A network for all who care about the conservation of our world and who want to see it achieved with justice, compassion, dignity and honesty.

Why is ‘Just Conservation’ only about people?

'The Just Conservation' site exists to promote debate, raise awareness, promote connection and facilitate action. As such it means we publish a wide variety of views, and we do not necessarily agree with all of them. Recently two controversial academic authors, Helen Kopina and Elle Ouimet, have published a paper in which they asserted that critics of conservation are 'opposed to conservation' (Please note below for the link). We disagree with that characterisation. Conservation is a broad church and we would call ourselves conservationists because we are critical friends of many aspects of it. But that's just our view! We invited these authors to put their perspective forward in a form suitable for this site, and in particular to explain why it might be problematic to 'oppose' (be critical of) conservation. The result, if you accept their arguments, suggests an entirely new way in which 'just conservation' should be approached. As ever, comments are welcome.

‘Justice’ in environmental and conservation affairs usually refers to the distribution of environmental goods and benefits, and/or the distribution of burdens among and between people. Similarly intergenerational justice with respect to the environment is concerned with the fair distribution of environmental risks and benefits between present and future generations of human beings. Much less discussed is justice between humans and other species. This is sometimes called ‘ecological justice’ or ‘biospheric egalitarianism’. Stalwarts of this form of justice hold positions akin to the deep ecology stance (see this site for an example) as well as animal liberation and animal rights and welfare movements. The common thread is the recognition that "nature" or "all living things" have rights.

Biospheric egalitarianism and ecological justice are less concerned about which group of humans gets what share of natural resources or profits from conservation– now or in the future. Instead the focus is on other species’ needs, independent of their instrumental value for humans. Biospheric egalitarianism is based on the idea that humans are interconnected and interdependent with other elements of nature. While valuing human lives and welfare – as ALL beings are intrinsically important – positions of biospheric egalitarianism and ecological justice generally criticise the hierarchical relationship between humans and other species (and therefore much of the thinking that is, at least implicitly, promoted on this website).

The use of animals or plants that serve as food, and their habitats that serve as land for agriculture or urban development have increased with human population growth and industrial expansion. While the fate of an abused pet or zoo animal may capture public imagination, the use of millions of animals daily for food, entertainment, or medical experiments is seen as normal. While some conservation groups, animal rights and welfare organizations, as well as concerned individuals, express their concern for some animals or species, this altruism is marginal at best to the issue in question.

We could reflect that like biospheric egalitarianism, global social altruism (recognising that people need to be treated equally regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender etc) is also a relatively new but by no means complete project. Humanitarianism has greatly expanded people’s moral compass, but there is still room for more expansion to include not just concerns for human life and welfare but for all life on this planet that humans depend on. The generally accepted support of the noble virtues of protecting human life, welfare, and caring about social inequality seems to grow in reverse proportion to concerns with biospheric egalitarianism. In fact, concern with nonhuman life is considered to be radical. Some environmental protection and animal liberation organizations’ members (for example, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front) have been labelled terrorists. In this respect they are like the pioneers of social justice and equality between people, who used violent and non-violent protest to further their arguments. The crucial difference is that the pioneers of human liberation, who helped to bring down slavery, or grant equal rights to women and ethnic minorities, are now venerated, whereas protestors fighting for biospheric egalitarianism are not.

In a similar way, conservation is often criticised (also on this platform) for human rights abuses, and the eviction of native communities to create protected areas. There is no discussion about the animal right abuses, eviction - not to mention mass slaughter - of nonhuman individuals and in some cases entire species, confiscation of their habitats, depriving them of their right to exist as more and more land is annexed for human food production and development. No animal, plant, or even entire species of plants and animals is considered to be much more than human property. If we are including more and more people within our altruism (soon to be 8 billion!), on what grounds are we excluding non-humans?

When discussing JUST CONSERVTION, we may need to look beyond which human group gets disadvantaged or compensated for what. Presently, the question of equity which includes nonhumans and taking specific species’ needs into account is not even discussed. The advancement of distributive justice between species requires a much more radical conception of justice.  While equality refers to the identical apportionment where values or qualities are concerned, equity represents fairness. Equity would cater for resource distribution in accordance with species’ specific needs - for example, requiring a larger territory for tigers than housecats. This point has been argued by proponents of the ‘nature needs at least half’ approach.

Engaging in JUST CONSERVATION in this context is indeed a daunting task since at present, consideration of any animal’s or plant’s rights (let along natural resource access rights) is not part of any political agenda. Considering the fact that continuous advocacy and representation is needed to represent non-humans (who will never speak for themselves), we need to push ecological justice debate beyond academic compounds.

Can this happen? I believe it can, the way it did in the past centuries and decades in cases of human liberation and social justice movements. Some progress has already been made.

At the plenary session of the World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, in 2013, the motion 'Justice for people should come before justice for the environment' was debated.

Veronica Strang has pointed out that if ecological justice is to be recognized, both nature and the people will benefit as humans and environment are intimately interconnected:

‘In a world where the most powerful groups live in wholly unsustainable affluence, it is very difficult to suggest that anyone should be prevented from enjoying the immediate material benefits that these practices allow... However, there remains a thorny question as to whether anyone, advantaged or disadvantaged, has the right to prioritise their own interests to the extent that those of the non-human are deemed expendable. Discourses on justice for people often imply that the most disadvantaged groups should have special rights to redress long-term imbalances... However, if the result is only a short-term gain at the long-term expense of the non-human, this is in itself not a sustainable process for maintaining either social or environmental equity’. 

By: Dr. Helen Kopnina a researcher in the fields of environmental education and environmental social sciences. She is Assistent Professor of environmental anthropology at the Leiden Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology and coordinator and lecturer in the Sustainable Business programme at the The Hague University of Applied Science. Her books include - Sustainability: Key Issues (2015); Culture and Conservation: Beyond Athropocentrism (2015); and Handbook of Environmental Anthropology (2016). 

Institute Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Faculty Social and Behavioural Sciences, Leiden University, Wassenaarseweg 52, 2300 RB, Leiden, The Netherlands.;