I’ve been mulling the problem of conservation lately, at least more than usual as it is a issue I routinely consider. It really is a pertinent topic in today’s world, where the marvellous life forms we care so much about are being overhunted, overfished, overcollected, threatened by habitat destruction and the rampant chemical usage in everything from farming to manufacturing, not to mention things like pesticides…it reminds me of that Bible verses that say “For the creation waits with eager longing…for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.”
And we see this bondage to decay everywhere by it being subject to the will of humans, as I have already mentioned. It stirs within me the passions of the ultraconservationists, risking life and limb to preserve the beauty and wonder of the natural world. But even at the same time, reality tends to return with thoughts of the dirt-poor the world over who use and abuse the environment not because they want to, but because not doing so would result in ruin. I think of the subsistence farmers of Madagascar with their slash-and-burn farming that has destroyed so much forest, or I think of those in the Amazon cutting down balsa trees that will be made into wind-turbine propellers, surviving from paycheck to paycheck.
Now, that doesn’t mean destructive actions against the environment are completely justified. But so often those of us who call ourselves conservationists, who all too often come from the rich West, forget that behind so much exploitation of the natural world lies people who are hurting and suffering, struggling to make it through to the next paycheck or even meal so often; I think of the bushmeat trade in Africa. Now, on the other side of that coin are large corporations who seek profit above all, and who turn a blind eye to where their materials are sourced from (such as what is happening with the balsa trees in the Amazon). It angers me to think of how so often areas that have been overfished in the ocean were done so by large fishing companies who treat their sailors and fishermen like trash; even those that don’t still treat the ocean like trash. But anyways, my point is that there is a human element to conversation that so often goes ignored. You can’t just tell subsistence farmers to stop slashing and burning; if they do, they starve. You can’t just tell poor miners working in the insanely destructive strip mines found the world over to stop working for the good of biodiversity; again, if they do, they starve.
And herein lies conservation’s great paradox: to protect the environment from the depredation that us humans are so willing to inflict, yet also protect against the economic depredation that people the world over face. So often the emphasis goes to the former, while the latter goes ignored. There are bright spots, as ecotourism has shown, but this is not enough considering the absolutely incredible biodiversity of our world; Australia, Borneo, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (consider the unknown diversity of this war-stricken region!), Ecuador, we could keep going down the list of ABCs and virtually everywhere has amazing species, habitats, and natural wonders. There simply aren’t enough tourists to support all these areas that need protection.
All that’s to say, I don’t have a solution. I could throw one up, but each case of conservation is different and requires a unique approach. I would be the last to say that I am familiar with all these situations, where so many variables influence, of which probably the most important is the local community. But I honestly think we need to balance our approach to conservation; our common firebrand approach, at least here in the West, to the problem of conservation currently does not consider the down-to-earth realities of what it means to be impoverished or taken advantage of, as so often those who damage the environment are. Am I generalizing here, and ignoring the great damage done to the environment by large companies with well-paid workers, or that done by rich nations pursuing raw materials for their technological advances? Of course. And that’s a topic for another post.
But I keep coming back to this, this great paradox. We cannot just ameliorate human suffering without doing the same for the natural world; that is unsustainable. And we cannot just guard the natural world without seeking to help the people who survive by its providence; that is callous.
We will never protect the environment adequately by not protecting the people who live the closest to it.