The Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science

Annual scientific gatherings can be sleepy affairs, with their succession of jargon-laden PowerPoint presentations. But there was a nervous buzz at the start of the 2014 conference of the Western Society of Naturalists in mid-November, in Tacoma, Washington. The first morning would feature two titans of ecology squaring off over the future of conservation.

It wasn’t billed that way, and neither man wanted to cross swords in a public forum. But the expectant crowd knew that Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Michael Soulé, a founding father of conservation biology, had become unlikely adversaries in the past few years.

Their fight, which has divided the ecological community, centers on whether conservation should be for nature’s sake or equally for human benefit. Strong voices in both camps have joined the fray and triggered a war of words in journals and on op-ed pages. Some of it has turned ugly. A week before Soulé and Kareiva would face off in front of 600 young ecologists (many of them still in college) at the Tacoma conference, an article calling for unity was published in the journal Nature.

“Unfortunately, what began as a healthy debate, has, in our opinion, descended into vitriolic, personal battles in universities, academic conferences, research stations, conservation organizations, and even the media,” the piece lamented. “We believe that this situation is stifling productive discourse, inhibiting funding and halting progress.” The commentary was authored by Heather Tallis, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished marine ecologist and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the first term of the Obama presidency. More than 200 environmental scientists added their names as signatories.

Soulé and Kareiva did not fan the flames of this acrimonious debate during their appearances in Tacoma. They skirted the fault lines that were shaking the foundations of their field. But Kareiva at one point alluded to the controversy. “There’s a dialogue going on now,” he said, vaguely. It is about “how useful our science is and what we’ve been doing.”

Actually, that’s the dialogue Kareiva wants to have. He wants the discussion to be about how nature is getting reshuffled in our human-dominated era (what some refer to as the Anthropocene) with its global transformation of landscapes, oceans, and the climate, and how this requires new conservation tools and approaches. The old ways of protecting nature, which many of his colleagues still swear by, aim to keep nature separate from humans. This is misguided, Kareiva has argued, and also untenable on a planet of seven billion people. He challenged the audience of young ecologists to think outside the box of traditional conservation.

Soulé, however, wanted to keep them focused on a familiar model. “Ecologists like national parks because it’s the only place where large predators survive, and only where large predators survive is where biological diversity is rich,” he said.

If this is true (there is considerable disagreement on that assertion), then what of all the nature that exists outside the boundaries of a remote national park, protected wilderness area, or wildlife refuge? What of the nature in suburban backyards, urban green spaces, farms, and ranches? Is that less desirable and less meaningful to ecologists? Kareiva doesn’t think so, but Soulé’s preferred model—the dominant model in conservation—has boxed in ecologists. It has narrowed how they view nature and it has narrowed their options for protecting it.

These are issues that the future ecologists at the Tacoma conference were already wrestling with. They know their field is at a crossroads. Their leaders were wrangling over how best to preserve the last vestiges of the natural world on a domesticated planet. The future of conservation was up for grabs. Some of the key visionaries were on the stage, in the form of Kareiva and Soulé. But what future were they pointing to?

Conflicting science, conflicting values

Three decades ago, Michael Soulé was at the forefront of a battle to save nature from humanity. He and other ecologists had begun to articulate the concept of biodiversity as a focal point in conservation. In 1985, Soulé published a seminal essay, called “What is Conservation Biology?” The article helped define the then-emerging field of ecological research and application. It was an ethically imbued science with an underlying precept: plants, animals, and ecosystems had intrinsic value. This bio-centric ethic called for nature to be protected from human activities, which, as Soulé wrote, had unleashed a “frenzy of environmental destruction” that “threatened to eliminate millions of species in our lifetime.”

In the mid-1980s, as Soulé began laying the groundwork for a new professional organization—the Society for Conservation Biology—Peter Kareiva was immersed in fieldwork studying the dynamics of predator-prey insect populations. Kareiva had just joined the zoology department at the University of Washington and had started trekking out to Mount St. Helens, five years after its volcano erupted. He watched new ecological life slowly emerge on the denuded, lava-scorched landscape. This frontline view planted a nagging thought in Kareiva’s mind: perhaps nature, which green rhetoric often depicts as fragile, was more resilient than he and his colleagues realized.

Other environmental matters beckoned, however. Many of Kareiva’s fellow ecologists felt that nature was under siege—from unchecked mining, logging, fishing, and the whole sprawling footprint of human development—and they joined the fight to preserve biodiversity. Kareiva, too, was soon drawn to the battlefront. In the early 1990s, he testified as a lead witness for environmentalists who sued to curtail logging in large swaths of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. The media dubbed it the Spotted Owl War, because greens used the bird—and its nesting habitat—as a symbolic and legal lever. Kareiva’s testimony in the case helped protect the spotted owl from human encroachment—just as conservation biology’s ethic of intrinsic value had called for—but he was discomfited in the Seattle courtroom by all the loggers sitting quietly in the rear, many with their kids on their laps. The fathers held placards that read: “You care more about owls than my children.” That sight stayed with him.

Over the next two decades, Soulé and Kareiva—who has been TNC’s chief scientist since 2002—would be occupied by the same concern—the erosion of functional ecosystems that supported a diverse array of species.

Yet their journeys as defenders of nature have led them down different paths. At the outset of his talk during the Tacoma conference, Soulé, now in his mid-70s, seemed perplexed by this turn. “That’s the irony of this particular discussion,” he said. “We all want the same thing. We want a good life, we want to be happy, and we want to protect biodiversity.”

The problem, he went on to suggest, is that everyone wants a good life—meaning the rest of the world. “The more people there are, the wealthier they are, the more they consume and pollute, the less opportunity there is going to be for other life forms on the planet,” he said.

Soulé, it’s worth noting, got his Ph.D. at Stanford in the 1960s, where he studied population biology under Paul Ehrlich, an influential early voice in the contemporary environmental movement. Ehrlich’s best-selling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, prophesied global eco-doom if the world’s population was not significantly reduced. Concerns about overpopulation framed the green discourse for a generation. When Soulé laid out his manifesto for conservation biologists in the 1980s, he portrayed humanity as the wrecking ball laying waste to earth—and what was left of wild nature.

He still feels that way. “This is not a great time to be a conservationist,” he said glumly to the future ecologists assembled in Tacoma.

Kareiva is neither pessimistic nor sunny about the state of the world. To him, it just is what it is. He doesn’t downplay threats to biodiversity, but he is tired of the unceasing gloom-and-doom narrative that environmentalism has advanced for the past quarter century.

He also believes that the eco-apocalyptic mindset has infected the field of conservation biology with an unhealthy bias. Sometimes, he says, science paints a different picture than that which conservation biologists want the public to see. “I have been an editor of major journals for thirty years, handling papers on migratory bird declines, salmon, marine fisheries, extinction crises, and so on,” he told me. “An article that confirms doom is never critiqued. Any article that reports things are not so bad gets hammered. It is very discouraging to me.”

He recalls one particular episode regarding a paper published twenty years ago in the journal Ecology. Its finding contradicted widely held assumptions that neotropical warblers were declining. “It was reviewed unprofessionally and viciously because folks worried it would undermine efforts to reduce tropical deforestation. I have seen this over and over again.” The conservation community, he says, “is plagued with an astonishing confirmation bias that does not allow questioning of anything.”

The field’s premier journal, Conservation Biology, was rocked in 2012 by similar charges of politicized interference when its editor was fired after she had tried “removing advocacy statements from research papers,” as an article in Science reported.

It was around this time that Kareiva and some of his colleagues began calling for new approaches to conservation. In an essay published in BioScience, he and Michelle Marvier, an ecologist at Santa Clara University, wrote: “Forward-looking conservation protects natural habitats where people live and extract resources and works with corporations to find mixes of economic and conservation activities that blend development with a concern for nature.”

Leading figures in the ecological community were aghast. The essay explicitly challenged Soulé’s founding precepts for conservation biology, which established the field as a distinctly nature-centric enterprise. It was not intended to accommodate human needs or corporate interests. In a rebuttal published in Conservation Biology, Soulé characterized Kareiva and Marvier’s view as “a radical departure from conservation.” We humans, he wrote, “already control more than our fair share of earth’s resources . . . . [T]he new conservation, if implemented, would hasten ecological collapse globally, eradicating thousands of kinds of plants and animals.”

Kareiva is a lightning rod for criticism because of his high profile position at The Nature Conservancy, which is the largest and richest environmental organization in the world. He is also outspoken. In one public talk, he marveled at nature’s ability to rebound from industrial disasters, such as oil spills. He wasn’t condoning such actions; he just thinks that in some cases his peers conveniently overlook an ecosystem’s resilience because it contradicts the fragile nature narrative that has shaped environmental discourse and politics. Additionally, Kareiva has come to believe it is better to work with industry than against it—so as to influence its practices. (This is what TNC has done of late, in partnering with Dow Chemical and other companies on environmental restoration projects). “Conservation is not going to succeed until we make business our friend,” he has said.

The more Kareiva talks like this, the angrier he makes some of his esteemed peers. They have already been on the warpath. In 2013, Soulé, along with Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson and others, sent a letter to TNC President Mark Tercek, complaining about Kareiva. They slammed his views as “wrongheaded, counterproductive, and ethically dubious.”

The onslaught has not let up. Last year, an article in the journal Biological Conservation by Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm likened Kareiva to a prostitute doing the bidding of industry.

The recent commentary in Nature, with its 200-plus signatories from the ecological community, sought to cool passions and tamp down the debate’s derogatory tone. The authors pleaded for “a unified and diverse conservation ethic,” one that accepts all philosophies justifying nature protection, including those based on moral, aesthetic, and economic considerations. They asked for ecologists to look back to the historic roots of conservation for guidance.

The roots of biodiversity protection

In the early 1900s, when President Theodore Roosevelt was establishing national parks and wildlife refuges, ecology had not yet become a formalized science. People viewed the natural world from a largely aesthetic or utilitarian perspective.

John Muir, the Sierra Club founder who famously went camping with Roosevelt in California’s Yosemite National Park, worshipped nature. It was his church. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” he wrote in his journals. Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, venerated nature, too. But he also viewed it as a valuable “natural resource”—trees for timber, rivers for fishing, wildlife for hunting.

These two worldviews—valuing nature for itself and for human purposes—have long framed dual approaches to conservation.

By the 1930s, the chasm between the intrinsic and utilitarian perspectives was bridged by the forester Aldo Leopold. He advanced a more holistic perspective of the natural world, and believed that anyone who valued nature, irrespective of motive, should hold an ethic that “reflects an ecological conscience.” This was morally inscribed in his famous “land ethic,” which, for many, became a guiding maxim: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Two parallel developments at this time—one in the emerging science of ecology and the other in the U.S. wilderness preservation movement—combined with Leopold’s philosophy to shape attitudes toward nature and conservation for decades to come. Ecologists believed then that healthy ecosystems were closed, self-regulating, and in equilibrium. Disturbances, in the form of weather, fires, or migrating organisms, were not yet factored in, except when the disturbance was thought to be human-induced, in which case the prevailing belief was that the system was thrown off its normal balance.

This model of stable ecosystems that needed to be guarded against human disturbance (such logic, of course, meant that humans must exist outside nature), gave scientific impetus to the cause of wilderness preservation.

Most ecologists have since discarded the “balance of nature” paradigm. But as the environmental writer Emma Marris noted in her recent book Rambunctious Garden, “The notion of a stable, pristine wilderness as the ideal for every landscape is woven into the culture of ecology and conservation—especially in the United States.”

In a paper he is readying for publication, Kareiva writes that the balance-of-nature paradigm has been “at the core of most science-driven environmental policy for decades.” But the paradigm goes deeper than just the science. American attitudes towards nature have been strongly influenced by iconic authors, from Thoreau and Muir to Leopold and Edward Abby, the grizzled nature writer whose books celebrated the stark beauty and loneliness of Southwestern desert landscapes. Many people looking to commune with nature go in search of transcendent outdoor experiences; they venture into a human-free landscape—the wilderness—to experience what seems to be nature in its truest, purest state.

This mindset took on added ecological value when concerns about endangered species came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. Designated wilderness and national parks—be they forests, prairies, or wetlands—helped preserve habitat for imperiled species. The sanctuary model extended itself further when conservation biologists in the 1980s began identifying the significance of ecological processes and a wider community of plants and animals. This new strand of ecology-based conservation had one key tenet: genuine nature, the kind that contains biodiversity, is devoid of people.

These Western-style ideas of ecological conservation were exported by ecologists, environmentalists, and policymakers who pushed for the establishment of national parks and nature preserves in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was the wilderness model of nature protection gone global. Yet numerous studies have shown that even as more parcels of land have been set aside around the world (equaling 10 to 15 percent of the earth’s land mass) global biodiversity in the protected areas continues to decline. How could that be?

In his 2009 book, Conservation Refugees, the investigative journalist Mark Dowie, who had been covering environmental issues for decades, reported: “About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples.” Much as the loggers of the Pacific Northwest depended on the forests for their livelihoods, so had these local inhabitants depended on the now-protected lands to forage, hunt, or graze their livestock. The people were part of the ecosystem. Removing them had consequences.

In 2013, the International Journal of Biodiversity published a meta-review of national park case studies from Africa. It found that the creation of protected areas in African countries has resulted in the killing of wildlife “by local people as a way of protesting the approach.” There are other factors that have undermined the effectiveness of national parks in the developing world for protecting biodiversity, such as regional climate change and insufficient funding for oversight. But it is the “fortress conservation” aspect that has turned many people who had been living with nature into enemies of nature. As Dowie noted in his book, “some conservationists have learned from experience that national parks and protected areas surrounded by angry, hungry people…are generally doomed to fail.”

Embracing the Anthropocene

Last spring, Kareiva emailed me an intriguing paper that had just been published in Science. Researchers had sought to quantify the decline of species diversity in 100 localized, ecological communities across the world. Globally, there was no question, as the authors were careful to point out, that biodiversity was being lost. They had thus assumed that the global trend would be mirrored at the local level. “Contrary to our expectations, we did not detect systematic [diversity] loss,” the scientists wrote. What they found, instead, was much evidence of ecological change that altered the composition of species, but not its richness or diversity.

It’s the kind of result that many conservation biologists would probably find maddening. Kareiva, though, was fascinated by the implication. “Think about it,” he said. “If you live to be 50, one out of two species you saw in your back woodlot will have been swapped out for a different species—but the number of species would not have declined.”

This, he believes, is the flip side of the Anthropocene that ecologists need to consider. Most talk about the future morosely; they expect a huge chunk of the Earth’s biological heritage to disappear, which may well turn out to happen, and on the scale of our own lives may feel to us like a terrible loss. But that’s only part of the story, Kareiva says, the one that everybody dwells on. Rather, he wonders, what if we thought of the Anthropocene “as a creative event? What would emerge from it?” This is a striking departure from the conventional view of the Anthropocene as an eco-catastrophe, a kind of mass extinction event. Kareiva is not wishing for or welcoming such an outcome, but he does note: “Every other mass extinction led to a burst of profound evolution afterwards.”

This is a provocative, unsettling perspective. But Kareiva is not the only scientist thinking this way. In a 2013 commentary for Nature, Chris Thomas, a conservation biologist at Britain’s University of York, discussed the Anthropocene as a potential boon for biodiversity. “Populations and species have begun to evolve, diverge, hybridize, and even speciate in new man-made surroundings,” he wrote. “Evolutionary divergence will eventually generate large numbers of sister species on the continents and islands to which single species have been introduced.”

Other scientists and writers, including Emma Marris, have been talking enthusiastically about the creation of “novel” ecosystems in the Anthropocene. This view involves the acceptance of some invasive species as beneficial to biodiversity. It also involves an active human hand in molding ecological communities. At the Tacoma conference, Kareiva told the ecology students to think about their possible role in terms of “promoting the creativity of nature.” Where Soulé gushed about “love for nature” as his core value, Kareiva talked about a “sense of wonder” as his inspiration.

For sure, Kareiva acknowledged, the future was going to be tumultuous, especially with climate change bearing down on the world. Conservation in the Anthropocene would be challenging. “We may have to move species around, work with novel ecosystems and take some delight” in new hybrid species, he said to the young ecologists.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for Soulé and his generation of traditional conservationists. Near the end of his talk, he admitted how hard it was for people—even scientists—to accept new ways of thinking. “Science is always moving ahead, science progresses,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean scientists do. Scientists like me have an idea when they are about 20 to 25 years old, and that idea dominates the rest of their life and they never change their minds.” This was an indirect way of acknowledging that science and personal beliefs are intertwined. Forty years ago, the culture of conservation—and the science that supported it—was decidedly eco-centric, a worldview deeply influenced by green politics and philosophy. Now that there’s some kind of shift underway in the values and in the science, Soulé finds himself clinging to the world that shaped him.

But what he said next to the young ecologists in the audience indicated that he knew change was coming, and could accept what such evolution might bring: “Fortunately, natural selection abides in the wild—and in universities, so they are constantly bringing in younger, more mentally flexible scientists and that’s what I hope many of you become.”

Recommended Reading

Cite this Article

Kloor, Keith. “The Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 2 (Winter 2015).

Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Winter 2015