Our very own Practical Conservation Officer, Jamie Walker, reads and reviews The Conservation Revolution! We would love to hear your thoughts, so do shoot us a message or comment below!

The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene

by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher

Being a conservationist is difficult. Looking down the steep tree-trunk of evolutionary history seeing how life branched and budded into such beautiful diversity, and then how in such dizzying speed this diversity and abundance has been exploited and degraded by some people – how this treatment can show little sign of diminishing even as you work for change… The experience of conservationists in the Anthropocene is one of frustration and anxiety over long-term meaningful change, especially among long-term practitioners. This is not to say there have not been significant successes and reasons for optimism, but the reality is such that many feel a shift from the approach of ‘mainstream conservation’ is needed.  In The Conservation Revolution Büscher and Fletcher pick apart the historical mainstream methodology and detail the two new radical conservation paradigms that have been suggested as alternatives, before dismantling their inconsistencies and pointing towards a new path to protecting nature beyond the Anthropocene. 

Büscher and Fletcher consider two underlying theoretical lenses to approach the ‘Great Conservation Debate’: capitalism and nature-people dichotomies. Mainstream conservation is capitalist and reinforces the distinction between a pristine, ‘wild’ Nature on the one hand and human society on the other. How? It gave rise to powerful NGOs which grew progressively closer to large corporations and began branding the living world as a ‘Natural Resource’ to be monetised. At the same time, it primarily protected biodiversity through the erection of fences guarded by armed rangers to displace and keep people out.

The ‘New Conservationists’, on the other hand, realise the unreality of a ‘Nature’ without people or people separate from the natural world out of which they evolved and upon which they depend. From this realisation they suggest that conservation should not strive to protect a pristine wilderness that never existed, but instead should negotiate and nurture our embeddedness in the biosphere and the biosphere’s influence on all our activities, including the activity of capitalist economics.

‘Neoprotectionists’ believe that wilderness is not a social construct. They see people as always at the root of nature’s problems. And if people are the problem, they need to be prevented from reaching and inevitably wreaking havoc on wildlife: thus the drive to dramatically expand the percentage of Earth designated as a protected area. As well as physical limits, neoprotectionists argue that economic boundaries are needed, proposing upper caps to economic growth and consumption.

Approaching from the perspective of political ecology the key insight from Büscher and Fletcher is that “conservation and capitalism have intrinsically co-produced each other, and hence the nature-culture dichotomy is foundational to both.” Thus the New Conservationists’ rejection of the dichotomy but acceptance of capitalist mechanisms is inconsistent, just as is the Neoprotectionists’ reinforcement of the dichotomy and advocacy for economic boundaries.

How did this co-production occur? The development of capitalism in the 17th Century relied on enclosing common rural land, at home and abroad colonially, dispossessing the inhabitants who would then have to move to urban settings where they would carry out labour fuelled and fed by the ‘improvement’ of those rural lands, whose distance gradually moved from the physical to the philosophical. The manipulation of these lands and their indigenous peoples was only “thinkable – if humans saw themselves as different – or rather, became alienated” from the living world. There are three ways that conservation fed into this. Firstly, the establishment of wilderness fortresses, which began in response to increasing industrialisation, displaced more rural and indigenous people who would often further bolster the industrial workforce. Secondly, protected areas’ encouragement of the nature-culture dichotomy increased the alienation that made the exploitation of the natural world conscionable to people – while remarkably offering at the same time an experience of ‘getting back to nature’ that obscures that alienation and helps support the status quo. Finally, later on, the conserved nature was designated productive in capitalist terms, for example via ecotourism and payments for ecosystem services, thus further fuelling economic growth that will inevitably require more resources – most of which will have to be unsustainably extracted from the natural world. 

Büscher and Fletcher therefore propose a “convivial conservation” that is “necessarily post-capitalist and non-dualist”. They stress that it is one suggestion in a promising “sea of alternatives” (e.g. degrowth, greater redistribution and doughnut economics) and that many of its ideas “are not wholly new”. At its core convivial conservation is about valuing the natural world outside of capitalist logics, organising this through “common democratic engagement”. Indigenous and community conservation areas (ICCAs) already put many of these principles into practice. The authors quote Grazzia Borrini-Feyerabend and Jessica Campese: “ICCAs embody many material and non-material values. Specific relationships and values should be identified by their custodian communities, not by outsiders”. Büscher and Fletcher suggest short term actions such as historic reparations to those communities displaced by fortress conservation practices where they “receive their land back or at the very least get co-ownership of or co-management responsibilities over it” and other redistributive economic policies directed towards people surrounding conservation areas.

This short book engages with ideas that root deeply (the authors remind us of the etymology of ‘radical’, from the Latin radix for root) into our approach to the biosphere through a well-structured and nuanced discussion. The footnotes are invaluable for gaining more depth in areas that can feel frustratingly succinct, especially the historical discussions. To what extent, or whether at all, you agree with Büscher and Fletcher, what is unavoidable, and for me as a biologist wonderfully refreshing, is the need for “deeper, more numerous and more radical connections between the sciences, particularly those natural and social sciences dedicated to the big environmental questions of our time.” Conservation is far more expansive than numbers of species or habitats. As such, it requires deep interdisciplinarity for radically re-imagining the state of the world, and extensive inclusivity for alliance and for debate in order to get there.

This short book engages with ideas that root deeply (the authors remind us of the etymology of ‘radical’, from the Latin radix for root) into our approach to the biosphere through a well-structured and nuanced discussion. The footnotes are invaluable for gaining more depth in areas that can feel frustratingly succinct, especially the historical discussions. To what extent, or whether at all, you agree with Büscher and Fletcher, what is unavoidable, and for me as a biologist wonderfully refreshing, is the need for “deeper, more numerous and more radical connections between the sciences, particularly those natural and social sciences dedicated to the big environmental questions of our time.” Conservation is far more expansive than numbers of species or habitats. As such, it requires deep interdisciplinarity for radically re-imagining the state of the world, and extensive inclusivity for alliance and for debate in order to get there.

About the Author:

committe profile pic jamie walker

Hello! I’m Jamie, a second-year biologist at Somerville. I am interested in all the ways that humans and the natural world interact. I love approaching nature through writing and reading poetry, and I have just written my first play, about rewilding! But nothing beats getting outside into a green space and experiencing it all directly… apart from doing it with other people! I am super looking forward to organising some opportunities where we can all do this together.

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