prayer is that Alaska’s…great wild places will remain great, and wild, and free, where wolf and caribou, wolverine and grizzly bear, and all the arctic blossoms may live on in the delicate balance which supported them long before impetuous man appeared in the North.”
Around the same time, Rachel Carson warned that we were harming nature at our own expense: “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
These quotes give us a cursory and admittedly U.S.-centric look at conservation history, and I don’t mean to suggest that those holding these different values were always in agreement. But any honest reading of conservation history makes clear that both intrinsic and instrumental values have been part of the modern fight for conservation for at least 150 years. If these values are so persistent, why can we not make room for them all?
In fact, going back to our roots sounds to me like a way forward. We don’t have to converge on one answer for conservation. We don’t all have to hold the same set of values. But we can respect them.