What does the future of nature conservation look like?

02526331.jpg Sihil, an ocelot from the Cincinnati Zoo. (AP Photo/The Monitor, Gabe Hernandez)

First aired on Tooth and Claw (20/8/13)


When it comes to nature conservation, what role should humans play: should we take a hands-off approach or should we be actively manipulating systems to protect other species? That question is at the core of Jon Mooallem's new book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

Mooallem believes we have reached a point in the conservation movement where human influence cannot be ignored. Protecting land and animals by keeping humans away from is too simple a solution to an increasingly complex problem. "When you start to look at what is actually going on on the ground, that idea of simplicity, otherness and really wildness as we interpret it is just completely false at this point," Mooallem told Tooth and Claw host Peter Brown. "Human influence has really spread all over the place."

Traditionally, human influence was something we were ashamed of when it came to conservation: a species becoming endangered could be directly linked to overhunting, overfishing or the destruction of habitat for human development. While this is still true, issues like climate change are making the cause-effect relationship in conservation a lot harder to understand and even more difficult to manage. Instead of taking a hands-off approach, Mooallem would like humans to see ourselves as the "gardeners of nature" and take a proactive role in imagining, then creating, the kind of natural world we want to see for future generations.

"Nature and animals are really much more subjective than we tend to think they are. We each have our own idea about what these animals represent and how legitimate they are in different places." Mooallem points to the monk seal in Hawaii as an example of a problematic conservation effort. When monk seal populations became threatened, conservationists worked hard to protect and repopulate the species, with much success. But now, the seal is a nuisance to local fishermen, affecting their livelihoods. "Why are we trying to bring back monk seals if the people living there really don't want them there?" Mooallem asked. "That's a question that conservationists really aren't asking."

Mooallem says we need to stop thinking about protecting nature as preserving the status quo. "There's this cycle where one person's wasteland becomes the next person's wonderland and there's these generational changes that are stacking up over time never really come into focus." The ecosystem is a dynamic, ever-changing place and each generation perceives what is a "new normal" as time passes. Our current approach to conservation doesn't acknowledge the system's ability to change and evolve. That's why human vision, influence and imagination are so important for the future of nature.

"Our imagination is an ecological force at this point," he said. "It's time to step back and say 'we have all this power and it's not going away. Maybe we ought to own up to it and try to think about a world we want to create instead of us patching up the one we inherited and holding on to the last scraps of that.'"

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