The purpose of this blog is to explore and extend new ideas in conservation. Sometimes we will post short articles that reflect our current research, thinking and work, at other times we will comment on current issues and debates. We hope you find this blog interesting and we welcome comments and feedback

Richard J. Ladle

Monday, 14 December 2009

Conservation needs to emphasize nature's cultural services

Over these two weeks 100’s of conservation executives, lobbyists and campaigners will be in Copenhagen for the UNCFF COP 15. For sure they’ve gone there to pressure, inform and add to the collective zeitgeist that hopefully will lead governments to strike a deal on climate change. However these conferences are also spaces where new discourses on conservation and the environment take form and our conservation organizations need to be part of this to keep pace with the policy and funding game.

The concept of ecosystem services is moving to centre stage as conservation logics seek to align with those of climate change mitigation and adaption. The REDD mechanism is all about maintaining and restoring the contributions of forest to global carbon budgets and everything else is a ‘co-benefit’. All this means that ‘biodiversity’ is starting to look very 1990s. Conservation International, for example, has re-orientated its strategic plan to make ecosystem services a2 headline cause 1.

A focus on ecosystem services is nothing new. Indeed Richard Grove (1992) traces the origins of conservation to 18th century scientific societies in the colonies who established the link between man-made ecological change, agrarian failure and social unrest. In simpler days when scientists were part of colonial governing elites and when decisions were made by scores rather than thousands, their advice had influence. Watershed forests were established across the colonies and a set of utilitarian value-arguments for conservation and rational resource management took root within the inter-sate polity.

So is the renewed emphasis on ecosystem services actually keeping conservation true to its roots? We would argue yes and no. Managing nature for the benefit of humans has long dominated government support for conservation agendas. However, the origins of conservation as a popular concern and cultural force can be traced to suite of moral and aesthetic value arguments promoted by the founders of many of our household-name conservation NGOs. Notably among these are values such as i) humanity has a moral duty to not knowingly cause the extinction of other life forms; ii) monuments of nature that prompt aesthetic, spiritual and intellectual engagement of part of cultural heritages, and; iii) access to nature promotes mental and physical well-being.

A key question for us is where should 21st century conservation NGOs be focusing their talents, energies and resources? Should it primarily be on ecosystem services (including climate change), poverty alleviation and livelihoods or should they also be investing heavily in reinvigorating the cultural relevance and value of conservation?

We find Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs a useful concept for thinking about this question. It reminds us that governments derive their public legitimacy from assuring and providing the basic necessities of life. Many civil society organizations gain theirs through helping individuals and collectives to meet the ‘higher’ human’ needs. The conservation movement has been hugely effective in this endeavor. Among other things it has contributed to the creation of national identities, produced recreational practices that enrich lives and helped build respect and compassion for non-human life forms. However, as conservation NGOs engage with government and accept lucrative service-delivery contracts they are pressurized to move their activities down the hierarchy, especially in less developed countries. This may be a mistake. Getting the public on board for actions to tackle climate change may be more difficult than getting world-leaders to agree a policy framework. One lesson from biodiversity efforts of the 1990s is that technocratic words and anxiety-based messaging turns people off. Maybe conservation should re-visit its successes of the turn of the 19th century and the 1970s when it was a key voice in mass movements that were all about aspiration and about ways of life that delivered more than basic human needs. The ecosystem services agenda is subdivided into: (i) Provisioning services, (ii) Regulating services, (iii) Supporting services, (iv) Cultural services.  Perhaps conservation should reverse the order of importance in their strategy and communication.


  1. Ideally, the conservation movement (in all its various forms) would employ a combination of utilitarian and intrinsic arguments for nature conservation, and as you've identified, there are occasions when one approach may be emphasised over the other. The ecosystem services argument alone presents a number of dangers (as brilliantly summarised by Douglas McCauley in Nature a few years back), not least the risk of only conserving the components of nature that are deemed to provide some material good or service that cannot be readily synthesised or substituted.

    As you argue, the intrinsic and cultural benefits of nature are heavily underplayed. This comes at a time when there is increasing dislocation between modern society and the natural world - which of course can have a whole range impacts such as mental and physical health (especially children) and a general lack of environmental awareness and motivation amongst the general public (leading to political antipathy, weak policies, etc). Developing approaches and mechanisms that are able to personalise conservation issues for a mass audience and the wider public have probably never been more sorely needed (and could work in tandem with utilitarian arguments). Certainly someone like Richard Louv has had enormous success in this area by communicating the loss of nature through an emotionally charged medium (i.e. the effects of dislocation from nature on one's children). Also, social awareness raising has been successfully instigated through the creative arts. Perhaps an alliance of popular artists and the conservation movement/conservation scientists could be developed in order to deliver conservation messages to a new audience in more easily digestible formats and media?

    Regards, and interesting blog idea/topic, Simon Attwood

  2. You might be interested in reading this:


    This question is not only being debated in the Academic sphere, obviously...

  3. Interesting and well articulated article - was seemingly intended to inform debate at the 2008 meeting...anyone there who can comment on how it was received, endorsed, rebutted, etc? The communication of the need for conservation, the implications of not doing conservation and the means for getting conservation work done, are of course a matter for spheres far outside of academia, but I think that the conservation science arena needs to be more proactive in engaging with other players in how to communicate conservation (although the debate in this area certainly seem to be increasing in frequency and scope).

    Nice quote from artist Ruth Wallen:
    "Ecological art, or eco-art to use the abbreviated term, addresses both the heart and the mind. Ecological art work can help engender an intuitive appreciation of the environment, address core values, advocate political action, and broaden intellectual understanding".

    Cheers, Simon Attwood