The prospects for Earth’s biological diversity look increasingly bleak. The urgency of global efforts to preserve biodiversity long predates the COVID-19 crisis, but the pandemic has added new dimensions to the problem. Conservation funding from nature tourism has all but disappeared with international travel restrictions, wildlife poaching is on the rise, and various political regimes have used the crisis as an excuse to roll-back and circumvent environmental regulations. These developments are products of the dominant mode of natural resource “management” via technocratic control that is at the core of global socio-ecological crises.
Even worse, perhaps, a series of key international meetings planned throughout 2020 to establish a Global Biodiversity Framework to guide conservation efforts through the next decade have been cancelled or postponed. Yet, while the delay developing this framework leaves conservation’s future even more uncertain, it also presents a valuable opportunity. The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that any hope of preserving the planet’s rapidly dwindling natural systems and species depend on our capacity to use this extended period of reflection and discussion to push the Biodiversity Framework, as well as national- and local-level policies and practices, in a radical new direction.
A range of proposals have been advanced to pursue this transformation, a few of which have been championed as the basis for a post-2020 framework. The most prominent of these plans represent two diametrically opposed general approaches conservation: to either dramatically expand and connect the global system of strict protected areas to create nonhuman spaces for nonhuman species to thrive, which will require the displacement of existing human communities; or instead to integrate conservation more directly with development, by subjecting biodiversity to mainstream economic valuation and accounting. These proposals come from a global conservation community increasingly concerned about the disastrous inability of mainstream policies to halt the accelerating sixth extinction.
There are useful elements to both approaches, but we believe they are deeply problematic and ultimately self-defeating. Some of our concerns have been outlined elsewhere, but one essential problem is that both fail to acknowledge and confront the connection between capitalism and the profound sense of alienation from nonhuman nature on which it grounds human experience.
To directly address fundamental issues like this, we argue for an alternative approach to conservation policy moving forward, one that seeks to move beyond both protected areas and economic valuation. Our proposal is less concerned with the targets specified by the current post-2020 framework, and more focused on the means and processes by which these are achieved. It is inspired by countless examples of innovative conservation practice the world over, both already-existing or in development, as well as by the recommendations for designing the post-2020 framework developed by the CBD Alliance. Our proposal also aims to contribute to the construction of a global green new deal (GND).
A Green New Deal beyond Growth?
A key question concerns the extent to which a GND must depend on continued economic growth to address poverty alleviation alongside environmental preservation. Proponents like Robert Pollin insist that “it is important that economic growth is able to proceed under the Green New Deal”. Others question whether such sustained economic growth is compatible with the environmental sustainability essential to a GND. The reconciliation of growth and sustainability depends on the possibility that former can be divorced from environmental impact – so-called “absolute decoupling”, through which GDP can increase while overall impact diminishes (as opposed to a “relative” decoupling where impacts per unit of development fall, but still rise overall).
Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking. A growing body of evidence suggests that decoupling – particularly the absolute global decoupling necessary to a growth-based GND – is highly unlikely at significant scale. Especially in the realm of biodiversity conservation, research suggests that effective conservation is incompatible with continued global economic growth. Consequently, some advocates assert that an effective GND must instead pursue a “post-growth” or “post-development” approach that promotes well-being without the further expansion of material, energy and waste flows. This would of necessity involve diverse strategies, adapted to particular locales, including both new articulations of long-standing practices such as buen vivir, ubuntu and swaraj, and perspectives arising from industrial societies such as ecosocialism, ecofeminism, and degrowth. It would also involve a radical re-organisation of global North-South relations.
Our proposal for a global green new deal for conservation is grounded in the need for an overarching structural shift to a post-growth society oriented toward the pursuit of human and nonhuman well-being. Given capitalism’s systemic imperative to incessant growth, this shift requires the liberating prospect of transcending capitalism, as well as the statism and patriarchy with which it is associated. Here, we outline the principles of a post-growth approach to conservation as a contribution to ongoing discussions of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and its operationalization in diverse local contexts.
Principles of a Post-Growth Conservation
Conviviality: First and foremost, our proposal requires going beyond protected areas as the main form of conservation governance, to prioritize developing integrated spaces within which humans and other species can continue or learn to co-exist respectfully and equitability. This does not mean humans and wildlife must always occupy the same spaces. Rather, conviviality may require some species respectfully to avoid one another, depending on needs and temperament (which already happens in many places, and has indeed long been part of the human-nonhuman relations of many Indigenous and other traditional peoples). Conviviality also requires equity among the different people involved in conservation, and the inclusion of diverse landscapes and governance systems within the conservation matrix, including agroecological systems and other spaces in which humans pursue sustainable livelihoods.
Diversity: Just like the nonhuman biological diversity that conservation aims to preserve, people and communities exhibit an enormous diversity of cultures, polities, economies, worldviews, and in ways of being, knowing, doing, and visioning. The diversity of languages, for instance, is crucial to understanding and dealing with many issues facing humanity, given that each language encompasses vast libraries of knowledge. Similarly, there is a pluriverse of approaches to well-being among Indigenous peoples and local communities that pre-date the ideology of growth, and others that have arisen from within industrial societies to oppose it. These “many worlds within a world”, to quote the Zapatistas, must be taken into account in an approach to conservation emphasizing biocultural diversity.
Decommodification: Rather than subjecting biodiversity to accounting and trade in the form of “ecosystem services”, post-growth conservation involves decommodifying nature, so that it is the focus neither of conservation financing nor of conventional extractive interests, both of which are run counter to environmental preservation. In particular, as the CBD Alliance argues, conservation should not be made the focus of self-defeating and contradictory “offset” arrangements that link conservation to extraction by making the latter the basis for funding the former. Rather, conservation should be understood as a form of collective stewardship by and for all life on the planet.
Valuing the “Sacred” in Nature: In place of commodification we need alternative forms of value. The desire for conservation among Indigenous as well as many traditional agricultural communities around the world emanates from the ancient ties people maintain with their land, kept alive in rituals, origin myths and the treasure trove of stories passed down through the generations of people’s relationship with nonhuman natures. For these communities, nature fosters a relationship with the spiritual world; mountains, forests, water bodies and more are sacred sanctuaries where ancestral spirits and deities reside. Acknowledgment and appreciation of ancient traditions, including the adoption of a fundamentally ethical or spiritual mode of relating with the rest of nature, must inform post-growth conservation.
Decolonization: Conservation must actively undo its ties to colonialism, including the privileging of institutions and forms of knowledge grounded in western rationality and imperialism that marginalize other ways of knowing and relating to the nonhuman world. In practice, this requires a turn away from the conservation priorities and agendas of the dominant conservationists and NGOs of the global North, toward those of the people living directly with, and relying on, the natures in question. Decolonization also necessitates forms of reparation for those displaced by past conservation efforts, who continue to suffer as a consequence.
Social Justice: Social and environmental justice is essential to all conservation. The perspectives, needs and rights of different conservation actors are central, and both costs and benefits are equitably distributed. This must embrace a range of different approaches to justice, including the epistemic justice through which different worldviews and forms of knowledge are recognised and incorporated in policy formation. Conservation practice must also acknowledge that communities are themselves not homogenous entities, and thus contend with forms of regional or local hegemony, discrimination and oppression exercised through hierarchies of difference like race, caste, gender, citizenship and ethnicity.
Direct Democracy: A social justice focus means that all relevant actors must be able to participate in deliberation and decision-making, with those most closely associated with the ecosystems and biodiversity – the primary rightsholders – central to the process. Although a nod to “participation” is included in virtually all conservation planning these days, in reality many projects entail only token efforts, rather than the serious and systematic deliberation required.
Redistribution: Local peoples must be able to continue pursuing their livelihoods as they choose, rather than being forced into “alternative” modes that render them dependent on external markets. Where traditional livelihoods are no longer possible because of past destruction, mechanisms to redistribute existing wealth and resources are necessary to allow people to develop new livelihoods that depend neither on resource depletion (e.g. jobs in the extractive sector) nor on global markets (e.g. ecotourism employment), both of which the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed to be dangerously volatile and precarious.
Subsidiarity: This principle, common in direct democratic decision-making arrangements, holds that all decisions that can effectively be reached at a local level should be, with higher-level processes supporting this local autonomy, only intervening when action is needed that cannot be handled locally. In terms of conservation, this means that community-led conservation should be privileged, while also acknowledging the myriad constraints to which most communities are subject as a result of their broader political-economic contexts. Communities should also be supported in developing non-commodified forms of resource management, rather than the market integration a community conservation approach often tends to emphasize. Additionally, political decision-making must be respectful of ecological and cultural affinities, grounded, for example, in ecoregional or bioregional approaches. This would, of course, also mean de-centring the nation-state and its territorial boundaries, which are often products of colonial or imperial forces that have been imposed on complex and overlapping cultural and ecological relationships.
Global Connections: An important caveat to the subsidiarity principle is that while local communities should be supported in their conservation efforts, they should not be made solely responsible for conservation, as they frequently are. Too often, poor people living close to conservation areas are those expected to change their behaviour most to make conservation work. The greatest threats to conservation are usually not these people, but larger industrial extractive interests and the elites who direct and benefit from them: people who are often not considered in conservation efforts since they tend to live far from conservation spaces and appear too powerful and intractable to influence. Yet it is their production, consumption and general life patterns – their “imperial mode of living” – that affect global biodiversity most. Conservationists should avoid appeasing and overlooking the impacts of these forces, and instead must challenge both regimes that indulge in human rights violation and displacement in the name of conservation efforts, and rights of global or national elites to control or hinder those efforts.
Aligning Conservation and Resistance: Currently, only some of the multiple movements against extractivism, development projects and other pressures on biodiversity across the world are able to incorporate conservation into their agendas. More often, immediate political and economic constraints and threats prevent them from doing so. Aligning the ideals of conservation with these forms of resistance would help carry the energy of resistance into the productive work of post-growth conservation. Conservation could become an important aspiration for people who suffer the consequences of displacement, destitution and violence in fragile ecologies. In addition, aligning conservation with resistance would allow conservationists to better withstand the backlash from the counter-revolutionary forces of capitalism, statism and patriarchy that a post-growth conservation will inevitably provoke. For both kinds of movements combining initiatives for radical transformation in political, economic, social, cultural, and ethical spheres, engagement with ongoing global platforms such as the Global Tapestry of Alternatives would also be productive.
Redefining Power: Ultimately, post-growth conservation would operate in tandem with overarching efforts to construct new relations of power that confront and dismantle the capitalist imperative to continually transform a living planet into insentient wealth for the benefit of a few. These relations would challenge the continued hegemony of the neoliberal (post-) “Washington consensus” implemented by multilateral institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, among others. Post-growth conservation could thus work to reverse fiscal austerity and deregulation in spheres of ecological and environmental concern. New radically distributed and decentralized forms of power would move the world away from wanton consumption, toward dignified co-existence based on the justifiable needs of common people.
The extraordinary range of localized initiatives already implementing many of these principles is a source of inspiration for post-growth conservation. Operationalizing this wish list of core principles at scale, let alone in a coherent manner, will of course be neither simple nor easy. It will demand political struggle via complex and contentious debates and practices. Yet if transformational change is indeed most likely during “times of crisis, when enough stakeholders agree that the current system is dysfunctional”, then despite its devastating impacts the Covid-19 crisis may offer a crucial window for radical proposals like this to gain purchase to a degree not possible before. The modes of solidarity developed around the world in response to the crisis are proof that positive transformation is both necessary and possible.
Robert Fletcher is associate professor in the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University.
Kate Massarella is a postdoctoral researcher in the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University.
Ashish Kothari is a Founder-member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group and on the coordinating team of Vikalp Sangam and Global Tapestry of Alternatives.
Pallav Dasis a co-founder of Kalpavriksh and editor, Radical Ecological Democracy.
Anwesha Dutta is a postdoctoral researcher at the Christian Michelsen Institute.
Bram Büscher is Professor and Chair of the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University.