Conservation Blind Spots

Beloved Beasts raises questions that get to the heart of the conservation movement’s shortcomings.

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
Michelle Nijhuis
W.W. Norton, 2021, 352 pages

The conservation movement has a familiar history: John Muir fights for Yosemite. Teddy Roosevelt protects millions of acres of untrammeled wilderness. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act kicks off a century of progressive environmental policy. Aldo Leopold sees a green fire extinguished. Rachel Carson takes on DDT.

Each of these moments anchors a narrative shift in environmental ethics, from seeing ourselves as conquerors of the natural world to “plain member and citizen” of it, as Leopold wrote in “The Land Ethic.” Even in 1871, Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man that over time, human sympathy had become “more tender and widely diffused” from our fellow man to “the lower animals.” This simplified history of conservation is a history of human sympathy, a centuries-long awakening to our responsibility to protect nonhuman life.

The history of wildlife conservation is a history of human sympathy — and our extension of ethics to species like the American bison. In Beloved Beasts, Nijhuis explores the successes of this movement, while also questioning its persistent faults. Photo by Mattia Panciroli.

At first glance, Michelle Nijhuis’s Beloved Beasts might seem a rehash of this tired history. The book is set up chronologically, focusing on the people that mark the conservation movement’s turning points: father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus, conservationist William Temple Hornaday, bird advocate Rosalie Edge, internationalist Julian Huxley, and others.

But Nijhuis, a science journalist with an inspiring career dissecting the complexities of the human-nature relationship, digs further. Beloved Beasts is a much-needed critical history of conservation, and it reminds us that our journey to the ideal of Leopold’s land ethic is anything but linear. In fits and starts, the conservation movement has fumbled with racism, with eugenics, with “blinkered views of their fellow humans,” writes Nijhuis. “The story of modern species conservation is full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons” — people who, each generation, “revived old arguments and repeated mistakes.”

Hornaday, for instance, made his mark as a taxidermist for the United States National Museum (known today as the Smithsonian). In the 1880s, he traveled to the Montana Territory to collect specimens of American bison, a species that had rapidly declined as White settlers moved west. When Hornaday met the bison, the giant ungulate had a profound effect on him. He sought to protect the beast, and stymied the bison’s untimely extinction.

But, according to Nijhuis, there’s a central irony in Hornaday’s story that can’t be ignored. Hornaday’s conservation was largely motivated by racial anxieties — a misplaced distrust of bison-dependent subsistence hunters mixed with concerns that the extinction of the American bison would mark the end of a distinctly American frontier. Teddy Roosevelt shared his anxieties. “For Hornaday and his allies, the rescue of the bison had nothing to do with the people who had depended on the species,” writes Nijhuis, “and a great deal to do with their own illusions about themselves.”

It’s comfortable to excuse Hornaday’s racism, his “othering” of Indigenous people, and his self-serving symbolism as products of his time. A bit more discomforting: These instincts persist throughout conservation history.

They persist in the parks and game preserves that dispossess people from lands they’ve inhabited for generations. Julian Huxley, founder of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, saw African independence as a threat to the colonial project of charismatic megafauna conservation. These instincts can also persist when today’s conservationists deal in absolutes, when emphasis is given to dooming metaphors like the “population bomb” — rather than the complexities of human choice and consumption — and “the tragedy of the commons,” despite countless cases that prove it wrong.

A common critique of the conservation movement is that it’s anti-human, often using top-down methods that pit the needs of biodiversity above those of human beings. But Nijhuis explains that “the problem isn’t inattention to human needs, but inattention to human complexity.” In Beloved Beasts, she prompts questions that get to the heart of the movement’s blind spots: Whom does the conservation movement serve? And who carries its burdens?

With these questions, Nijhuis doesn’t intend to malign the movement as a whole. Rather, she aims to emphasize its successes and contextualize its shortcomings to make conservation better work for all life. Therein lies a challenge: to recognize that humanity is as complex as the ecosystems we aim to protect — and to see that within that complexity lies our role as “plain member and citizen” of a land-community. “And for that,” Nijhuis writes, “there are no panaceas.”

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