The discourse and practice of human relations with nature in English conservation

Dempsey, Benedict (2022) The discourse and practice of human relations with nature in English conservation. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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It is a pivotal time for nature conservation. In the context of a global ‘biodiversity crisis’ and widespread debate about how to approach conservation in the 21st century, conservationists are being challenged to think about how they relate to ‘nature’, and the implications for the approaches they take. This discussion is founded on longstanding debates including whether ‘humans’ are part of ‘nature’ or separate from it, whether ‘nature’ is dynamic or in equilibrium, the extent to which conservationists should attempt to ‘manage’ or ‘control’ nature, and whether conservation should embrace ‘novel’ ecosystems or adhere to past archetypes. These issues are taking on a new relevance with the emergence of the idea of the ‘Anthropocene.’

However, high-level global debate on these issues risks obscuring the complexity and heterogeneity that exists both within and between different contexts. To understand how conservation is being conceived and practised, it is important to focus on properly exploring conservation in particular places. This thesis therefore presents three papers that analyse the discourse and practice of conservation in England.

The first paper, ‘Understanding Conflicting Views in Conservation: an analysis of England,’ has been published in the Journal of Land Use Policy. It presents discourse analysis of conservation in England based on a Q method study. It identifies four distinct subjective perspectives for how to approach conservation: 1. Management of Changing Nature, which emphasises formalised conservation management but accepts novelty and change; 2. Innovation in Nature, which favours a high degree of experimentalism, dynamism and uncertainty; 3. Protection of Threatened Nature, which prioritises preserving endangered ecosystems in their existing form; and 4. Re-establishment of Wild Nature, which favours separating humans from nature and ‘letting nature go’.

These findings clarify conservation discourse in England. In particular, they reveal resistance to natural capital approaches and apparent acceptance of rewilding. This analysis provides guidance for conservation leaders seeking to implement strategies like the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan, including suggestions for mitigating contentious features of natural capital approaches. By clarifying different perspectives, this paper aims to increase understanding and common ground among English conservationists, as they pursue their shared goal of addressing the biodiversity crisis.

The second paper, ‘Everything under control? Comparing Knepp Estate rewilding project with ‘traditional’ nature conservation,’ has been published in PLoS ONE. It uses ethnography to explore questions around the human management of nature in conservation, with particular focus on the concept of ‘control’. The paper identifies multiple dimensions of control (‘stabilisation’, ‘location’, ‘prediction’ and ‘outputs’), illustrating that control is not a simple, linear concept. It compares two ethnographic case studies: the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Old Lodge nature reserve; and Knepp Estate, one of the most influential rewilding projects in the UK. It uses them to test assertions made about control in ‘traditional’ conservation and ‘rewilding’.

The paper outlines how Old Lodge does not exert precise control in all respects, but involves elements of uncertainty and negotiation. It describes how Knepp’s model of rewilding reduces control in some dimensions but potentially increases it in others. It concludes that, while Knepp’s rewilding does represent a significant conceptual departure from ‘traditional’ conservation, it should not be characterised as an approach that reduces control in a simplistic way.

Based on this analysis the paper argues that rewilding is not necessarily underpinned by a reduction of control. It proposes instead a framework that analyses how different dimensions combine to form multiple ‘configurations of control.’ Using this framework, debate about the place of rewilding in conservation can become less polarised, and instead involve an active discussion of what configuration of control is desired. This approach has the potential to increase understanding and enable rewilding to take its place as part of plural conservation strategies, in the UK and globally.

The third paper builds on the first two, and has not yet been submitted to a journal. It combines the discourse analysis in paper one with the analysis of practice in paper two, and analyses both against different visions of conservation in the ‘Anthropocene.’ It focuses specifically on the role of human management and the orientation of conservation in time. Using both Q method and ethnographic analysis, this paper presents a picture of conservation that contains rich complexity, but also some broad themes, specifically: an acceptance of the ubiquity of some form of human influence over nature in England; and an acceptance that it is not possible to recreate ecosystems from the past, even if some perspectives would like to. In broad terms, both discourse and practice are consistent with future-facing, dynamic, human-oriented visions of conservation.

These findings contribute to discussion of conservation in relation to the idea of the ‘Anthropocene’. They suggest that, in the specific context of Sussex in England, the forms of conservation that are emerging have much in common with ‘new conservation’ approaches. They also potentially go further, with aspects consistent with more radical, future-facing visions of conservation like the ‘Cosmoscene’ and ‘convivial conservation’ that reframe the human-nature relationship. These visions include nuanced perspectives on how people connect with and care for nature.

The findings of these three papers have interesting implications. In particular, despite the characterisation of conservation debates as polarised, these papers reveal significant common ground that can help to shape approaches to conservation in England. Paper one illustrates that the four perspectives share significant characteristics, including a tolerance of diverse opinions. Paper two illustrates that even two conservation sites that ostensibly operate at opposite ends of a spectrum of control actually have much in common in practice. By recasting the concept of ‘control’ in conservation to be a multi-dimensional framework of ‘configurations of control’, paper two offers a way to reduce the binary polarisation of ‘high-control’ and ‘low-control’ visions of conservation. Paper three shows how the discourse and practice of conservation in England reveal visions of conservation that are consistent with nuanced, future-facing, human-oriented conservation that are being discussed in relation to the ‘Anthropocene’.

Taken together, these papers provide an in-depth insight into English conservation, at a time when conservation frameworks are being fundamentally reshaped. They draw on broad conservation debate and identify how these issues relate specifically to England. They also illustrate the importance of understanding localised, context-specific examples to inform discussions about how to approach modern conservation.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: University of Sussex Business School > SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit
Subjects: Q Science > QH Natural history > QH0301 Biology > QH0540 Ecology
Q Science > QH Natural history > QH0301 Biology > QH0540 Ecology > QH0541.15.A-Z Special aspects of the subject as a whole, A-Z
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 07 Feb 2022 13:48
Last Modified: 07 Feb 2022 13:48

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