The word “conservation” more often than not conjures images of charismatic species and biologists working in far flung places to save the wondrous habitats and ecosystems of Earth. This is typically perceived as a valiant battle against the advancing forces of agriculture and mining needed to sustain industrialised societies and economic growth. Mainstream conservation, as the Western world has come to know it, seeks to reverse the “inevitable collateral damage” wrought by capitalism by working within the system to generate funds for conservation activities. Ecotourism, payment for ecosystem services, philanthropic conservation funds, carbon taxes and even trophy hunting of critically endangered species are all conservation finance mechanisms. But is this capitalist conservation succeeding? And, to echo Audre Lorde (1984), can the master’s tools really dismantle the master’s house? Anthropogenic climate change, mass extinction and a pandemic all suggest not and emphasise the need to acknowledge capitalist conservation for the oxymoron it is.
It could be argued that positive gains are being made with the election of Joe Biden as the US president which has brought America back to the Paris Agreement and the World Economic Forum which calls for sustainability within business. However, there remains in our midst “a politics steeped in misogyny, violent anti-environmentalism, racism and market-fundamentalism” (Büscher and Fletcher, 2019). In October 2020, Boris Johnson’s conservative government published new teaching guidelines stating that any materials that present or imply the desire to “abolish or overthrow capitalism” should not be used. This view on capitalism is now considered as “an extreme political stance” and is something that the conservatives – as champions of individual progress through free market economics – do not see as something to be nurtured. Profitability remains the key objective. Given the seemingly ubiquitous power of capitalism, and the failure of capitalist conservation, what are the options for the future of conservation?
“New conservation” invites us to imagine an entirely Anthropogenic world – Homo sapiens to rule all humans and more-than-human beings. In this Brave New World we leave behind our fantasies of wilderness and virgin nature and rather embrace the new and exciting possibilities of our impact on Earth. This entails a radical acceptance of human-induced change and a deep belief in our ability to thrive despite such change, akin to a Dionysian surrendering of self and mad inspiration. On the other end of the spectrum, “neoprotectionism” understands Homo sapiens as prone to over-indulgence and calls for Apollonian restraint and a devotion of half the Earth to nature. This is viewed as a necessary deprivation to “save ourselves from ourselves” and is a staunch reinforcement of the need to separate humans and nonhumans.
A third conservation vision put forward is what Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher (2019, 2020) call “convivial conservation”. Through critique of the alternative frameworks on the table, Büscher and Fletcher imagine a conservation strategy that is both radical and nuanced. And in a time of political polarisation, nuance that offers a constructive middle ground, is radical. Theirs is a vision of conservation that smudges the nature-people dichotomies inherent in neoprotectionism and challenges the hegemonic, global capitalist order of new conservation. Büscher and Fletcher call out mainstream conservation for its “neoliberal consensus politics” and articulate the need to move toward a conservation that pursues multiple goals of human and nonhuman wellbeing. These themes are entwined with much of the scholarship in decolonial, post-humanist, feminist, and Indigenous frameworks. What these all share is the desire to move away from problematic Modernist dualisms of all kinds (e.g. nature/culture, objective/subjective, rational/emotional, mind/body) that have been operationalised to control and dominate primarily nature, Indigenous peoples, and womxn. Within these frameworks, a commitment to dissolving the separation of nature and society is a commitment to thinking and living with nonhumans and ecologies. In reflecting on conservation, Büscher and Fletcher take this notion further to advocate not just for the saving of nonhuman nature but for the saving and celebrating of both human and nonhuman nature equally – “from protection to connection”.
Convivial conservation articulates that these possibilities can be explored through a shift away from nature as capital and dominance of economic values in conservation to a multipolar value system (cultural, ecological, political, economic) that acknowledges the myriad ways in which nature supports humans and nonhumans and seeks “living with” nonhuman nature. Conservation thus stops being a means to an end and becomes an everyday way of life. By opening up the conversation beyond economic needs, interests, and desires, room is made for multiple needs, interests, and desires. In this way, convivial conservation is strongly linked with the “pluriverse epistemologies”. Stemming from the Zapatista movement and enlivened through decolonial theory, it paints a political vision of “a world in which many worlds fit” – in the convivial conservation context, this may be a world in which many natures fit.
Büscher and Fletcher do not shy from recognising the force of capitalism and that of the global elite and emphasise that any vision for the future needs a strategy for change. To enable structural change, in the short term convivial conservation must foster grassroots movements that harness the agency of individuals and communities at the local level and more organised large-scale efforts in resistance (for example see Progressive International’s campaign Make Amazon Pay); whilst simultaneously conceptualising and building ‘alternative economic spaces’ in the long term (for example those being developed by the Post Growth Institute, Wellbeing Economy Alliance and Research and Degrowth). To this end we understand convivial conservation as a call to solidarity in mutually supporting each other to create a post-capitalist world where social-ecological wellbeing is at the heart of the economy rather than at its periphery.
Responsibility and accountability are integral to convivial conservation but rights-based approaches that bestow rights with the assumption that all people are equal, free and able to assert their rights are brought into question. A categorisation of classes is given in an attempt to characterise the roles and responsibilities of the different classes (upper, land-owning capitalist, middle and lower, lower rural) towards each other and towards nature (noting that the two are inextricable). This categorisation seeks to illuminate that conservation interventions focus much less often on the powerful extra-local actors who are largely responsible for biodiversity loss and most often on the local actors living with nature simply because they have a direct link to species and ecosystems (see for example Laird and Wynberg (2021) which highlights the challenge of Access and Benefit Sharing mechanisms funding conservation and the enormous profitability of extractive industries that are largely responsible for biodiversity loss). This imbalance is reflected in the growing popularity of “resilience” in the context of social relationships with a changing, degrading, and unpredictable nature. This concept, increasingly mobilised by global, liberal development institutions uncritically delegates the task of response and adaptation to certain social groups and regions, whilst leaving the capitalist system and its benefactors unchallenged. Resilience, in this way, operates within the confines of capitalism, simultaneously shutting down avenues for progressive social change that would require interference with, and transformation of hegemonic systems (MacKinnon and Derickson, 2013). The result is inequitable burdening of the responsibility of conservation on Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), despite, not only their minimal contribution to biodiversity loss but their active participation in biodiversity preservation and improvement. And even in their roles as custodians of biodiversity, the knowledge held by IPLCs remains excluded from policy and legislation, curricula, and decision-making processes.
Convivial conservation would “target actors according to their differential responsibilities and accountabilities in relation to both the direct and indirect impacts their actions have on biodiversity, as well as the relative power these actors possess within broader structures of capitalist accumulation”. A shift towards responsibility and accountability by the global elite invites active participation in an increasingly global and ever local world. It requires much more than mainstream principles like Green Growth, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) investing, which mask ecocide and remain mired in inequitable power relations and fail to bring about structural change. Such failure was spectacularly highlighted in the destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge, a sacred Aboriginal site, by Rio Tinto last year. This wreckage was the result of weak legislation and a ‘gag clause’ that prevented local community leaders from objecting to the company’s mining expansion plans, despite Rio Tinto’s heritage review processes and inhouse community relations team. Applying a convivial conservation lens, responsibility and accountability is a commitment to radically overhaul industries to a post-growth model that supports a regenerative rather than extractive economy and rebalances power between corporate interests and local values by including Indigenous peoples and local communities in authoritative decision-making processes. Critical to this process is the need for ongoing resistance by citizens and civil society, and which, in the case of Rio Tinto resulted in executive dismissals, a Parliamentary Inquiry, legislative reform and the establishing of an Indigenous Advisory Group to ensure a stronger understanding of Indigenous cultures and issues across the country – including at the Board level. This is a case of ripples becoming waves.
Looking closer to home in southern Africa, convivial conservation would decentre a utilitarian and capitalist nature, prioritise different and multiple uses and forms of nature, and promote multidimensional values of nature; all of which point towards a more pluri-ontological understanding of life. Yet conservation remains intricately linked with its colonial past with a strong focus on exclusionary protected areas while President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Economic Recovery Plan seeks widescale industrialisation. How might steps then be taken towards convivial conservation?
In the realm of academia we highlight five actions. First, we need to introspect as researchers and research communities and critically reflect on whose worldview and values frame our research. We should then seek to share and implement this learning in appropriate ways. Second, inequitable power relations in community research should be dismantled by committing to non-extractive research practices that embrace alternative ways of knowing and doing. Third, we should seek out and participate in scholar activism that builds solidarity between academia, civil society and communities in order to challenge state-corporate arrangements, in alignment with a politics of conviviality. Fourth, we must engage with the role of academic institutions and conservation organisations in inadvertently serving capitalist interests (for example Bezos Earth Fund funding WWF research in nature-based solutions to climate change) and perpetuating exclusionary practices and inequitable power relations (for example the promotion of non-African conservation “heroes” in NGOs that offer limited leadership opportunities to people from within the countries). And last, we need to cultivate a culture of conviviality – respectfully living with – through practicing simple conservation in everyday nature.
Büscher, B. and Fletcher, R. 2020. The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene. London: Verso.
Büscher, B. and Fletcher, R. 2019. Towards convivial conservation. Conservation and Society 17: 283-96. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2019/17/3/283/261499
Laird, S.A. and Wynberg, R. 2021. Connecting the Dots: Biodiversity Conservation, Sustainable Use and Access and Benefit Sharing. BioInnovation Africa (implemented by GIZ and funded by BMZ), Voices for BioJustice, People and Plants International, and University of Cape Town. 96 pages.
Lorde, A. 1984. The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114.
MacKinnon, D. and Derickson, K.D. 2013. From resilience to resourcefulness: A critique of resilience policy and activism. Progress in Human Geography 37(2): 253-270.
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