In “What is conservation science?”, Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier (2012) argue that “human domination is now so widespread and profound that it can no longer be ignored in any conservation decision” (p. 965). They note that in recent decades, human populations and the per capita consumption of energy and materials have increased immensely, whereas “managed ecosystems increasingly dominate the planet” (p. 964) because of ever-expanding human economies. Their article raises a key question: Does true conservation require humanity to set limits to our domination of nature?
Kareiva and Marvier answer this question in the negative. None of their “normative postulates” involves limiting human demands on the biosphere, either as a matter of justice toward other species or as prudent self-interest. Conservation centered on keeping lands wild is “socially unjust” (p. 965), they assert, since it may move people off the land or reduce their economic opportunities. At no point do the authors acknowledge that people ever act unjustly by displacing other species or degrading their habitats, through road building, urban sprawl, farming new lands, and so on. Their ideology appears to reflect anthropocentric bias grounded in human exceptionalism.
Similarly, Kareiva and Marvier admonish conservationists to compromise on conservation objectives in the interest of economic development and not to oppose corporate expansion generally; we should do our part, they imply, to expand humanity's already immense wealth and consumption. They fail to recognize that economic growth itself is the primary force driving global environmental crises such as biodiversity loss and the destabilization of the Earth's climate.
We propose that a mature conservation ethic would recognize and accept limits to growth and would ratchet back human domination of the biosphere, rather than embracing it. Such an approach involves gradually and noncoercively reducing human numbers and deemphasizing economic growth as a goal, especially within countries that are already sufficiently wealthy. It means a more equitable distribution of wealth, setting aside more parks and protected areas for nature, and redoubling existing efforts to limit human damage to all lands and waters. We believe that this approach is more just and more prudent than humanity's current self-centered rush to overpower and control nature. It stands a better chance of allowing people and the rest of the living world to flourish over the long term.