What Climate People Can Learn from Conservation
An interview with Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction.
Were I to list the best books I read during the pandemic, Michelle Nijhuis’s Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, would appear near the top. Her 2021 popular history of conservation, now in paperback, is as expert as it is easy to read. She mixes fine biographical detail with the science and politics of those—from William Temple Hornaday and Julian Huxley to Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson—who’ve endeavored to spare non-human species from human excess. She’s terrific on the facts and tracks the way certain ideas passed between people, got refined and took hold. She also demonstrates a knack for being highly critical without a rush to cancellation.
As we contend with climate chaos, tough love is such a vital mode, not least because the climate movement continues to make some of the same short-sighted, top-down, even colonial mistakes as the conservation movement. For example, cordoning off pristine tracts of wilderness without regard for the Indigenous communities who have been essential to that region for millennia. (Don’t get me started on the word “pristine.”)
“Over the past century and a half, the conservation movement has managed to provide sanctuary for game species (through hunting regulations and wildlife refuges), for many bird species (through national laws and international treaties), and for some threatened species (ditto),” Nijhuis summarizes late in Beloved Beasts. “What it hasn’t figured out how to do, in any systemic way, is protect everything else. ‘Nature advocates have obtained much of what they have asked for,’ writes legal scholar Holly Doremus, ‘but they have not asked for what they really want.’”
In a recent interview, edited very slightly for length, Nijhuis answered questions about her book and also touched on what today’s climate activists—those who are busy, you might say, trying to “protect everything else”—can learn from the pioneers she studied. Oh, and the big question implied by Doremus’s remark.
Brad Wieners: One of the pleasures of reading Beloved Beasts was learning about people I didn’t know or knew only in name—to wit, Elinor Ostrom. Can you share a little about who she was and why her insights matter?
Michelle Nijhuis: Yes, Elinor Ostrom is a name that needs to be more familiar to conservationists—and to everyone, for that matter. In 2009, shortly before her death, Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in [Economic Sciences]—she was the first woman to do so—but she was a political scientist by training, and she spent most of her career studying how communities cooperate to manage shared resources. It’s often assumed that whenever a group of humans has access to land, water or other necessities, the “tragedy of the commons” is inevitable. But Ostrom found that in many cases, and in many parts of the world, communities have figured out ways of managing resources that both sustain themselves and provide for other species—as well as for future generations.
Another I didn’t know: Rosalie Edge. What a dramatic figure. I’d love to see a movie made about her. It could open on the day the stock market crashed in 1929. Where would conservation be without her?
Oh, Rosalie Edge was just a delight to get to know and to write about. She was a wealthy New Yorker who was active in the suffrage movement before turning to conservation in the late 1920s, and she thought that the conservation movement, in comparison to suffrage, was just terribly conservative and cautious. One of her first acts as a conservationist was to take the all-male board of the National Association of Audubon Societies to task, scolding them about their reluctance to stick up for bald eagles—which many people at the time considered pests—and telling them that conservationists should be defending all species, not just those they happened to think were beautiful or useful. She had a sense of the importance of ecological relationships when ecology was still a very young science. So where would conservation be without her? I think it would have been much slower to expand its concern to all species, and slower to become a grassroots movement—modern conservation is still an elite movement in many ways, and conservationists still have their biases toward certain species, but Rosalie Edge made the movement aware of those problems in a way its leaders could never forget.
Who would you cast as Edge?
Kathy Bates, no question. Rosalie Edge always dressed elegantly, and she was charming when she chose to be, but she could also be properly terrifying.
Another pleasure of Beloved Beasts: historical coincidences and twists of fate I didn’t know, such as how Peter Artedi died and how his quest to name all known fish in the early 1700s was almost lost to back rent.
While some of the people I write about in Beloved Beasts are lesser known, all had been written about before, in some cases extensively (there’s a great biography of Rosalie Edge called Hawk of Mercy). And many of them were writers themselves, so they left behind stacks of books, papers and letters. My problem was always an embarrassment of material, not a lack of it! Peter Artedi was more of a challenge to resurrect than most—he died young and penniless, so after his death, his work was very nearly sold off to pay his debts. We know about his short, brilliant career from the memoirs of Carl Linnaeus, who was close friends with Artedi in university and whose system of naming plants and animals is the basis of our current system of scientific naming. Several modern scientists have taken an interest in Artedi and have shown how his insights probably contributed more to Linnaeus’s naming system than Linnaeus acknowledged.
Elsewhere, you offer a corrective to the conventional wisdom that the Endangered Species Act saved the bald eagle from extinction. What’s the full story there?
Well, you’ll have to read the book for the full story! But the short version is that while the Endangered Species Act was certainly helpful to the bald eagle’s recovery, credit should really go to the generations of conservationists who gathered the long-term data needed to document the species’ decline; then eloquently and insistently spread the word about that decline and the central role played by the pesticide DDT; and then—even after the public was fully alert to the crisis—slogged through a decade’s worth of court battles in order to finally ban the use of DDT in the United States. Sometimes, the classification of a species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act is treated as an end goal—as if once it’s listed, it’s protected. But the reality is that by the time species are in enough trouble to qualify as endangered, restoring their populations to health takes an absolutely enormous effort, often over decades. The work of conservation needs to start much, much earlier, while species are still in good shape.
It’s upsetting, if unsurprising, to read that several of the significant early figures in conservation, especially in the United States, were also adherents of eugenics and argued for sterilizing and killing fellow humans that they deemed inferior. It’s tempting to say this horrible overlap is all in the past, but is it?
It isn’t, unfortunately. I already knew that a number of early conservationists had held racist and other bigoted beliefs, but I had the impression that their racism had little to do with their work in conservation. I came to see that in every generation there’s a small minority of conservationists whose devotion to other species somehow curdles into an overly biological view of their own species. They start thinking that other humans—never themselves and their friends, of course—can and should be managed like, say, an infestation of termites or a bacterial infection. They reach for simple solutions, and simple solutions tend to be authoritarian at best and racist, or even genocidal, at worst. And that toxic combination of desperation and cruelty is still surfacing—we see it today in the so-called “ecofascists,” who have convinced themselves that protecting the planet requires draconian immigration restrictions or even mass murder.
More generally, the modern conservation movement has a history of defaulting to top-down solutions—the movement has elite roots, and many of its founders didn’t believe that people of other races, nationalities or means were capable of living sustainably alongside other species. Which is deeply ironic, because of course people of many cultures and identities had been successfully practicing conservation on a local level long before the founding of the modern conservation movement. That top-down tendency still pervades the movement, and while conservationists are much more aware of it than they once were, it continues to limit the movement’s reach.
While you are not shy about calling out these historical figures on their bigotry, you wrote a story for The Atlantic called “Don’t Cancel John Muir.” Why take up his defense?
Well, the subtitle of that article was “But don’t excuse him, either,” so it wasn’t a full-throated defense. I’ll admit that the headline was an attempt to trap Muir devotees—I hoped the article would inspire them to more seriously consider their hero’s complex history and legacy. But it’s true: I don’t want to cancel John Muir. I just don’t think that he, or anyone else, should be treated as an embodiment of the entire conservation movement past and present. Muir did have a remarkable empathy for other species, one that was ahead of his time and ours, and his writing about the beauty of the Sierra and other landscapes led to important protections that we value today.
But during Muir’s early years in the Sierra, and to some extent throughout his life, he treated the landscapes he loved as more or less blank slates—places that were created for his ecstatic enjoyment, not places that had been deeply inhabited by humans for centuries. That attitude took hold in the conservation movement, and it’s led generations of conservationists to support the displacement and dispossession of Indigenous and other local communities for the sake of conservation, in North America and throughout the world. I’m not saying Muir is responsible for those outrages, but they are rooted in his oversights. So, while I truly respect him for his empathy toward alligators and chipmunks, I don’t think anyone should pretend he had all the answers.
Ignoring the needs of humans who live within or near the places others are passionate about protecting remains a huge challenge. You share the story of efforts in Namibia that have done an exemplary job of this—conservation as if people mattered, you might say. In your view, who is getting this right?
Yes, during my research I had the chance to spend time in Namibia, where a nationwide network of community conservancies has been in place for decades. By drawing on traditional conservation practices and the work of researchers such as Elinor Ostrom, the members of these conservancies are, in a sense, restoring a part of the conservation ecosystem that’s been missing for centuries—missing ever since colonization disrupted traditional governance and national parks, and reserves disrupted established relationships between people and other species.
We need conservation policies that operate at the international level, the national level and the state level—of course we do, if for no other reason than we’re the only species that respects political boundaries! But conservation is always going to be practiced at the local level, and for too long the conservation movement has ignored or even erased local practices.
Here’s a moment where I laughed out loud: “He lacked the pensive beauty of Aldous, his face immature, his head definitely dolichocephalic.” Mind you, I laughed without knowing exactly what “dolichocephalic” meant. Dolphin-like?
Ha! Yes, that was Juliette Huxley’s first assessment of her future husband, the British biologist Julian Huxley. “Dolphin-headed” is a pretty good synonym—dolichocephalic means “long-skulled,” and it was a much more familiar word in Victorian times, when, for dubious and now discredited reasons, skulls were often classified by shape. I did include stories about the partners and families of the conservationists I wrote about—those people were often so integral to the development of conservation, in practical and not-so-practical ways, and they were fascinating people in their own right. Memorable appraisals of partners? Rachel Carson had a passionate years-long relationship with her friend Dorothy Freeman—we don’t know the exact nature of it, but it was clearly romantic—and their letters are collected in a book called Always, Rachel. Their correspondence is a thing of beauty, and each of Carson’s letters is a work of art. We should all be so lucky to get love letters from Rachel Carson.
In one chapter you focus on Michael Soulé, the founder of conservation biology—roughly speaking, the study of how many of a particular plant or animal, plus clean water, nutrition, land and other resources, you need in order to keep it from going the way of the dodo. And at one point you mention that you were Soulé’s neighbor in Colorado in the 1990s. Is that where this book began?
It’s funny—not really. When I moved to rural Colorado in the late 1990s, I was amazed that Michael Soulé lived in the same little town that I did. I’d read his work as a biology student in college, and he was a huge figure to me. Over the 15 years that I lived in Colorado, and especially during the few years that we were neighbors, I got to know him personally, and I learned a great deal from him. When I started to write a history of the conservation movement, I knew he would be an important part of the book. But the book was much more motivated by the political battles over endangered species and other conservation issues that I’ve witnessed in the American West, first as a field technician on wildlife research projects and later as a journalist.
And what finally got me going on the project, after many years of thinking about it, was a frustration with the public conversations about conservation—I knew that the modern conservation movement had come a long way and had learned a great deal from its successes and failures, but media coverage of conservation issues is still preoccupied with single, charismatic, extremely endangered species. And with so-called “de-extinction!” Don’t get me started on de-extinction. There are so many healthy populations of plants, animals and other forms of life that desperately need our help in order to keep playing their ecological roles—and we know what needs to be done to sustain them, but we’re just not doing it. Instead, we’re pouring millions of dollars into speculative efforts to create hybrid analogues of woolly mammoths and passenger pigeons. We keep looking for the quick fix, but there really are no shortcuts to lasting conservation.
Reading along, I was struck by how young the field of conservation biology is, or maybe I was really struck by how old I am? What struck me even more, though, is that Soulé “acknowledged that the goodness of diversity cannot be tested or proven.” Is that still the case?
It is, in a way. Ecologists have argued for years over if and how the diversity of species in a given ecosystem benefits that ecosystem, and while there is a lot of evidence of benefits, it’s also clear that “more biodiversity” isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Soulé’s precepts, as he called them, acknowledged that conservation biologists share certain values, and that while those values are to some extent supported by science, they are at least in part articles of faith.
If the goodness of biodiversity remains an article of faith, you call on conservation biologists—and the rest of us—to embrace another one: “an article of faith in humanity.” What are you getting at?
That goes back to the strain of misanthropy in conservation and in conservation history—the racism, the elitism, the devastating tendency to reach for draconian, inhumane solutions. And then, less horrifically but more insidiously, the persistent belief in humanity’s inability to play any sort of positive role in conservation. Even today, it’s not unusual to hear conservationists imply that the “tragedy of the commons” is inevitable, more than a decade after Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing otherwise. There are times that I too lose faith in humanity, believe me. I probably lose faith on a daily basis! But it’s essential to hang on to the fact that we are capable of doing good for other species, despite the evidence to the contrary—not only because we know how dangerous a loss of faith can be, but because the job of conservation can only be accomplished by humans. Conservation may be about other species, but it’s practiced by people, so for the sake of the planet, we’d better cultivate some faith in ourselves.
Near the end of your book, you quote the legal scholar Holly Doremus who notes that “Nature advocates have obtained much of what they have asked for, but they have not asked for what they really want.” What is that?
I love that quote because I think it gets at where conservation needs to go from here. Over the past century and a half or so, the conservation movement has fought for laws and boundaries that serve to protect populations of game species, many bird species and some threatened and endangered species. It’s ensured the survival of species that would otherwise be lost forever. But what conservationists really want is to protect all life on earth—no big deal!—and that requires more than laws and boundaries. It requires societies to develop something like what conservationist Aldo Leopold called a land ethic, a commitment to living reciprocally with other forms of life.
Getting to a land ethic is a huge undertaking, but I see the conservation movement taking steps in the right direction by helping to revive and support Indigenous and rural community conservation practices, for example, and working locally to bridge the political divides that have become so entrenched in recent decades. The bipartisan support for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, a hugely significant bill that passed the House in June and awaits a vote in the Senate, is a reminder that even in these polarized times, people across the political spectrum care deeply about other species and want to see them flourish. When people can meet the basic needs of their families, when they have some sense of security about their futures, this care often rises to the surface. In my more optimistic moments, I think the land ethic is already with us—the challenge is to enable all of us, from all walks of life, to live by it.