ECOS 38 (4)

This article argues that the magnanimity that is associated with conservation is a misrepresentation of reality which skews the goals and interferes with the progression of wildlife conservation.

Conservation by nature is a selfish endeavor. This outlook has had substantial criticisms and emotional distain from my course mates at university and other environmental conservationists. This is understandable as many aspiring zoologists, biologists, and conservationists are driven by the belief that they are demonstrating the ultimate form of altruism and fighting for an all-benevolent cause.  This is perpetuated by the public notion that wildlife and environmental conservationism is a crusade for our planet and the plethora of organisms that inhabit the planet.

Puny humanity

The contemporary view held by wildlife conservationists often stems from the defensive position that conservationists find themselves in:  underdogs, fighting against rich and powerful developers, and capitalists whom are over-exploiting natural resources, fighting for what is ‘right’.  However, the reality is that maintaining the natural world ‘as it is’ (conservation) or ‘as it was’ (restoration/re-wilding) is not necessarily the ‘right’ thing to do. In the grand scheme of the heat death of the universe all actions are inconsequential.1 This type of cosmic pessimism2 may be redundant but, if the argument is to not interfere with the process of the natural world, there is very little humanity can do to influence the natural world negatively or positively. At a shorter time scale our sun is set to engulf Earth from 1-7.5 billion years and all life forms will perish.3,4 This means that any results of evolution which may have taken place in the absence of anthropogenic damage, are highly likely to perish. Subsequently the ultimate effect of anthropogenic damage will be zero. At an even shorter timescale, unless humans were to exterminate all life forms on planet earth, which is highly improbable, evolution would eventually recover functions covered by today’s organisms. In other words, life goes on regardless of what species go extinct and evolution will continue to occur until earth becomes inhabitable, therefore there is no intrinsic meaning to conservation in terms of protecting the natural world.

Nature’s tangible worth to humans

There are two parts to the true motivation for conservationists to retain current wildlife populations. First is the self-interest of our species. Ecological features benefit us as a whole species and as a society. For example, the Great Barrier Reef is estimated to be worth 4.9 billion USD annually to Australia and its overall value to be 42 billion USD.5 At a biological level carbon sinks, such as vegetation, coral reefs, and large bodies of water reduces the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide creating air breathable for humans. Although humanity is not in imminent danger of making the atmosphere unbreathable in terms of oxygen, there is clear benefit in retaining such functions which is deteriorating due to anthropogenic damage.6,7 The endless list of ecological features which humans are reliant on, are both biologically and economically beneficial for mankind. This concept of numerically valuing ecological features and functions has been adopted via systems of carbon credits and the concept of ecosystem services. Although far from perfect, these notions are favorable for a capitalistic world and representative of what ecological features mean to humans in a more tangible and economic sense.

Owning up to joy and emotion

For many people, nature provides intangible joys. Such qualities are subjective and non-universal. The shear love of wildlife amongst people can be difficult to express and give a profile to. Ecological justifications to protect a Spikethumb frog (Plectrohyla exquisita) in a Honduran cloud forest 1000m above sea level, such as the trophic effect on its predators, is enough justification for environmentalists who love animals. However, to people for whom wildlife is not a primary interest, such investments are difficult to justify especially through some moral duty. The simple and honest justification in this example is a type of self-interest. It brings comfort to me that future generation may be able to see and experience the frog P. exquisita. These multiple levels of self-interest are the true justifications and motivations of environmental conservation and ones that should be more openly expressed and emphasised.

The Spikethumb Frog Plectrohyla exquisita .
Photo: Tomohito Noda

Revealing self-interests

The benefit of approaching conservation with a philosophy which is centered around self-interests allows the removal of the hypocrisy that exists within conservation, particularly in developed countries. There is increased interest in protecting wildlife and species diversity  in developing countries, by developed countries. The underlying hypocrisy of this is that countries that developed by sacrificing their wildlife and many of their natural resources are now lecturing countries that have retained their wildlife while not advancing in their ‘development’. When using morals as a justification, such hypocrisies become evident and can diminish respect towards conservation efforts. Difficulties in justifying conservation efforts are perpetuated by the existence of people who can benefit by damaging the environment. In such situations, such as wildlife-human conflict and the necessity of resource exploitation, espousing about morals can come across as narcissism of the wealthy, as environmental conservationism is often a situation that not all cannot afford. Conventional conservation philosophy also shifts the goal of conservation to awareness rather than tangible improvements. An inflated emphasis on awareness alone makes conservationists lose sight of what is truly important. The rising CO2 emissions per capita in most countries is a possible indication of awareness not directly relating to tangible results of emissions control.8

Tactics for our times

A selfish philosophy allows conservation to be done similarly to a marketing scheme. This is not to negate the benefit of awareness and education. Many of today’s generation of nature conservationists owe thanks to high profile broadcasters such as David Attenbrorough, Jeff Corwin, and Steve Irwin, among many others. Their work of communicating the beauty of nature certainly has a substantial influence on my outlook on the natural world. This work continues as the TV series Planet Earth II made headlines for being “more popular than X Factor”.9 However, I fear awareness has become the primary goal for many rather than a focus on the tangible change that needs to follow from awareness, to lessen lifestyle impacts on wildlife.  The proposed change in philosophy and actions allows a clear sightedness to the goal at hand.

Such philosophy of self-centeredness as a motive for nature and environmental conservation is an uninspiring and a harsh mentality. Perhaps in an ideal world conservation can be achieved through altruism and the sense of responsibility and indeed, these along with the required mental fortitude are qualities that I sense from many contemporary conservationists I meet. A selfish philosophy emphasises the point that environmental conservationism is just as much about humans as it is about wildlife. It is much more natural to be concerned of your own species, to be selfish and therefore I believe nature conservation would increase in inclusiveness, efficiency, and most of all effectiveness if such a philosophy is adopted. Hopefully this can all lead to a future conservation student also encountering Spikethumb frogs on a Honduran mountain top.


  1. Frautschi, Steven. (1982) Entropy in an Expanding Universe. Science 217(4560): 593–599.

  2. Thacker, Eugene (2012) Cosmic Pessimism. Continent 2(2): 66–75.
  3. Becker, Adam N.d. How Will the Universe End, and Could Anything Survive?, accessed June 30, 2017.
  4. Rasio, F. A., C. A. Tout, S. H. Lubow, and M. Livio
    1996 Tidal Decay of Close Planetary Orbits. The Astrophysical Journal 470: 1187.
  5. Great Barrier Reef Worth A$56bn, Report Finds - BBC News
    N.d., accessed June 30, 2017.
  6. Fung, Inez Y., Scott C. Doney, Keith Lindsay, and Jasmin John
    2005 Evolution of Carbon Sinks in a Changing Climate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102(32): 11201–11206.
  7. Leconte, Jérémy, Francois Forget, Benjamin Charnay, Robin Wordsworth, and Alizée Pottier. (2013) Increased Insolation Threshold for Runaway Greenhouse Processes on Earth-like Planets. Nature 504(7479): nature12827.
  8. CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons per Capita) | Data
    N.d., accessed June 30, 2017.
  9. Planet Earth II More Popular than X Factor with Young Viewers
    2016 BBC News, December 1., accessed June 26, 2017.


The author is a BSc Conservation Biology and Ecology student at University of Exeter.

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