Do we need a new compass bearing? In the midst of what is now considered to be the sixth mass extinction in the approximately 4.5-billion-year history of Earth, knowing that the primary agent of biodiversity loss (the aggregate impacts of human activities) is increasing in reach and intensity, it is perhaps understandable that some conservationists have lost their way, have given up hope, or are now suggesting that the goal of conservation be abandoned and reinvented. The(ir) argument goes something like this: There is no longer any wild land, what we have left is in a seminatural state (the product of human management and impacts), so we should think of ourselves more as gardeners who have to manage the planet carefully, ensuring that ecosystems remain healthy and providing people with food, water, and other ecosystem services; in brief, we need to “domesticate nature more wisely.”
Resetting the conservation goal to one of “wise gardening” is tempting in that it enables us to focus on manipulating species and biophysical processes as circumstances suit us, without reference to or regard for evolutionary and ecological legacies and processes. Such reorientation of conservation . . . also appeals to human hubris and vanity, suggesting it is people who are now in control of Earth and that we can manage our way out of this environmental crisis. . . .
Geoscientists have proposed that because humans are now the dominant force of global environmental change, this current epoch should be called the “Anthropocene.” However, it is foolish and dangerous to confuse force with control. The Anthropocene, while an empirical fact, does not mean that humans “run the show.” Rather, it means only that we can be powerfully disruptive. This power to disrupt does not translate into a power to control the Earth system. As the result of human impacts, natural planetary boundaries are now being breached, and we are taking Earth’s environmental conditions outside the safe Holocene conditions, thereby threatening critical life-support systems. Therefore, the Anthropocene should not so much mark the “end of nature” but the opposite: the end of “human exceptionalism” –the idea that humans, unlike every other species on Earth, can live outside the laws of nature. . . .
Toward an Earth community conservation goal: Given the sheer enormity of the current pressures on Earth’s environment and biodiversity and the challenges ahead, we do need to reflect upon our conservation goals for the twenty-first century. A conservation goal defined by the gardening metaphor, however, takes us down the wrong path. It would have us abandon the sublimely rich legacies of evolution and perversely celebrate the unraveling of well-tested and ancient ecological relation. It would replace natural selection with human decision-making dominated by the desires to optimize for efficiency and maximize short-term gains.
An overreliance on the utilitarian value of species and ecosystems to humans would be a feeble foundation for a new conservation goal. Humans are dependent on species and ecosystems. . . . Two of the planetary boundaries directly relate to biodiversity: one, the rate of species extinctions, and two, the percentage of land that is converted from its natural ecosystem cover to intensive agriculture. We currently do not have the scientific understanding to know what level of loss leads to significant and irreversible harm to biodiversity and undermines the regulatory capacities of the Earth system by affecting the climate system and hydrological cycle; nor do we know if these thresholds have already been breached.
. . . Accepting the limitations of anthropocentrism does not mean rejecting the need for humanity to reduce its environmental impacts in order to protect planetary boundaries. Nor does it mean ignoring the many benefits we gain from healthy ecosystems. Rather, an environmental ethic is needed that encompasses rather than excludes this range of perspectives.
[Aldo] Leopold’s land ethic points in the right direction, as it acknowledges the ecological realities of human existence along with the intrinsic value of life in all its human and nonhuman expressions and the complex web of interactions that are implicated. The intrinsic value of other species is a key concept and is recognized by international environmental law in the Preamble to the Convention on Biodiversity, where it state(s) that the 193 countries who are party to the convention are "Conscious of the intrinsic value of biological diversity and of the ecological, genetic, social, economic, scientific, educational, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values of biological diversity and its components."
The ethical position of the Earth Charter is also helpful here. The Earth Charter is a declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the twenty-first century. The Earth Charter is a product of a decade-long, worldwide, cross-cultural dialogue on common goals and shared values. The Earth Charter project began as a United Nations initiative, but it was carried forward and completed by a global civil society initiative and . . . launched as a people’s charter in 2000. . . . Principles of particular relevance are:
1a: Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.
2. Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.
. . . . The final principle (16f) in the Earth Charter gives expression to this all-encompassing set of caring relationships:
Recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.
The key to conservation in the twenty-first century is to recognize the overarching role played by evolutionary and ecological processes in the self-regeneration, resilience, and adaptive capacity of species and ecosystems. Conservation management is less about managing biodiversity and more about managing humans and the impacts that flow from their activities. . . . The conservation challenge for the twenty-first century is to avoid introducing threats to intact landscapes and to reduce or eliminate threats to species and ecosystem integrity in landscapes suffering loss and degradation. . . . Modifying land use to avoid or minimize biodiversity threats is essential if conservation outcomes are to be achieved . . . . Adopting an ethic of respect and care for the greater community of life is essential because this is the only way to protect the evolutionary processes and ecological relations that are essential to the flourishing of life on Earth.
Conservation needs to embrace a goal grounded in an Earth community ethic—an ethic of responsibility and care that extends to all life and life-processes. . . .
If there is a lesson to be learned from what is being called the Anthropocene, it is that Homo sapiens now has responsibility to Earth, our home, and for so changing human civilization that it sustains not only human well-being but also the greater community of life.