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10 reasons why humans may not naturally be good at conserving nature

By evidentiary in  
October 10, 2016
I am always interested in comparing the differences in peoples’ perspectives on nature and conservation. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to have had an involvement with nature conservation either through education and/or experience, a new perspective is awakened that is positive and powerful.

It is a perspective of what it means to protect something intangible, to invest in it and fight for it even when its full value is not known. This is undertaken with hope that this unknown value will be realised by future generations and with the acknowledgement that it will not necessarily benefit the present generation. It is very much an ethical perspective of doing what is best for humanity and the planet.  Why doesn’t my friend who is an accountant, my friend the builder, IT worker or my banker friends think like this ….I consider them all really smart individuals?  Do I need new friends or a new perspective! When I sat down to ponder this question I came up with ten potential areas of what I describe as societal and evolutionary tensions within a conservation ethic:

  1. Society is full of incentives for us to take the benefit now and pay later. Australians’ owe approximately $32 billion on credit cards alone. Conservation however, is largely about paying now for a benefit later.
  2. There are rational and irrational fears of nature. While the cycles, function and perturbations of natural systems such as fire, flood, disease and extreme temperatures provide some rational fear, humans have developed many irrational fears of nature. These include fear of the living things such as ants, bugs, spiders, snakes, predators, the non-living components such as dust, mud, heat and cold and fears resulting from our interaction with nature including dangers of falling, tripping, slipping, throwing objects and splinters! Another fear that has been instilled in us, particularly in urban environments is the association between crime and parks and areas of thick vegetation.
  3. We desire command and control – nature does not obey this. Increasingly we can satisfy our needs “on demand” – TV programs, online shopping, home climate control, restaurant choice or on-line social connections. To our frustration we cannot control the surf conditions, the timing of a plant flowering, a population explosion of weeds, the fall of autumn leaves or the noise of cicadas in summer.
  4. There is no instant reward or gratification as a result of conservation and interaction with nature. Unlike the “God complex” where for example a surgeon may regard themselves to be omniscient. Acts of good nature conservation management receive scant praise and certainly the ecosystems (patients) that you may have saved do not provide gratification.
  5. We are poor at providing for the future. The Australian Household Saving Rate is less than 8% in 2016. We are not good at saving now for future benefits. Nature conservation is about putting something away now for a future benefit that we may or may not experience ourselves.
  6. Our evolutionary programming has led us to avoid or reduce threats and risks to our immediate well being. Nature represents many unknowns and with that potential threats and risks. Avoiding or reducing exposure to these risks has contributed to our evolutionary success.
  7. Humans generally desire order and organisation in the things around them. Nature is messy, it does not have the same type of deliberate organisation as our house, office, streetscapes ….or garden. To enhance the visual amenity of my native garden it is “organised” in a way that tries to make it look natural! Many gardens have straight lines and rows of plants symmetrically balanced in size and shape….our desire to order nature.
  8.  We are poor at understanding the relationship between the actions we take to protect or improve ecosystems and the outcomes. With such high uncertainties around the achievement of desired outcomes, the investment proposition becomes highly risky.
  9. Like a Bower bird, we continue to extract nature’s goods for displays of masculinity and displays of wealth but on a much grander scale.  With considerable effort the the Bower bird’s hand (beak) crafted bower is adorned with blue forest berries and other items collected from the forest to attract a female. Today the human bower is built to display attractiveness, power and wealth yet these bowers are still made from goods taken from nature. These come with enormous extraction costs – extravagant houses, cars, boats, airplanes, clothes and jewellery.
  10. Apathy – in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize recipient Daniel Kahneman describes one of the reasons for our preference for fast impulsive thinking is “the law of least physical and mental exertion” which is an evolutionary trait. Nature conservation requires an enormous amount of thought, planning and understanding.   There are no SAP for getting the right answer, no rule book or instruction manual…. a lot of effort that may not result in anything noticeable.

Do you consider these points to be rational views or do they represent a skewed perspective? If there is validity in these points then how do we overcome these barriers to nature conservation? I would be keen to hear your thoughts.

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