Title: Conservation, Neoliberalism and Social Science: a Critical Reflection on the SCB 2007 Annual Meeting, South Africa

Title: Conservation, Neoliberalism and Social Science: a Critical Reflection on the SCB 2007 Annual Meeting, South Africa - Page 2

Conservation biology is actively reinventing itself to fit the neoliberal world order: the increasingly all-pervasive trend to conform social and political affairs to market dynamics. So much is clear from attending the 21st annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), with the theme “One World, One Conservation, One Partnership”, which was held from 1-5 July 2007 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. This editorial serves as a critical reflection on the meeting, arguing two points. First, in their drive to conserve biodiversity, conservation biologists are too eager to realign their field with seductive neoliberal win-win visions. As a consequence discourses are created that ultimately reinforce an ideological system that is inherently unsustainable. Second, this realignment leads conservation biology increasingly into the social sciences, whereby conservationists oddly seem to throw overboard two scientific principles they have always held so dear: acknowledging and critically analyzing complex realities and grounding arguments with rigorous empirical research.

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Attending a large conference such as the SCB annual meeting provides one with several entry points for learning. The most obvious one is through what is presented in paper and poster presentations. A second probably equally important, yet less familiar, way is by doing participatory observation: studying the conference as a confluence of social and political dynamics from the perspective of an insider. As a social scientist studying the effects of neoliberalism on conservation-development interventions, I gained many insights during the annual meeting. Many of these were based on the latter mode of learning: doing participatory observation. Particular attention was paid to the types of discourses that seemed dominant during the meeting and the various networks that supported these. This still amounts to a ‘snapshot’ of one conference, which rarely provides a good methodological basis for generalizations. However, while I accept the limitations of the approach, the fact remains that the SCB meeting is arguably the largest and most important of its kind and should therefore provide a rich microcosm of the trends that occur in conservation biology at large.

From this perspective one central, worrying trend stood out: the overwhelming neoliberalisation of the field of conservation biology. As stated above, neoliberalism can be described as a social order that is characterized by the urge to bring everything into the sphere of the market. Neoliberalism, thus, is more than a model. It is an ideology about how social and political life should be organized that is explicitly global in its ambitions and therefore notoriously hard to define. Better, then, to focus on some of its modalities – competition and commercialization – that are increasingly leaving their mark on conservation science and practice. Neoliberalisation as such means that more and more facets of life are becoming embedded within a competitive market framework whereby goods, services and agency itself can be traded through monetary means (commercialisation). Relationships, for instance between humans and nature but also between humans, that were previously free from commerce are transformed into commercial relationships whereby the laws of demand and supply increasingly determine values. I consider these trends problematic for conservation biology and the following serves to elaborate on the reasons why.

Let me firstly state outright that I am not ‘against’ conservation biology or biodiversity conservation. Like many social scientists I am a concerned academic who is deeply convinced that our current way of treating the planet is not ‘sustainable’; that something must be done about this; and that we must continue to hope that reversing the current unsustainable trend is possible. However, I am also convinced that ‘sustainability’ – in the multiple interpretations of the word – is ultimately not feasible within a politico-ideological framework of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, despite its ability to incorporate and deal with many systemic contradictions, ultimately devours the resources it depends on for its continued existence. One merely has to think about the commercial possibilities unleashed by environmental degradation (for instance those benefiting from and marketing mitigation services to deal with pollution) to understand how real this danger is. Neoliberalism furthermore stimulates and

entrenches inequality and is perverse: it commercializes both its alternatives and its excesses and brings them back into the neoliberal mindset, so discrediting any real transformative alternatives. Its continuous expansion and penetration into every part of society can be very obvious, but also very subtle; both of which were illustrated by the 2007 SCB meeting in South Africa.

Conservation biology’s most obvious acquiescence to neoliberalism was illustrated by the enormous emphasis on ‘ecological services’ and ecological economics in many (social science oriented) presentations and sessions. The meeting clearly demonstrated that the field of conservation is busy reinventing itself in order to remain politically acceptable in a neoliberal world. Some were very open about this. The keynote speaker on 4 July, for example, openly advocated calculating conservation priorities in monetary terms in order to get ‘the biggest conservation bang for your buck’. Many others, however, stayed away from the wider political context in which the ecosystem services concept has arisen; some merely counted the increasing amount of times the term ‘ecological services’ had appeared in journal articles which seemed sufficient reason to ride the popular wave. What is problematic about this is not that conservation biologists are adapting to new political realities. Rather, it is striking that this exploration of new concepts or avenues for action is not accompanied by any criticism or investigation of possible counter arguments based on empirical research.

Considering the fact that the SCB meeting is very much also an academic gathering, this is indeed very worrisome as one would expect academics to critically explore and analyze various sides of a debate.

The 2007 annual SCB meeting also displayed more subtle effects of neoliberal transformation. Two stood out. Firstly, the incessant need for consensus and the subsequent retreat of many people into the domain of nice-sounding yet often empty words, or what I have started calling a ‘layer of discursive blur’. It was clear from many presentations that

‘win-win’ constructions around biodiversity conservation, development, economic growth, etc. were not only thought desirable but also possible. Some more critical voices notwithstanding, it was remarkable that so many academic presentations put so much blind faith into the possibility that a wide range of divergent priorities can be combined productively and unproblematically. Of course, productive conservation-development outcomes can and do occur, but they are rare and never straightforward or one-dimensional. Hence, the realm in which to avoid messiness and constant contradictory dynamics is not reality, but discourse. It is therefore no surprise that the social issues – unlike the biological – were hardly supported by empirical (field) data. As a consequence, too many presenters habitually retreated into ‘mobilizing metaphors’ like participation, ownership, good governance, better policies, etc.: broad and conceptually vague concepts that are meant to capture a broad variety of different interests and goals into apparently immutable objectives that can be embraced by all. Although there were important exceptions, many social science oriented presentations thus tried to build consensus for biodiversity conservation through apparently non-exclusive discourse rather than to convince audiences with intellectually sound and clear argumentation. This is a ‘market approach’ to science: the ‘best’ knowledge is apparently that which the most ‘knowledge consumers’ (audience) ‘buy’ into.


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