A panorama looking spanning from Half Moon Bay on the left to South San Francisco on the right.

New Conservation: Friend or Foe to the Traditional Paradigm?

by Michelle Marvier

Conservation has been roiled for the past few years by a vigorous and sometimes vitriolic debate about the very direction of the enterprise — one that shows no signs of resolution and indeed appears to be hardening into two seemingly incompatible ideologies.

On one side are the “new conservationists” — characterized by their focus on ecosystem services, working landscapes, novel ecosystems and collaborations between conservation organizations and business. On the other side are those who might be called “traditional conservationists,” who prize places devoid of people and the protection of biodiversity for its intrinsic value — and display a disdain for all things corporate and capitalistic.

Some dimensions of this debate echo back through the history of conservation — back, for example, to tensions between the high-minded preservationist John Muir and the more utilitarian views of Gifford Pinchot in the early decades of the 20th century. More recently, a line has been drawn between “nature protectionists,” who advocate the exclusion of people from strictly defined protected areas and “social conservationists,” who think conservation can and should simultaneously advance an agenda for human well-being (Miller et al. 2011).

As someone who has been identified with new conservationist approaches and who has been on the receiving end of some of the debate’s vitriol, I have been puzzled by the passion and pondering exactly where the flashpoints reside. Both sides forget that they agree on much. At the end of the day, all conservationists — both “new” and “traditional” — very much want to stem the tide of extinction. We all want abundant, beautiful natural spaces. We all agree that the relatively pristine places on our planet are a top priority for protection and that “protected areas will continue to be an important part of conservation” (Kareiva and Marvier 2012).

Kids stepping on stumps, Leslie Science & Nature Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

So, what exactly are the divisive issues? I think it boils down to three questions:

  1. Will focusing on ecosystem services and the benefits of conservation for people reduce funding for and commitment to classical protected-area conservation and biodiversity protection?
  2. Will valuing and protecting more disturbed or restored areas, or even “novel ecosystems” (Hobbs et al. 2009; Marris 2011), detract from conservation of relatively pristine and typically remoter places?
  3. Will working with businesses and development agencies ultimately result in “appeasement” of environmentally damaging activities and lead to even greater conservation losses?

“At the end of the day, all conservationists — both ‘new’ and ‘traditional’ — very much want to stem the tide of extinction. We all want abundant, beautiful natural spaces.” —Michelle Marvier

Traditional conservationists worry the answer is “yes” to all of the above questions. They see support for conservation as limited and a zero-sum game — that attention paid to the benefits of nature for people and to relatively disturbed ecosystems will compete with and thereby diminish the core conservation objective of protecting biodiversity in areas without humans (Soulé 2013).

In contrast, new conservationists espouse a growth model. In their view, augmenting the core tenets of conservation with initiatives closer to population centers and that expressly benefit people could greatly expand funding, support, and success for all conservation efforts.

How to resolve these issues? With data. When we examine the data available to answer each of the three questions, we find some tantalizing preliminary answers and some substantial gaps that need to be filled.

Question 1: Will Focusing on Ecosystem Services Drain Resources and Attention from Traditional Conservation?

Some data relevant to question #1 already exist. For example, Nature Conservancy scientist Becca Goldman and colleagues (2008) compared 34 projects focused on conservation of ecosystem services to 26 traditional biodiversity projects. They documented that the ecosystem service projects attracted more than four times as much funding as the biodiversity projects. In addition, ecosystem service projects were just as likely as biodiversity projects to include or create protected areas. Goldman and colleagues concluded that ecosystem service projects did not draw down limited financial resources for conservation, but rather engaged a more diverse set of funders.

Public opinion surveys also provide relevant data. Surveys funded by The Nature Conservancy but conducted by independent polling firms have found that messages about protecting biodiversity or nature for its intrinsic value are most inspiring for liberal-leaning whites and those who self-identify as conservationists or environmentalists. To reach other population segments — including Republicans, people who do not self-identify as conservationists or environmentalists and non-Caucasian racial groups — describing and demonstrating the benefits of nature for people and their children is a more effective approach (Marvier and Wong 2012). Because these messages speak to different audiences, it appears that arguments based on benefits to people do not undermine arguments based on ethical duty or intrinsic value. Instead, more utilitarian arguments supplement the ethical arguments and potentially broaden the tent of conservation.


A scenic vista in the hills surrounding San Francisco.

Question 2: Will Focusing on Disturbed Places and Novel Ecosystems Detract from Conservation of Pristine Landscapes?

I have strong personal feelings about this question. My connection with nature, which led to a career in ecology and conservation, began with childhood romps through hillsides near San Francisco Airport, which were blanketed with European oat grass, Italian rye grass, wild radish and yellow mustards — none of which are native to my home state of California. These landscapes, with the roar of 747s above and a sea of concrete below, inspired in me feelings of transcendence. I simply didn’t know any better than to find beauty in what others would consider weeds.

Some data exist to support the hypothesis that contact with nature early in life is important for building a lifelong connection with nature (Miller 2005). Zaradic et al. (2009) found that hiking and backpacking experiences earlier in life were correlated with larger donations to conservation organizations later in life. Other studies have documented a link between childhood play in nature and environmental behaviors (Wells and Lekies 2006) and careers in environmental professions (James et al. 2010). Missing, however, are studies that distinguish between experiences in relatively pristine habitats with experiences in novel ecosystems, like the one I fell in love with as a child.

“The premise that working with people in nature is beneficial both to conservation and people is not as well-supported by data as one would like — it arises as much from hopefulness and anecdote as it does from careful analysis.” —Michelle Marvier

But there is more to question #2 than the role of disturbed nature on our attitudes about conservation. Disturbed places, working landscapes and novel ecosystems also serve as habitat for diverse species and can be the source of ecosystem services. To assess the conservation value of protecting relatively un-pristine places, one might conduct a formal return on investment (ROI) analysis such as that proposed by Bill Murdoch and colleagues (2007), where the objective could be simply biodiversity or could also consider ecosystem services (including recreation and nature experience for public). Even if the ROI were limited to only biodiversity, it could be that degraded places deliver significant conservation value.

Question 3: Will Working with Corporations and Development Agencies Lead to Conservation Losses?

No analyses have yet addressed whether conservation’s engagement with corporations and development agencies will help or harm its efforts. Kareiva and Marvier (2012) posited that large corporations in particular now consume such vast amounts of energy and materials that they represent “keystone species” for the global economies — species that conservationists cannot afford to ignore. The question is whether working with these organizations to improve their behavior improves conservation outcomes relative to simply trying to prevent their activities. As conservation organizations increasingly work directly with these agencies (Molnar and Kubiszewski 2012), the opportunity to assess their effectiveness grows. Careful consideration of appropriate counterfactuals (Ferraro 2009) will be needed to make a convincing case one way or the other.

The premise that working with people in nature is beneficial both to conservation and people is not as well-supported by data as one would like — it arises as much from hopefulness and anecdote as it does from careful analysis. Conservation has a clear need for syntheses and meta-analyses that address what superficially seems like a fundamental, ideological divide, but is really two sets of competing of hypotheses about which strategies will most effectively prevent extinctions and loss of nature.



Ferraro, P.J. 2009. Counterfactual thinking and impact evaluation in environmental policy. New Dir Eval 122:75-84.

Goldman, R.L., H. Tallis, P. Kareiva, and G.C. Daily. 2008. Field evidence that ecosystem service projects support biodiversity and diversify options. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 105:9445-9448.

Hobbs, R.J., E. Higgs, and J.A. Harris. 2009. Novel ecosystems: Implications for conservation and restoration. Trends Ecol Evol 24:599-605.

James, J.J., R.D. Bixler, and C.E. Vadala. 2010. From play in nature, to recreation then vocation: A developmental model for natural history-oriented environmental professionals. Children Youth and Environments 20:231-256.

Kareiva, P. and M. Marvier. 2012. What is conservation science? Bioscience 62:962-969.

Marris, E. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Marvier, M. and H. Wong. 2012. Winning back broad public support for conservation. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2:291-295.

Miller, J.R. 2005. Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. Trends Ecol Evol 20:430-434.

Miller, T.R., B.A. Minteer, and L-C Malan. 2011. The new conservation debate: The view from practical ethics. Biol Conserv 144:948-957.

Molnar, J.L. and I. Kubiszewski. 2012.. Managing natural wealth: Research and implementation of ecosystem services in the United States and Canada. Ecosystem Services.

Murdoch, W., S. Polasky, K.A. Wilsonc, H.P Possingham, P. Kareiva and R. Shaw. 2007. Maximizing return on investment in conservation. Biol Conserv 139:375-388.

Soulé, M. (2013) The “new conservation.” Conserv Biol 27:895-897.

Wells, N.M. and K.S. Lekies. 2006. Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environments 16:1-24.

Zaradic, P.A., O.R.W. Pergams, and P. Kareiva. 2009. The impact of nature experience on willingness to support conservation. PLoS ONE 4:e7367.

September 24, 2013. The views expressed above are the author’s and should not be taken as those of SNAP or its member organizations.

Michelle Marvier

Michelle Marvier is professor and department chair at the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University and co-author of the pathbreaking… Read More
  • James Smith

    Hi – just wanted to say that I totally agree with this sentiment. We have a lot of challenges ahead.

  • Ricardo Sierra

    The thing that is left out of this article, which, I will say, is excellent otherwise, is the fact that this culture, and by that I mean mostly the corporate profit interests, is insatiable in it’s search for money over people, or animals, or any other form of life, and it shows absolutely no sign of abating or being even close to being stopped by any force currently in this world. Therefore, these arguments are basically ideas that appease our sense of responsibility and guilt, rather than actually confront and address those deeper issues.

    I think we need both perspectives, by the way, and we need them after we actually turn this entire war on the life forms on this planet into a movement that starts getting results.

    We are far to modest in our expectations of change, and that is killing us. Literally. We need to up the ante, way, way up.

  • Pingback: Kareiva Responds on Human Needs and The Tide of Extinctions « strange behaviors

  • Irene

    You describe “traditional conservationists,” as “those who prize places devoid of people and the protection of biodiversity for its intrinsic value — and display a disdain for all things corporate and capitalistic.” Then later you express surprise at the amount of vitriol you have received for promoting your vision of a “new conservation.” Here’s why you get vitriol: because you routinely trash other conservation strategies with these kinds of cartoonish, one-sided descriptions. Of course they come back and criticize you. Why would they not?

    Instead of complaining about the backlash, and playing the victim, you should start being fair and honest in your description of “traditional conservationists.” You’ll find first off, that they’ll be less likely to criticize you. Secondly, you’ll find that virtually everything you present as “new” is in fact not new, but has long been a staple of what you call “traditional conservation.”