What is nature for?

What is nature for? Why do we try to conserve it?

Some arguments for conservation are based on nature-centric perspectives: that all life, all species, have a right to exist, and that the natural world has rights separate from the rights of humans.

But most arguments are firmly based on humans and their needs. The ecosystem services approach, the most recent manifestation of these human-centric arguments, holds that nature is needed for human survival – nature provides the food we eat, the materials we use to clothe and house ourselves, natural medicines we heal ourselves with, and much else besides. All these services tend to be understood and described in economic terms.

Economics of the market place underpins most conservation policy and practice today.

The belief that people, especially poor people in developing countries, must benefit from conservation to support it, has led conservation efforts to be increasingly expected to deliver economic benefits. But despite decades of effort, we often struggle to clearly show that it’s in a community’s “best interests” to support conservation. What’s more, I see it as a double-edged sword – if conservation fails to deliver the promised benefits, why pursue it? Especially if destroying habitats and species will.

Also, it suggests that poor people are interested only in material goods, which is demeaning.

Looking beyond economics

Economics so dominates conservation thinking – as it seems to dominate all aspects of 21st century life – that it is easy to forget there are other ways of thinking.

But the development of the national park ideal in the 19th century was not based on meeting material needs. Modern conservation began with ethics and aesthetics, with values, and with spiritual and religious beliefs. These are all fundamental aspects of humanity and must be central to conservation policy and practice if we are to succeed.

Answers to the question, “what is nature for?” must be personal to start with: Why do I value nature? Inevitably, answers will be influenced by what is important to individuals, and how they understand the world and their place in it.

Understanding the true value of nature.

People’s personal values are often overlooked in modern conservation practice.

Recognising our own connections to nature prompts us to consider those of the communities we engage with. Rather than telling them what we find exciting or important about nature, we need to ask what they do.

FFI’s Cultural Values and Conservation Programme is working to build partnerships based on values. In Uganda, for example, we are working to re-connect pastoralist Bahima to their cultural landscape, the land they call “The Beautiful Land”, by working with the managers of a national park to re-establish the tradition of grazing “Beautiful Cows”, giving the land meaning once again to the Bahima.

Angole cows are known as "Beautiful Cows" in Bahima culture.

Ankole cows are known as “Beautiful Cows” in Bahima culture.

This is not about economics. But it is about human well-being. Nature contributes to well-being in many ways, fulfilling our need for inspiration, beauty and awe, our need for a sense of place and connection, our need for identity, and our need for reverence and worship.

These needs have been with us since humans first looked around, and began reflecting on the world they inhabited and their place in it.

So, there are a number of questions that conservationists need to ask when designing conservation interventions:

  • What is important about the place to us as individuals?
  • What is important about the place to the local community?
  • How do its values contribute towards the well-being of the community?
  • How can the conservation intervention integrate local values to build partnerships?
  • How can we deal with conflicts between local values in nature and conservation objectives?

Conservation is clearly a complex issue that needs to be tackled from a number of angles. But until we ask what really matters to people, we can never really account for the true value of nature.