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 3

A second, related subtle effect of neoliberalism visible in the meeting was the apparent need to always be positive and think in terms of compatibility. Some presenters did posit conclusions with a ‘negative’ connotation, but often immediately then pointed to the “future positive”: the ‘promising’ or exciting new possibilities brought by a new model or another win-win solution. Again, this takes away the emphasis from argumentation and aims to leave the knowledge consumers thinking that all challenges can be overcome by merely ‘capacitating’ ‘decision makers’, ‘policy-makers’ and ‘communities’ into buying into the new model or managing according to the latest conservation planning map. Debate is foreclosed as

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consensus is assumed and critical comment framed as ‘unproductive’ or unnecessarily negative. Indeed, most social science oriented questions were on rather ‘neutral’ issues: those of methodology, the application of the model in another region or whether one has thought to include variable X into the equation. I consider the above trends to be very problematic, especially so for the future of biodiversity conservation because they distract from its objectives.

The Society for Conservation Biology has as its mission to ‘advance the science and practice of conserving the earth’s biological diversity’. It is logical that its flagship annual meeting tries to build political constituencies for its mission. The question is whether this must be done based on neoliberal consensus oriented ‘partnerships’ or based on what conservation biologists do best: provide the data and analyses that allows us to see what we as humanity are doing to the planet. As a social scientist, I completely agree that conservation biology must be extended into the social sciences but this should then be based on rigorous empirical research that shows that reality is about inequality, grey zones and ‘winners and losers’, rather than mere neoliberal win-win ideas of consensus around competition and the market. Even if one entertains an open political agenda of biodiversity conservation, one can and should still adhere to this principle. Obviously, the link between politics and the social sciences is a hotly debated scientific grey area, since every social science is inherently and always political. The point here is that “the mistake is not in trying to do two things at once – every science is also a political project – the mistake is to interrupt the former because of the urgency of the latter” (Latour 2005: 259-260). Clearly biodiversity conservation is an urgent matter – as often stressed during the meeting – but conservation biology ultimately does not advance the understanding of complex ‘socio-ecological’ realities by brushing aside and simplifying socio-political ones.

Meine et al (2006: 647) state that the SCBs “success will be measured by the degree to which we can integrate scientific understanding into our community life, by the effectiveness of our approaches to sustaining the diversity of life and the health of ecosystems, and by the respect for the living world we are able to foster within our varied cultures and within the human heart”. If the SCB 2007 meeting is anything to go by, I fear that the current neoliberal manner in which the SCB reinvents itself will only bring the society further away from this objective.

Literature cited

Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Meine, C., M. Soule and R.F. Noss. 2006. “A Mission Driven Discipline”: the Growth of Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology 20: 631-651.


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