Category Archives: Conservation

The ethics of conservation

During the 12 months that I have diligently worked in the conservation sector, a recurring unease has reared its head, it has gone something like this:

1. Question:

‘Why are conservationists regularly going around and killing loads of “invasive” plants/animals?’


‘Why are bug people and plant people killing and collecting things in order to learn more about them so they can protect them?’

2. Reasoning:

They must have a good reason, what is the underlying justification for this? It seems crazy to kills things so as to protect them, but they must have a reason. I guess it is for the “greater good” of the ecosystem? But what does that really mean?

Telling tails

Grey squirrels are widely viewed as invasive and in need of culling to protect red squirrels. Does environmental ethics justify this?


Due to my confusion, I spent a couple of months doing some reading around environmental ethics and then led a workshop with some colleagues in order to discuss how we apply ethics and reasoning in our conservation work.

It became apparent to me immediately that people were extremely keen to talk about the ethics of conservation. People’s desire to talk at length reinforced my personal (but still unconfirmed) suspicion that discussing the underlying ethics of practical conservation is almost a taboo subject for professional conservationists. Rather, it appears that many conservationists work by an implicit code that goes something like: we do things that are good for the health of particular species or the entire ecosystem and are backed up by hard scientific data.

Here is what I discovered about the ethics that surround this view…

History of ethics:

My reading took me on a whistle stop tour of the three pillars of traditional western ethical thought: Consequentialism, Deontology and Virtue Ethics. Much of the reasoning we live by today can be traced to one of these schools of thought. They are, briefly:

  • Consequentialism: That actions are right or wrong depending on their consequences. Actions aim to maximise overall pleasure and minimise overall pain for everyone.
  • Deonotology: Actions are right or wrong because they stick to a set of laws/rules/codes. The rules are deduced by working out some universal truths. For example, killing innocent life is inherently wrong, therefore we live by a rule that ‘killing is wrong’.
  • Virtue ethics: It is not actions themselves that are right/wrong, but the process of intention/thinking we have when acting. We aim to develop a set of virtues within ourselves that guide our actions  such as honesty, kindness, justice. For example, an action is right if we act with, say, honesty, even if laws state otherwise or it produces negative consequences.

These schools of thought are seen to be quite human-centred (anthropocentric) and provide a framework for how to act with other humans, but often do not provide much guidance for how to act towards the natural world.

Birth of Environmental Ethics:

The image of earth from Apollo 8’s mission in 1968. The fragility of our planet was laid bare for all to see.

It was during the 1960s that ethics began to take account for the environment, as people started to become aware of the growing fragility and destruction of the natural world. An emblematic symbol of this was captured in Apollo 8’s 1968 image of the earth, hanging alone in the vastness of space. People started to see the natural world as a whole system that needed the attention of our ethical thought.

A number of different theorists proposed we attribute more moral worth to the natural world. However, which aspects of the natural world deserved our moral attention was (and still is) hotly disputed. Different theories attributed different value to humans, animals, plants, mountains, rivers, forests and the earth as a whole.

For example, the Deep Ecology movement suggested that everything has moral value just like humans. The life of a frog or a plant, for example, is just as valuable as that of a human.  Early Deep Ecologists contended that we should do everything we could to respect that worth, taking care to protect every living thing in all that we do. This theory was heavily critiqued, but such thinking brought with it important ideas and implications and sparked great debate, pushing our modes of ethical thinking to a broader realm than ever before.

Other theories that developed since the 60s included New Animism, Environmental Virtue Ethics, Social Ecology, Panpsychic Animism, Bioregionalism, and many many more…

The individual vs. the whole:

A concept that has arisen in ecology and environmental ethics has been the concept of the ‘ecosystem’. An ecosystem is a community of organisms that interact and represent the movement of nutrients and energy. A key feature of an ecosystem (or any natural system that is comprised of many individuals) is that it has characteristics that are different to the characteristics of its individuals. Read that again if it does not make sense because it is crucial to understanding conservation ethics. For example, a school of fish has properties and characteristics that are different to the properties that an individual fish in the school has.

This point is defined as a feature of holism. The ethical implication of holism is that whole systems have unique characteristics and, therefore, some kind of moral worth of their own, independent of the individuals that make them up. So, for example, perhaps we think the individual fish in that school of fish has its own moral worth and value, and perhaps that means we think it has rights to life, a right to happiness, or not suffering or whatever. But those who value the moral worth of systems might also contend that the school of fish also has a certain moral worth, and therefore has a right to exist, or be healthy, or not go extinct or whatever.

The central question that arises out of this, that is the crux of environmental ethics is: How much value do we put on the whole system against the value of the individual?

If we always assign more value to the whole ecosystem over the individual, we might be justified in culling invasive species to protect the health of the ecosystem. But taken to its extreme, this thinking can create a kind of ‘ecofacism’ in which all individual rights (including humans’) are sacrificed for the good of the whole.

If we value the individual more than anything, we might justify things like fundamental rights for every living thing (right to life, to not suffer etc) over the interests of the ecosystem. This is appealing in some ways, but denies the intrinsic value that an ecosystem or group of creatures have as a whole; that they are ‘more than the sum of their parts’.

How do we approach this conundrum? Can we balance the two, or find another way of thinking about it? Perhaps in a non-dualistic way? Or can we think about them both at the same time? Or not think in a way that necessitates a division? These are difficult questions.


This brings us full circle to my initial questions. Why do conservationists often seem to do things that don’t appear always to value the lives of individuals in the natural world? I think, often, it is because conservationist thinking is based at the system level. It is based on trying to act in a way that promotes the health of the ecosystem, or a whole species that is threatened, sometimes at the sacrifice of individuals.

However, I still have an underlying issue with all of this, and that is the more subtle issue of what we ‘know’ about ecosystems. Many conservationist actions are based on scientific knowledge of the natural world that is, at most, partial, and at worst, terribly poorly informed. We like to think that scientific knowledge is truth. But anyone with even a passing understanding of the fallacies often made in the name of science will know just how often scientists are wrong. Scientific experts argue all the time about what is good for the health of the ecosystem, and depending on the types of creatures they are trying to save, different conservationists will tell you different things about protecting the environment. Science has laudable aims, of course, but it is patently clear that our understanding of how ecosystems and species work in the natural world is minimal, at best.

Furthermore, the nature of the information we collect is hugely distorted. We have most information on species that have been traditionally popular and interesting. At the moment, for example, we are learning loads about bees because they are considered extremely important and under threat. But that is because bees are of great value to us, and they are readily seen in the environment, appearing in good weather (when we are also outdoors) and on flowers (that we often look at). We know very little about parasitic wasps, but they are everywhere in our environment and may play a crucial role in the ecosystem. So, I would contend that when we are acting for the health of the ecosystem, we can often be acting in a very anthropocentric and/or uninformed way. I am not contending that this is necessarily always wrong. But I am contending that claiming we are acting in the ‘right’ way, or the best way, is a dangerous and arrogant contention.

Where does this leave us? I am not entirely sure, but I think a radical reappraisal of the foundation of what we believe truth to be is crucial. It does not need to be dramatic or difficult. It simply needs to be an assertion that we may not know best. That we may be wrong at times. That we are willing to hear other opinions, other views, and other ways of knowing that are not necessarily scientific.

A greater level of humility is needed I think, to understand that many of our actions may not be that well informed.