What becomes of conservation—a field that has long defined itself as protecting nature from humanity—in a time when human impacts reach every corner of the planet?
Many conservationists, it seems, would argue that the defense of natural spaces has never been more urgent than it is now. As Michael Soulé puts it, “The worth of nature is beyond question and our obligation to minimize its gratuitous degradation is no less.” Others, however, are disillusioned with the notion of pristine nature and have instead embraced the idea that we live in a “postnatural” world. “Conservationists,” they argue, “will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness […] and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision. […] [We] need to acknowledge that a conservation that is only about fences, limits, and far away places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition.”
No single factor can account for the emergence of postnatural conservation—resilience theory, postequilibrium ecology, ecosystems services, climate change, and the Anthropocene proposal itself all come readily to mind. But, whatever its causes, the postnatural turn suggests the prospect of new common ground with environmental social scientists, philosophers, and historians for whom nature has always been a problematic category. This is, after all, similar to what we’ve been saying all along.
But is the “new” conservation really what we had in mind? In their new article, “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures,” geographers Collard, Dempsey, and Sundberg raise several important concerns about conservation’s postnatural turn and offer an alternative set of conservation principles. What I’d like to do here is very briefly highlight their concerns before commenting (again briefly) on their proposed alternatives.
Collard and her colleagues’ concerns about postnatural conservation revolve around its close connection to neoliberal managerialism. Postnatural approaches to conservation, they explain, usually propose on the use of economic incentives to promote environmentally sustainable practices. Under this model, human wellbeing is the tide that raises all ecological ships, and economic optimization the standard according to which competing tradeoffs are weighed. Meanwhile, postnatural conservation breaks with traditional conservation by orienting itself toward the future rather than the past. Its focus is not on restoring degraded landscapes to a past condition or addressing the historical roots of contemporary problems, but rather on looking hopefully toward a prosperous, globally integrated future.
This combination of anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, futurism, and globalism make postnatural conservation an excellent fit for neoliberal managerialism, not for critical environmental studies. As a result, “new” conservation may actually reinforce the “old” political-economic system at the root of our global ecological crisis. These concerns strongly resonate with those I have raised in prior posts.
What, then, is the alternative Collard and her colleagues envision? I will not attempt a full summary here—the article itself is a great read! Instead, I will offer a few comments on how their vision of conservation fits into the themes that emerged through our recent Habitation in the Anthropocene project.
History: As a corrective to the ahistorical futurism and market triumphalism of postnatural conservation, the authors center their approach on addressing the accumulated experiences of social and ecological suffering that characterize the Anthropocene. Instead of bracketing ecocide, they propose looking back to past nonhuman abundance as an aspirational benchmark for the future. Likewise, they cite work being done by a host of social and environmental justice movements and call for “political struggle grounded in decolonizing” (p. 326). Not unlike Asa’s post about the “multitemporal” nature of human-environment interactions, the “Manifesto” conditions future habitability on dealing with the complex inheritances of the past.
Future: Like postnatural conservation, Collard and her colleagues seek to foster a sense of hope that the future will be abundant (as per the definition in their abstract). Their hope, however, is not for a future dominated by economic rationality, but for a plurality of futures where less instrumental and anthropocentric standards for good living have a chance to define abundance in new ways. In particular, they highlight Leanne Simpson’s work on the Anishinaabeg concept of mino bimaadiziwin, which denotes “promoting life” or “continuous rebirth” and suggests an “alternative to worlds that are enacted through utilitarianism and extraction” (p. 328). Finally, they do not look to managerial, market-based solutions within the current global system, but instead insist that “creating conditions for abundance necessitates enacting alternatives to imperial capitalism” (p. 323).
Agency: Against the human exceptionalism of postnatural conservation, they make “multispecies entanglements” foundational to their approach. They tie the wellbeing of humans to that of nonhumans and, in so many words, propose a relational ethics for multispecies cohabitation. Although they join postnatural conservation in rejecting the concept of wilderness, they seek to preserve that of wildness so as to recognize “animal autonomy,” meaning “the fullest expression of animal life, including capacity for movement, for social and familial association, and for work and play” (p. 328). Finally, they advocate “acting pluriversally”—an ontological orientation that aims for radical openness to different ways of bringing the world into being. In this way, their vision leaves open possibilities for multiple, self-determined futures in a way that postnatural conservation does not.
Limits: The authors acknowledge the material limits to habitability—and in particular how these have been reached as a result of capitalist imperialism and experienced most acutely by politically marginalized humans and nonhumans. However, as my comments above should make clear, their vision focuses mostly on moral limits to habitability, particularly those involving social justice, animal autonomy, and self-determination.
I hope that “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures” will be read widely. I share with its authors the sense that the Anthropocene is at best “a spark that will light a fire in our imaginaries” (p. 326) and their hope that we can again achieve “a world literally filled to the brim with different creatures” (p. 321).