The Ethics of Conservation
Why do we bother to conserve anything? For most of those actively involved in conservation, our motivation is clear. We conserve nature as an ethical choice. We value the wild species and natural habitats with which we share this planet, not solely for what they give us, but also as having their own right to exist and flourish. We reject any notion that suggests that species should pay their own way in order to have a right to be here on the Earth with us. This intrinsic value of nature has been formally recognized by governments, for example in the Preamble to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreed in 1973:
The Contracting States,
Recognizing that wild fauna and flora in their many beautiful and varied forms are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth which must be protected for this and the generations to come;
Conscious of the ever-growing value of wild fauna and flora from aesthetic, scientific, cultural, recreational and economic points of view;
Recognizing that peoples and States are and should be the best protectors of their own wild fauna and flora;
Recognizing, in addition, that international co-operation is essential for the protection of certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through international trade;
Convinced of the urgency of taking appropriate measures to this end; Have agreed as follows:
However, the Preamble to CITES also recognizes other values of nature beyond the intrinsic. It refers to the aesthetic, scientific, recreational and economic values of nature. All of these are values placed on nature by humans. In recent years, as conservationists have fought harder and harder to convince others of the need for nature conservation, we have appealed more and more to the utilitarian or instrumental values of nature, because we believe, rightly or wrongly, that arguments for conservation based on intrinsic values alone will not be sufficient to persuade, for example, governments or the private sector.
There is no question that nature does provide benefits to people, including economic benefits. For example, forest conserved on water catchments maintains a year-round flow of clean water in streams. Many species produce products that are commercially valuable, for example as medicine, food, or products such as wood. And there are whole industries based on nature, such as ecotourism, fisheries and forestry. Natural ecosystems also play critical roles in sequestering carbon (thus reducing climate change impacts), or preventing soil erosion, or providing coastline defence (for example coral reefs and mangroves), or providing for spiritual enrichment and recreational enjoyment (so-called cultural services). As noted earlier, conservation programmes can bring benefits for local communities, but sometimes the human beneficiaries of ecosystem services are far distant from the site of the conservation programme (as with climate regulation services for example). All these benefits that nature provides to humanity go by the technical term “ecosystem services”. More recently conservationists have started to use the term “natural capital” to refer to “capital” needed in terms of species and ecosystems in order to deliver the “ecosystem services” on which people depend.