Complexity Over Panacea: Science and Social Values in Conservation

Conservation is complex. The current conservation issues we face are layered and interactive. The people affected by conservation issues are complex; they are motivated by a range of values and bring diverse knowledge and perspectives to the issues. The ways in which we produce knowledge, make decisions, and take action on important conservation issues must be similarly complex. As conservationists, we need to consider the full range of knowledge available to us to understand and address the increasingly complex issues facing our ecosystems and communities and challenge the notion that Western science offers a panacea to the conservation challenges we must deal with.

In a 2007 paper titled “Going Beyond Panaceas,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom and co-authors note that “A core aspect of panaceas is the action or tendency to apply a single solution to many problems.”

Elinor Ostrum advocated for “going beyond panaceas” in addressing conservation challenges.

In Canada and the United States, much of the philosophical and governance foundations of conservation decision-making are rooted in what has come to be called the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.” As the name implies, this is a model more than a formally and legally codified system. The authors of the North American Model articulated its principles retrospectively as they looked back on history and attempted to characterize the approach to conservation that had been given shape through decision-making and action – in many cases, reaction – in North America over the previous century.

Among its seven tenets, or principles, the North American Model’s sixth tenet says that “science is the proper tool to discharge wildlife policy.”

But what does this mean? What kind of science, and is it accurate to call science the tool to discharge policy or rather the tool by which to understand conditions and attempt to predict outcomes to potential actions? Without a thoughtful examination of what we mean by science and how we wish to conceptualize its use, hunting organizations risk portraying “science-based management” as a panacea to what they often characterize as strictly scientific problems.

What Kind of Science?

In their 2007 paper, Ostrom and her colleagues go on to say, “In the governance of human-environment interactions, a panacea refers to recommendations that a single governance-system blueprint…should be applied to all environmental problems.”

One of the core assumptions of many hunting organizations is their definition of “science.” When hunting organizations refer to science and characterize wildlife conservation and management as scientific problems requiring scientific solutions, what they are really referring to are the natural sciences – those aspects of the problems that are studied and explained with biology, ecology, and so on. They often fail to consider that when we talk about “science-based” decision-making, we also need to consider the contributions of the social sciences in understanding the nature of complex conservation problems and generating solutions.

In fact, many organizations – hunting, non-hunting, and anti-hunting organizations – explicitly call for management to exclude emotion. As a hunter, I feel a certain amount of responsibility for how hunting organizations discuss these matters. For their part, hunting organizations are quite vocal in their criticisms of any decision about wildlife that they perceive to be based on emotion or subjective social values.

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When we look back at the history of science and conservation, what do we see? Do we see, as many conservation organizations today suggest, a story of decisions about wildlife based strictly on emotionless datasets that actively ignore human wants and values? Not quite.

Perceived Dichotomy

A brief glance at some recent conservation issues demonstrates the narrative promoted by hunting organizations that decision-making should be based on science and not emotion, and indeed, that these two elements are separable and incompatible.

Several hunting-based conservation organizations construct a perceived dichotomy between what they see as decision-making that considers only science and decision-making fueled entirely by emotion. Just in the past couple of years, there have been debates in the public and governance spheres around hunting for species such as black bears in several North American jurisdictions. Some hunting organizations present the efforts to curtail hunting opportunities as based only on emotion and their efforts to maintain hunting opportunities as based only on science. On the flip side, anti-hunting organizations present their efforts as science-based and the desires of hunters as based only on antiquated and negative social values.

However, science has always been a contested space full of debate and dissent. The difficulty comes when conservation organizations present science as a unified construction of truth, rather than a community of people interpreting evidence in inherently subjective and imperfect ways, and then doing their best to make decisions with that information. Thus, when these organizations call for “science-based management,” they are really calling for management based on the science that supports their predetermined goals and they convey those scientific conclusions as the only possible version of interpretation.

Social Values and Predator Management

If we consider the example of the history of predator management in North America throughout the past century or so, the story has never been one of compartmentalized decision-making devoid of emotions or social values. Many people are familiar with the dramatic anti-predator sentiment and predator eradication policies in North America throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, during which time bounties, poisons, unregulated hunting, and other officially sanctioned activities worked to completely exterminate wolves, bears, mountain lions, and other predators from the landscape. These actions were motivated by Western political expansion, natural resource extraction, the desire to increase agricultural settlement, efforts to subjugate and colonize Indigenous communities, and fear of perceived threats to humans from these species. In summary, political, economic, and social values drove these “management” decisions.

brown wolf
Photo by Steve on

Today, we hear hunting organizations criticize efforts such as wolf reintroduction programs and grizzly bear conservation for being unscientific or based only on emotions for these species. In several jurisdictions in North America, there are still coyote killing contests. Although some of the explanation for the promotion of these contests relies on outdated scientific understandings of predator-prey dynamics, persistent anti-predator sentiment drives much of the motivation for these events. However, when someone criticizes these programs, hunting advocacy organizations accuse us of being driven by emotion and not supporting science-based decision-making.

So, there is an ongoing contradiction in our understanding of the role of emotion in past management and our representation of the ideal to exclude emotion from management today. But this ideal has never been the reality. Indeed, in important circumstances, it has never been the ideal at all.

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Leopold’s Take on the Matter

So, what should we do to reconcile some of these tensions and contradictions?

Well, Aldo Leopold, who many conservationists and those involved in formal wildlife management systems consider to be the grandfather of conservation and who was instrumental in shaping and articulating the intellectual and governance basis of North American wildlife management, had this to say about the compartmentalization of the social and natural sciences in wildlife conservation:

“One of the anomalies of modern ecology is the creation of two groups, each of which seems barely aware of the existence of the other. The one studies the human community, almost as if it were a separate entity, and calls its findings sociology, economics and history. The other studies the plant and animal community and comfortably relegates the hodge-podge of politics to the liberal arts. The inevitable fusion of these two lines of thought will, perhaps, constitute the outstanding advance of this century.”

The inevitable fusion of these two lines of thought… Now, we are no longer in the century that Leopold lived, but there is still time and a definite need for the advance that Leopold spoke about. We have made some great progress in bringing together different lines of thought in conservation over the past several decades (for instance, through emerging fields around the human dimensions of conservation, conservation social science, and transdisciplinary research) but there is still work to be done in facilitating better communication in the public sphere.

False Dichotomy

In my view, what we are witnessing is not an argument by hunting organizations to maintain some form of conservation purity by excluding emotions and social values from wildlife conservation, but rather a departure from the historical reality and the proliferation of a narrative that portrays conservation as value-free. But ultimately, the idea that we have either science-based or emotion-based decision-making is a false dichotomy. The history of conservation, including all of its successes and failures, has always been one of a complex interplay between science and social values; natural and social science; and multiple knowledge systems, perspectives, and priorities.

Hunting-based and non-hunting-based conservation organizations play an important role in the production of knowledge and social values. Many hunting-based conservation organizations fund or directly produce incredible scientific research used in wildlife and habitat conservation. What I call on these organizations to remember is that they also produce social values and emotions. They always have. Hunting is a social value and one I deeply care about. Whenever I advocate for hunting opportunities, I am working to protect a social value.

Pretending that hunting organizations are objective and free from the influence of social values does not make them so; it just makes them unable to identify ways to either integrate those social values into discussions or mitigate their influence on decisions. Conservation organizations hold a range of firmly rooted and deeply important social values – it’s what they use to motivate and inspire the public to care and take action to protect nature.

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New Approach to Conservation Needed

The current conservation challenges we all face are deeply complex, global, and potentially catastrophic. They also touch every aspect of our lives, driving unprecedented climate change and biodiversity loss, exacerbating poverty, polarizing communities and cultures, and are rooted in histories of colonialism and capitalist forms of production.

If we are to develop a more rigorous and representative grasp of the conservation challenges facing our planet and societies in a way that can generate effective policies and actions, we need to recognize that complex challenges require equally complex methods of thought.

And there are no panaceas.

We need conservation approaches that account for the full range of social values and human needs, priorities, and emotions, using a range of Western social and natural scientific methods to help us predict and plan for potential outcomes of the range of responses available to us. Successful conservation will also depend on dismantling colonial and patriarchal systems. We need to respect and work in meaningful relationships with local, Indigenous, and Traditional Knowledge systems and ensure Indigenous communities drive conservation efforts that affect their communities and territories.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we make decisions entirely based on emotion or allow for social values to drive policies and actions that could once again threaten the existence of species simply because we don’t like them. I’m not even suggesting that we put emotional priorities on the same level as rigorous scientific data in determining actions that impact conservation (I have written in the past about the problem with Canada’s Species At Risk process factoring in socioeconomic considerations into endangered species protection decisions). What I am suggesting is that rather than vilify the idea of social values and put our heads in the sand with regard to their very real impact on conservation and hunting, we need to consider the role of social values realistically and use them purposefully to achieve meaningful conservation outcomes.


My final point is more humble. Ultimately, we need to listen to each other better. Conservation will require cooperation from a beautifully and immensely diverse group of people. The history of conservation success is not a story of one heroic group achieving great outcomes alone; it is a story of success through collaboration and cooperation between groups of people who hold different perspectives and values. To be successful in addressing the challenges we all face, we need to listen to each other’s perspectives with sympathy and a genuine desire to understand. We need to understand the wide range of social values that people bring to conservation. Then we need to make the decisions that are most likely to benefit wildlife and habitats, even if we must sit with some difficult emotions.

One Comment on “Complexity Over Panacea: Science and Social Values in Conservation

  1. Thought provoking. It is very difficult to be collaborative with any group that sees your own elimination as part of the solution. Your point, though, is valid: that we cannot ignore our own emotional influences and should perhaps acknowledge these in any argument that accepts or promotes hunting as part of conservation management.

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