Conversations about Conservation: Part One

Updated: May 5, 2020


Language is the most powerful tool we possess to describe the things we cherish. But the conservation movement uses such stilted words to label the most glorious of things.


Through my blog and media content, I will be discussing all things conservation. So I thought an appropriate first blog post should be all about how I intend to actually discuss about it. So here it is; the conversations about conservation.

Often the discussions we have about conservation are fundamentally flawed. The language used to describe the environment and all it encompasses, dramatic geographies and glorious wildlife, is often unrepresentative, misleading or simply does not encapsulate the euphoric feelings Mother Nature gifts to us. The lingo that dominates the conservation discipline largely operates within the politically expedient tongue of economics. But language is crucial to how we perceive the natural world and our relationship to it; it expresses thought and also determines it.

I first really understood this problem when I embarked upon my masters course: ‘Biodiversity, Conservation and Management’. The title proved to be a bit of a mouthful to say when introducing myself to countless new college members or informing distant relatives with the annual life update.

The Flaws

So I’d say, I’m studying conservation.

This more often than not often evoked images in people’s minds of me restoring historical art pieces, furniture or antiques. And understandably so. But this surprised me, in my mind, ‘conservation’ has always been synonymous with nature. Probably because I’ve always been obsessed with animals, coupled with history certainly not being my forte at school.

I opted to tell people I was studying biodiversity. That should adequately describe it, I naively thought.

Yes, this yielded more fitting perceptions of what I was studying, with people often assuming it was something to do with the environment. But I soon learned that biodiversity is a word debated by ecologists themselves. The term lacks consistent meaning and is utilised in so many diverse ways it was even professed that ‘the definitions of biodiversity are as diverse as the biological resource.’ I thought to myself, if expert ecologists cannot even agree between themselves what it is, how can they effectively communicate about it to everyone else?

The IUCN have attempted to settle debate and provided a formal definition, which put simply is ‘all variety of life on Earth.’ But is there no simpler and more appealing way we communicate this? I’ll come to this later.

After supplying the mandatory further explanation about my supposedly something-to-do-with-restoring-antique-art-whilst-sitting-outside-in-the-environment course, sometimes people would curiously ask more specifically what sort of things I was actually studying. With that, a sweeping tornedo of words and phrases from the day’s lectures would rage unbridled inside my head, further reinforcing just how alienating the conservation lexicon is.

Often the first to barge into my mind would be ‘ecosystem services.’ Not exactly a phrase to arouse the human imagination, is it? It describes the flows of benefits (tangible and intangible) which people gain from natural ecosystems. But before we even contemplate the phrase itself, let’s break it down into its separate components.

‘Ecosystems.’ I cringe slightly at the word. Who would say they are visiting an ecosystem on their Saturday afternoon stroll? Rather, more evocative and colourful pictures would be crafted; people would cheerfully declare they are visiting a moorlands, a park, forest, wetlands or coast.

And then ‘services.’ To me, the idea that nature exists to ‘serve’ us is distasteful. It represents humanities persistent exploitation of nature; nature as the subordinate.

Uniting both words creates a heinous crash. But of course, this and ‘natural capital’ is the language of economists and policy-makers. (‘Natural capital’ is the stock from which the flows of ecological benefits come from - so, a forest is a component of natural capital, while climate regulation, spiritual healing or timber might be the ‘ecosystem service’ it provides). It is a language incapable of comprehending the value of life, just its value as an instrument to human development. It expresses everything through a common, quantitative unit: money. What frustrates me the most is when people talk about these terms, animals and plants are labelled as ‘resources’ or ‘stocks.’ Maybe they are deliberately designated such impersonal and pecuniary terms to make the language purveyor’s, the economists and policy-makers, feel less connected to the environment when they exploit it…

All this conservation chat can be just blah blah BLAH.

And the stilted, unrepresentative conservation jargon does not stop there. George Monbiot, an environmental activist, discusses the labels given to protected areas of land in the UK. Some terrestrial areas are called ‘sites of special scientific interest,’ often abbreviated in academia or politics to ‘triple S I’s.’ Marine ones are entitled ‘no take zones’ or ‘reference areas.’ Similar to the ‘ecosystem’ argument, they are not the vocabulary used in everyday goings on. They are isolating. They don’t conjure glorious images of the land they represent and may even require a quick google search to realise what on earth a ‘reference area’ really is. One appellation I never thought to think twice about, was a ‘reserve.’ But Monbiot has transformed my perception of such a term, logically highlighting that when the term is used to describe a person, it’s not the most appealing of adjectives, so why should we use it for a magnificent area filled with diverse flora and fauna? Monbiot discusses even more unsavoury words, see his article.

Even the word ‘landscape’ conjures a blemished perception of nature conservation. The Nature Conservancy produced a guidance booklet on effective conservation communication and their research revealed that people generally connect the term with paintings or landscape gardening. But if they did connect it with conservation, it evoked feelings of being excluded from nature. Which is certainly not the notion the conservation movement has been trying to adopt since the turn of the century. After all, there is no conservation without people.

The Power of Language

Some may argue that quibbling over semantics may seem petty stuff. But, I contend this. It’s important to think about how we describe the natural world as words possess an extraordinary power to mould our perceptions.

Of course, the people that coined the constipated jargon were undoubtedly trying to protect the environment. SSSI’s are certainly places of scientific interest, but to people who tread there, they are much, much more. So we must shake up the semantics to represent this innate feeling of awe we feel towards our national wonders.

It could be argued, can language ever do our natural world justice? Is the instrument we have to describe our Earth ever truly able to capture it? This mirrors Aldo Leopold’s, philosopher and conservationist, train of thought in which he notes that the environment holds ‘values as yet uncaptured by language.’ But language is the only thing we possess to describe it, thus we must push through the current limits of our linguistic abilities to articulate our thoughts about the environment in the most effective way possible. It’s also important to note the ‘as yet’ in Leopold’s statement; there is hope, we can do this.

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

Check out Part Two!

#Communication #Language #Conservation