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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Portrait of Michelle Marvier

Portrait of Michelle Marvier

Michelle Marvier

21st Century Conservation

Michael Turgeon was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Information in this article is taken from an interview conducted with Michelle Marvier on April 20, 2017 at Santa Clara University.

In the modern age, the word “conservation” has taken on a different meaning than it had a century ago. In the early 1900s, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had very different perspectives on the methods and motivations of protecting our natural resources, and represented conflicting camps known as “preservation” and “conservation,” respectively— Muir advocated for a hands-off approach, emphasizing the inherent value of nature and the spiritual benefits gained from experiencing it in its pristine state, while Pinchot was a major proponent of damming the Hetch Hetchy valley to “conserve” drinking water for San Francisco and create bountiful recreation opportunities around this new artificial reservoir. However, as the decades passed and emerging philosophies from environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson took hold in the public consciousness, “preservation” became tangible legislation and many of our environmental policies now focus on maintaining biodiversity and protecting wild places for us to experience. And today, the word “conservation” falls under this umbrella; while Pinchot’s ideas of smart extraction and harnessing of natural resources is still very much alive, the word “conservation” has been adopted by environmentalists, and the field of “conservation science” seeks to determine the best methods of protecting the natural world. However, within the field of conservation, a debate of fundamental philosophies and methods rages on.

Over the last few decades, the approach science has taken to the relationship between humanity and nature has been one of separation. We have massively expanded both terrestrial and marine protected areas, and the Endangered Species Act lays forth real policy for the protection and restoration of species that have been severely impacted by human activity, often at the expense of human activity itself. Since nature has been so adversely affected by human development, many feel that the only way to truly restore it is to leave it alone, and the motivation for conservation lies solely in our moral obligation to respect our home. However, others in the conservation community find this approach a bit short-sighted. As humanity continues to expand and push up against its imposed boundaries with nature, perhaps both parties could benefit from some cooperation. According to conservation scientist Michelle Marvier, the future of the field lies in emphasizing the benefits humans can get from conservation, because nature will continue to suffer until more people identify with the conservation movement.

After having a conversation with Dr. Marvier, it is apparent not only why she both is a strong supporter of conservation, but also why she sees the need for actively involving humanity. Marvier grew up near San Bruno Mountain in South San Francisco, and as a child experienced nature through walking her dog up on the mountain. Her parents did not exactly love the outdoors, and San Francisco was not exactly the sort of immersive pristine wilderness John Muir would have dreamed of, but the trails on that mountain kindled in her an affinity for nature that never subsided. In contrast to the tracts of wilderness prized by conservationists – places that foster a broad diversity of endemic species – San Bruno Mountain, and many other more urban wildernesses, are overrun with hardy invasive plant species. Yet, these places are still green, provide habitat for many animals, hold back erosion, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, and afford the residents of San Francisco a spiritual escape from the city walls. It was her experiences in places like this that helped Marvier realize that nature takes many different forms and that the isolated image of nature painted by conservationists is neither a picture of how the world is, nor of how it should be.

After finding her way in the scientific world through ecological research on Indian Paintbrush and Chinook Salmon as well as a study published in Science on the environmental benefits of genetically modified Bt crops over their insecticide-dependent counterparts, Marvier published a paper in 2012 alongside her longtime research partner Peter Kareiva that stirred quite the controversy in the field of conservation. In this paper, she states that many of the original postulates of conservation are short-sighted and need to make more room for people in order to be successful. Among other propositions, she suggests conservationists acknowledge that protected areas can sometimes displace (usually disadvantaged) people and lead to economic hardship, that nature has many tangible benefits for society beyond its spiritual or cultural value, and that we should even consider working with corporations to further the cause. She asserts that, whether or not nature has inherent worth that morally compels us to protect it, it certainly has practical worth that can be emphasized in the media and in political arenas to recruit more people to the cause. And in an era where personal connection to nature has given way to urban jungles and suburban sprawl, getting the masses on the side of conservation is of utmost importance for the future of the field and ultimately for nature to persist.

In decades past, environmentalists endlessly debated on whether or not non-human species had “intrinsic value,” an ethereal, philosophical importance that imbued them with a moral shield from the “extrinsic” environmentalists, those who only saw value in nature in terms of how it could physically benefit humans. While this debate was never settled, and while environmental policy has swayed from side to side, perhaps Marvier’s work allows us to avoid the debate entirely. No matter whether we conserve nature for its own sake or for the sake of all the people that benefit from it, the end result is the same. Marvier’s work has painted her as a modern anthropocentrist by many in the conservation community, but in actuality she thinks nature is worth saving because she feels deeply connected to it; she wants to save our planet’s delicate ecosystems and the species they contain simply because they are important to her, and she wants others to be able to experience them as well. Whether or not motivation is “intrinsic” or “extrinsic,” is of no consequence to her as long as the goal of protecting nature is upheld. The only caveat is that, in order to uphold this goal, the needs and desires of people must also be considered.

Trying to reimagine many of the first principles of conservation is no easy task, and Marvier’s work has garnered significant backlash from within the conservation community. Environmentalism, especially in America, has often relied on loud voices, potent protest, and an uncompromising commitment to plants and animals that cannot speak for themselves. Marvier’s approach is certainly practical and is tailored to the modern world, but some environmentalists feel that such an approach just weakens the message. Marvier believes that economic forces, if managed correctly, could provide greater incentives for conservation, while opponents feel that environmentalism has been fighting against economics since the very beginning, and further opening that door could be disastrous. Marvier also criticizes some of the occasionally exaggerated (see Paul Ehrlich) “gloom and doom” messages that have come out of the environmental movement, but perhaps these messages only make it out of the lecture hall and into the newspaper because they make for eye-catching headlines. Maybe conservation has only made any progress at all because of those who, in the spirit of John Muir, commit strongly to the cause and preach a message that is bold if not a bit provocative. On the other hand, given the alarming current state of the natural world and how conservation has often fallen short of its goals, maybe Marvier is right in that our methods are outdated and we need a message that will resonate from the Amazon to our concrete jungles, an inclusive message that will be more sensitive to our broad range of values and needs. Either way, both sides can agree that we live at a critical juncture for the future of conservation, and varying motivations must certainly be considered. How we proceed, however, must soon be answered.

Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich