I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Nature

We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Globally, we are losing species to extinction at a minimum of 1,000 times the natural rate. Half of Canada’s wildlife species have declined since 1970. It is by now beyond debate that humans are impacting the world’s biodiversity, including wildlife at all levels, at a magnitude and rate that has never been seen before in the history of this planet. Academics and social movements have presented compelling arguments to try to convince the public and our political leaders to care about nature. One of these arguments is that humans have a moral obligation to protect wildlife.  Recently, the moral argument for nature conservation has fallen to the wayside as somewhat ineffective and conservationists have looked elsewhere to convince the public. Should we let go of the moral argument once and for all or cling to it and embrace the idealism it expresses?

Fundamental Divides

The title of this post was inspired by a June 2017 article in the Huffington Post by Kayla Chadwick titled “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People” (roughly a 3-minute read). Chadwick tackles a question that we have probably all grappled with, regardless of our political stripe, religious affiliation, or moral orientation, which is how we talk to people about particular issues when it seems like we will never agree. This problem has ruined more than a few Thanksgiving suppers.

“I cannot have political debates with these people. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters”. – Kayla Chadwick, Huffington Post

Chadwick discusses the issue in the context of ideological divides around social and political issues such as taxes and universal health care. It occurs to me that we can tackle this theme from the perspective of care for the natural world with equal relevance.

Chadwick says that while many of us try to engage in debates and talk until we are blue in the face to convince people of our positions, the fact of the matter is that there are some people we just can not convince to care. In these situations, says Chadwick, the difference is not simply one of political opinion but rather is representative of a “divide between our worldviews that can never be bridged”.

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Hunters, trappers, environmentalists, conservationists, and others concerned with the health of the natural world have most certainly faced this challenge as we have worked to convince others that they should care about the world’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Moral Arguments in Nature Conservation

Arguments for biodiversity conservation have come from a range of perspectives since the North American conservation movement emerged in the 1800s. Wilderness advocates such as John Muir promoted the preservation of natural areas while others such as Gifford Pinochet argued for sustainable use as the basis for conservation. Aldo Leopold’s ideas of game management focused on the careful management of wildlife in large part for human use while Rachel Carson drew the world’s attention to the issue of ecological health and sustainability.

More recently, the concept of ecosystem services has emerged, demonstrating the human health and economic benefits of biodiversity and habitat conservation. For instance, strategies to protect wetlands emphasize that the water filtration, flood mitigation, and wastewater treatment services performed by wetlands had an estimated economic value of US$15 trillion in 1997.

John Muir

“From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals”. – John Muir

There is scientific research to suggest that we should perhaps abandon, or at the very least stop relying on, moral arguments for nature conservation. The main problem with moral arguments is that morality is not uniform across groups in society. A field of research known as “moral foundations theory” examines the values on which someone organizes his or her sense of morality. While the range of values is generally universal, the combination and emphasis placed on them vary between people and cultures.

Understanding someone’s moral foundations is important because they can influence the political positions that person supports. This research suggests to us that when dealing with highly charged political issues, we should frame our messaging to appeal to a particular group’s moral foundations. For instance, progressive or liberal-minded people are generally focused on issues of care and fairness. Conservative-minded people think about care and fairness too, but they also focus more heavily on values related to sanctity, loyalty, and authority. In short, we can not assume that moral arguments are a one-size-fits-all approach.

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What’s more, even if we rely on hard evidence to support moral arguments, facts appear to have little effect in convincing people. In an age of “fake news” and climate change deniers, people seem content to believe what is convenient for them regardless of either reality or its effects on others.

In particular, research has found that when people are presented with information that challenges their core beliefs, their conviction in those beliefs is strengthened. This phenomenon is known as the “backfire effect”, and “just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you”.


Source: www.xkcd.com/

The backfire effect is exacerbated when someone perceives that the person presenting a set of challenging facts holds an opposing political perspective. Significantly, people’s core beliefs remain unchanged even when we present people with factual evidence to show that their ideas are wrong. The effect is most pronounced in controversial issues that divide people along political or moral lines. Opposing information is actually perceived as an attack on our very identity. In short, giving people a deluge of facts may actually push them further from the truth.

Right Whales

I realize that when I interact with some people, there is simply what Kayla Chadwick refers to as a “fundamental divide” on what it means to be a good person. I’m not sure how to approach someone who sees no intrinsic value in nature, who needs to be convinced by a self-serving economic argument that they should care, or who has more fidelity to a political party than the health and future of the natural world. In dealing with these people, I understand the value in framing arguments in a way that appeals to their particular moral foundations and values. At the same time, I question what it is that prevents people from evaluating the morality of human actions based on their impact on the natural world in its own right.

Right now, there may be as few as 350 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the world. In 2017, for the first time, scientists found no right whale calves born in their Florida calving grounds. As a species, right whales date back to the early Miocene, around 23 million years ago. Here is a species that has swum in the ocean for millions of years and is now at serious risk of extinction due primarily to threats related to entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. Right whales can weigh up to 70 000 kg (77 tons), are about the length of a school bus, and live up to 75 years. In a physical and historical sense, they are large and dramatically visible. Yet, we are allowing our actions on this planet to be the most harmful thing to affect this species in 23 million years.

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If someone is unable to conceptualize and feel the devastating moral sin it would be to allow the right whale to go extinct, I’m just not sure we will ever understand each other. There are some things that we are doing to this world that by any measure can only be considered morally wrong and if someone doesn’t care about that, I don’t know how to explain to them that they should.

If we can put creatures as massive and ancient as right whales out of our collective sight and mind while they decline at an unprecedented rate, what does that say about the future of smaller and less charismatic species? What does that say about us, our priorities, and our moral field of vision?

Not Ready to Let Go

I acknowledge that my worldview might simply differ so drastically from some people’s that there will be conversations that will not gain any ground. I certainly do not suggest that we throw our hands in the air in self-righteous martyrdom and give up on conservation. We can’t afford to do that. We need to work with people who have priorities that to some of us might seem misguided and perverse. And we need to adjust our approach so that we work with, and not against, their priorities.

I’m not ready to abandon the moral argument for the conservation of nature simply because some people won’t understand it. Sure, there will be some people from whom we just need to walk away, but there will be other people and other strategies and we shouldn’t stop looking for those. Instead, I think we should cling tightly to that moral conviction and use it to motivate us to be creative and persevere in conservation work.

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