State of the Planet

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Why Conservation is Not Condescension: A Case Against Eco-imperialism

Wildlands have aesthetic and economic value Photos: A. McDermott
Keeping land out of development: investment or opportunity cost?

Western ecologists and conservationists have been portrayed at times as modern imperialists, forcefully imposing a radical ideology of environmentalism on the developing world. These so-called “eco-imperialists” are depicted as arrogant and uncaring elites, concerned with the protection of pristine nature, but indifferent to human welfare. Paul Driessen and other proponents of the eco-imperialist view argue that conservationists rob foreign nations of economic opportunity when land is kept out of development. They wrongly prioritize environmental integrity over economic progress, stripping the starving and desperate of a chance for better lives. Through this lens, environmentalism has been further interpreted as an imposition of foreign values, and as a violation of national sovereignty. Conservation is seen as a pursuit based on callous ideals, justified by contentious science.

Many of us have run up against this attitude. It’s 11pm at the family holiday party, and Uncle Larry cynically asks your opinion on global warming. “Are you one of those tree huggers?” he asks, and then, much to your dismay, he raises the excellent point that fossil fuels and the use of other non-renewable resources, now implicated in climate change, were responsible for rapid economic growth in the Western world in the last century. Environmental exploitation has raised the standard of living so much that you, ironically, now have the time to worry about the preservation of wilderness abroad. Isn’t it hypocritical and unjust, Uncle Larry asks, to deny the same opportunities enjoyed by the West to developing nations today?

Photos: A. McDermott

But in that question, more than a difference of values is a difference of perspective. All people are entitled to the pursuit of a high quality of life, but if we sacrifice the integrity of the environment for economic gain in the short-term, many people will suffer down the road. The future of wild places in entwined with human welfare. Wildlands offer humanity many goods and services, acting as carbon sinks, providing clean drinking water, and offering novel foods and pharmaceuticals for example. Each ecosystem is a complex web of interactions that can only be perturbed so far before fundamentally changing, often to our detriment. When resources are used blindly and irresponsibly for immediate gain, whole civilizations can founder. Wouldn’t total collapse be the real violation of human rights? In arguing for environmental protection and the use of renewable resources, environmentalists are fighting for quality of life in the long term.

For people starving today though, the long term is irrelevant. Basic human needs will always take precedence over environmental ideals. Therefore, it is critical to include local peoples in conservation action. Rather than setting aside resources for the enjoyment of the elite- feeding the eco-imperialist image of environmentalism- conservation efforts should include (and employ) citizens of developing countries. In this way, wildlands also take on local cultural significance, becoming a form of national patrimony. When the landscape becomes a source of national pride, its intrinsic value is acknowledged and it is most-effectively protected.

A diverse array of ecosystems demand protection today

Some see undeveloped land as an economic opportunity cost, assuming that progress inevitably involves human-modification of the landscape. However, when conservation is considered from an ecological perspective, the preservation of wildlands is highlighted as an urgent international priority. These undeveloped areas provide novel goods and services to people (such as new forms of food and medicine), which have an economic and social value that cannot be discounted. It is important that local people are included in conservation planning, and that the value of undeveloped places is effectively conveyed to a broad audience, both in the West and in developing nations. Here then, is the heart of effective conservation: to convey the value of healthy ecosystems to local people, so that Western conservationists and citizens of the developing world share the same environmental ideals.


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