Biodiversity and Conservation

Thematic Essay

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Biodiversity Conservation as Environmentalism

Bill Adams, University of Cambridge, UK

How does biodiversity conservation fit into the wider environmental movement?[1] Conventional histories place it at the heart of a tradition of opposition to industrialized modernity and commerce and development.[2] But the relationship between conservation and development has always been complicated. So, for example, Ken MacDonald rejects that the idea that the conservation movement is part of an opposition to development: rather than driving environmental agendas, he sees conservation as part and parcel of larger political and economic processes in nationalism, colonialism and capitalism.[3]

Throughout its recent history, conservation has fought to protect special areas from development, but it has rarely challenged the process of development itself.[4] Influential conservation lobbyists ensured that hunting reserves and national parks became part of the daily business of government across the world, protected selected areas for nature, and allowed commerce to have everything else. Conservation’s demands have always been tightly focused. The conservationists of the late nineteenth century who founded organizations like the National Trust, the RSPB and the Open Spaces Society in the UK were wealthy, or at least part of the growing middle class. As they campaigned against issues like pollution, urban sprawl or over-hunting they also enjoyed the fruits of the industrial economy that created them.[5] The concern for wilderness that arose in the same period in North America also coincided with the closure of the frontier and a booming capitalist industrial economy.

Throughout the twentieth century, conservation has tended to stay at arm’s length from broader environmentalist concerns about human population, consumption, pollution and economic growth. In the 1970s, environmentalism was dominated by calls for limits to growth [6], reduced consumption, simple technologies,[7] and communitarian programmes for justice and equity.

This kind of ‘hairshirt humanitarian’ environmentalist agenda made a great splash, but almost immediately the idea of sustainable development began to open up a path to a different kind of environmentalism. The UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 opened up the long debate about sustainability. The idea was steadily developed through the 1980s and 2990s, in the Brundtland Report, Rio, Johannesburg and, most recently, the Rio+20 meeting in 2012.

The mainstream sustainable development community accepts that big transformations are needed in ‘business as usual’, but thinks they can best be achieved through novel technologies, new market-based business and governance models (including smart regulation and the green economy). The hope is that governments, employers, manufacturers and traders will deliver an end to the destruction of nature and to poverty, as well as a world system that operates within the bounds of ‘sustainability’. To get there, environmentalism needs to involve the development of the regulatory systems of nation states, open trade in a world economy adapted to make it ‘green’, and culture shifts that allow people to act as both citizens and consumers. I call those following this ‘official’ version of environmentalism ‘cornered cornucopians’: you can have everything, but you have to be smart.

You might expect conservationists to be suspicious of this agenda. After all, the Anthropocene era is one of accelerating biodiversity loss, precisely because of the scale of industrial production and human consumption.[8] The world economy is arguably already operating beyond ‘planetary boundaries’.[9] The cheap fossil carbon has not only subsidized economic growth and industrialization but drives climate change.

Yet conservationists have little to say about production and consumption, or about political economy.[10] Indeed, since the 1990s, conservation has embraced market-based approaches, part of a wider enthusiasm for neoliberalism across the international policy community.[11] Conservation today stands inside the system of industrialized production and mass consumption, not outside it. Most conservationists seem to hope that capitalism can be made to work for nature, not against it. It is no accident that the business model of most conservation organizations is based on business sponsorship, sales of luxury goods and services, and tourism by high-end nature-loving travellers.

At best, these conservationists are acting like ‘extinction endgamers’. They believe that everything will be all right if we just keep calm and protect nature, drawing on science and the market to effect the changes needed. They cling to the hope that with science like a flaming sword, they can protect biodiversity without having to make unpopular changes in political economy. Many, perhaps most, individual conservationists care deeply about sustainability. Yet there is a gulf between biodiversity conservation, with its increasingly sophisticated protection of species and spaces, and the need to make radical changes to production and consumption.

The real challenge for twenty-first century environmentalism is, in the title of Tim Jackson’s book, to work out how to achieve ‘prosperity without growth’.[12] This demands a transition out of the current blind pursuit of increased production and consumption, a political, economic and cultural strategy for contraction and convergence. Production needs to be transformed, energy generation decarbonized, energy consumption and economic growth delinked, production dematerialized (radically reducing material throughput of raw materials and the production of waste). And we need a parallel transformation of consumption, reducing human demands on the biosphere to levels that can be sustained, redirecting consumption to less destructive forms, and redistributing consumption to the less well-off. Such a strategy has been called ‘degrowth’.[13]

Biodiversity conservation agendas tend to focus narrowly on the need to protect more and more of the remaining areas of pristine nature. They do not address the challenges of growth, nor the political economy that drives it. These awkward environmental issues are left for others to tackle, while those most concerned to stop the loss of biodiversity tuck conservation in close to the neoliberal mainstream.

Is this a canny strategy? Possibly, in the short term. Business has capital to invest, and money makes money. Governments in thrall to opinion polls and short electoral terms are suckers for promises of win–win solutions. But in the end this strategy is self-defeating. Conservationists are running up a down escalator, trying to push against a system that carries them inexorably backwards.

At present, conservationists too often leave other strands of environmentalism to ask the hard questions about economy and society. Maybe it is time to wake up to the scope of the economic engine that drives the destruction of nature.


[1] See also ‘Tigers or transition’.

[2] Adams, W. M. (2009) Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World, Routledge, London.

[3] MacDonald, K. I. (2010) ‘The devil is in the (bio)diversity: private sector “engagement” and the restructuring of biodiversity conservation’, Antipode 42: 513–550 (quote page 516).

[4] Adams, W. M. (2004) Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation, Earthscan, London.

[5] Adams, W. M. (2003) Future Nature: A Vision for Conservation, Earthscan, London.

[6] Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. K., Randers, J. and Behrens, W. W. III (1972) The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York.

[7] Schumacher, E. F. (1973) Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Blond and Briggs, London

[8] Lenzen, M., Moran, D., Kanemoto, K., Foran, B., Lobefaro, L. and Gesche, A. (2012) ‘International trade drives biodiversity threats in developing nations’, Nature 486 (7401), 109–112.

[9] Rockstrom, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., Lenton, T. M., Scheffer, M. and Folke, C. (2009) ‘A safe operating space for humanity’, Nature 461 (7263): 472–475.

[10] Scales, I. R. (2014) ‘Paying for nature: what every conservationist should know about political economy’, Oryx.

[11] Scales, I. R. (2014) ‘Green consumption, ecolabelling and capitalism’s environmental limits’, Geography Compass 8(7): 477–489.

[12] Jackson, Tim (2011) Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, Earthscan, London ( See also

[13] Demaria, Federico, Schneider, Francois, Sekulova, Filka and Martinez-Alier, Joan (2013) ‘What is degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social movement’,

Environmental Values 22: 191–215.

Case Study: Studying Green

Studying Green: conservation and the plight of the orangutan in Indonesia

John Blewitt

Green is an unusual film. It is both a hard-hitting portrayal of the causes and consequences of deforestation in Indonesia, and a film that captures the tranquility and calm of wild nature. It contains no narrative or dialogue and yet helps us to understand complex commodity chains. It was made with a small camera by a single person on a tourist visa and has beaten much larger production teams, as well as healthily funding groups to the most prestigious prizes in environmental film making. And if that is not enough, Green was not made for sale or profit – instead you can watch and download it for free at

Sometimes the opening or closing credit sequence of a movie is the most imaginative, creative and effective part of a film. Although this is not the case with Green,the final credit sequence is both powerful and challenging. It tells the story of habitat destruction, rampant consumerism, corporate greed and human compassion. It reveals the awful life experiences of a single individual traumatized by the loss of her land, her friends, her family and her home. The director, Patrick Rouxel, presents his audience with a long list of those responsible for these crimes. Thus the film can be viewed as a dramatic indictment of corporate capitalism in general and a whole host of famous, and not-so-famous, private companies, governments and, by implication, NGOs.

What the film indicts, by extension and by association, are those organizations and individuals who promote the possibility and occlude the reality of ‘sustainable palm oil production’. Given the consequences of this poorly regulated industry and its, at least short term, profitability there is only delusion, deception and dissembling in believing otherwise. Those NGOs, such as WWF-Int, who make alliances with the corporates, are not so much changing the leopard’s spots but compromising their own integrity and reputation. This is the dominant message encoded in the relentless roll of the end credits and it is this message that forms the core of both Green’scritical public pedagogy and what should also be at the heart of all formal and informal education for sustainability, conservation and practical action.

The market economy, the relentless drive for profitability and economic growth, of capital accumulation and expansion, provide the largely invisible backdrop to what is business as usual and corporate friendly conservationism. The ruling value syntax may not be seen and may not be recognized but it can be felt. The emotional resonance of one animal’s life story, symbolic as it may be, is reinforced by the affective power of the roll call of those that must be held to account. And these are not just the companies who are providing their customers with what they want but their customers too who want the products peddled without bothering to care what the consequences are to other creatures, their homes, their land, their friends and their family.

Note: If you would like to view a short video of the 2010 Wildscreen Film Festival, which was the subject of an event ethnography that resulted in the Studying Green website, please click on


Studying Green, available at

Recommended Routledge books

Supplementary Reading




Free recommended journal articles: Biodiversity and Conservation

Jon Hellin, Alder Keleman & Mauricio Bellon, ‘Maize diversity and gender: research from Mexico’
Susie Brownliea, Nicholas Kingb & Jo Treweekc , ‘Biodiversity tradeoffs and offsets in impact assessment and decision making: can we stop the loss?’
Special Issue Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal Volume 31, Issue 1, 2013
Special Issue:   Special Focus on Understanding and Managing Trade-offs in Impact Assessment

Video links

  1. Why biodiversity matters, David Suzuki

    Duration: 4:27

    A 2011 video featuring popular environmental writer and broadcaster David Suzuki.

  2. Wild London, Inclusive London

    Duration: 14:48

    This video by London Wildlife Trust reports on activities that enabled 13,000 people to learn more about wild places within the city of London. Participants were taught how to increase habitats for wild nature across the city.

  3. NYC Needs a Wildlife Rehab Center

    Duration: 2:59

    A 2010 video pointing out that around 355 species of birds live in New York City and that the city is a major stopover point for migratory birds. However, unlike most US cities, it does not have a wildlife rehabilitation centre for injured wildlife.

  4. Writing Wild Places

    Duration: 4:48

    Robert Macfarlane and others reflect on writing about wild places in the UK, with footage of some of those places breaking up the focus on the talking heads.

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