Editor’s note: This essay was co-authored by George B. Rabb shortly before his death last summer and Kevin Ogorzalek. George Rabb was a leading figure in the life of the Center for Humans and Nature. A distinguished and honored scientist, he was a leader in the contemporary movement to transform zoos from animal menageries to conservation and research centers. Kevin Orgorzalek worked closely with George and has already made his mark as one of a new generation of dynamic environmental leaders.
An ethic of care and caring—such as people manifest for one another, for companion animals and plants, and for favorite places—must be extended to all of nature. Extending the moral scope of care in this way is important because it has the potential to change human behavior on a large scale. The moral and emotional power of care can give new vigor and broaden horizons for conservation. It can foster behaviors and policies to create a thriving, resilient planet for humans and other creatures to inhabit.
In order to obtain widespread caring toward the whole community of life, certain evolutionary holdovers of human behavior related to short-term consumption must be curtailed, and current social norms rooted in these evolutionary holdovers must be replaced with new norms. This can be accomplished through primary and secondary education programs; by improving the social status of conservation; and by creating meaningful communications that capitalize on behaviors that manifest caring, such as biophilia, locaphilia, and sociophilia. Conservation organizations and nature-focused institutions should stimulate caring behaviors, engaging the hearts and spirits as well as the minds of people, motivating them to engage in environmental conservation. To promote this transformation of how people relate to nature, conservation organizations—along with zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, nature centers, natural history museums, and similar institutions—must develop productive alliances among themselves and with other civic groups, policymakers, and their supporters, while re-examining their modes of approach toward public engagement so as to more effectively inform, interact with, and inspire people to care. These new collaborations should aim to establish conservation as a social norm, thus motivating day-to-day personal and political action directed toward achieving sustainable existence for our species.
Only when the majority of people worldwide care for nature and perceive their caring as rational and emotionally satisfying will environmental conservation truly become successful.
Conservation Is Caring
Environmental conservation manifests from caring behavior by motivated people who are devoted to ensuring the well-being of the biota and the natural environment. A more rigorous effort to uphold and institutionalize caring behavior is called for if we truly care about the natural world.
The phrase “conservation is caring” may seem an aphorism that is too simplistic and will not register with those who are unaware that these words imply a responsibility for us as individual members of the biosphere. However, caring is a core characteristic and behavior of our social species; it builds a propensity to attend, and to tend, to the well-being of others into the very marrow of human being.
The many dimensions of caring for our own kind are often described by a tapestry of terms, such as altruism, empathy, compassion, friendship, and sociophilia. Altruism describes behavior occurring in various contexts whereby individuals support others, either indirectly or directly, by physically helping them. Altruistic actions go beyond pure reciprocity toward related kin, but extend to unrelated species as well. Compassion describes a universally experienced emotion triggered by the suffering of others. Empathy, the ability to identify with the perspective and experience of others—including non-human others—is essential in supporting societal functioning. And friendship not only manifests as a personal caring relationship, but is a critical function of cohesion for societies to exist at all.
It is obvious that many conservation professionals and volunteers have a deep well of caring that fuels their daily drive to maintain the wonders and resources of nature. For in each action, conservationists make an ethical choice to care for other species. Through their work, the central dimensions of caring are expressed.
Reasons to Care
Humanity benefits significantly from the rest of the natural world. The benefits include provision of food, fiber, water, and a habitable climate. Assets of all kinds held by all levels of society (including financial investments, homes, food, commercial outputs, medicine, and cultural productions) benefit substantially from conservation activities, which secure the integrity of ecosystem services in many terrestrial and aquatic environments. Human mental, emotional, and physical well-being greatly benefits from knowing about, having exposure to, and being immersed in, nature. As we lose nature, we lose potential knowledge, cultural values, health, aesthetic inspiration, and recreational opportunities. And above all, we lose personal experiences with nature. The biosphere―nature―is essential for humanity to exist now and into the future.
Responsibility to Care
Caring for nature can be seen as a responsibility that stems from these benefits, and beyond them, this responsibility stems from our very existence as sentient beings. The ethical equation here is simple―human existence has costs to the rest of the biosphere, whether measured in terms of net primary productivity, calories, or otherwise. Nature can give us a bill for services rendered. In fairness, these bills should be paid; caring for the welfare of the biosphere, the biotic and abiotic elements essential for all life, can be seen as our recompense to the natural world. Moreover, the moral responsibility connected with giving care is related to the capacity to do harm to others. In view of humanity’s current collective impact, which will determine the future for all of Earth’s life, there is an enormous moral obligation to care for the present and the future.
Development of Caring
The highly distinctive social behavior of humans gives us an opportunity to develop and enhance human caring for nature. The sociality of Homo sapiens is a result of the exceptionally protracted physical and neurological development of human infants and children. This long period gives many opportunities for parents, teachers, mentors, and social institutions to impart values and shape the outlooks and attitudes of children. However, caring for nature is consistently not among the values imparted in the course of their development, at least not in contemporary technological society. To be sure, youngsters apparently develop their own caring behaviors from biophilic experiences and motivations, but these alone are not sufficient without additional cultural and social reinforcements. School curricula ranging from Montessori to high school biology classes have the opportunity to foster a sense of caring to last a lifetime. The development of caring during youth, however, is too often overridden in adulthood by seemingly rational, short-term consumptive habits. These in turn have generated enormous unchecked growth in economic activities and thereby produced substantial problems for the biosphere.
Evolution of Human Behavior
As alluded to above, perhaps the greatest difficulty in developing a sense of caring for nature is our apparent inheritance of certain behavioral patterns from our hunter-gatherer past. Dustin Penn outlined these behavioral features from an ecological evolutionary viewpoint. He characterizes short-term consumption and selfish behavior within common resources as key evolutionary behaviors. Penn and others equate over-consumption by individuals with conspicuous behavioral displays in other species to gain or maintain superior social or sexual status. Different schools of thought attribute the recent evolution of human behavior to various social and ecological pressures. However, there is general agreement that people use natural resources to obtain goods and attain status. The use of these living and non-living resources alters the environment. Socially conditioned behaviors then change in response to altered ecosystems.
These evolutionary behavioral holdovers do not necessarily doom our species or the planet. Our mental capacities continue to evolve, and geographic differentiation in genotypic variation is evidence of continuing evolutionary adaptation. Further, Robin Wall Kimmerer , George Varughese and Elinor Ostrom, and Arun Agrawal all describe counter-narratives to the common story of overexploitation of the natural world. They document human communities with social norms, effectively bringing about ethical caring for the natural commons on which they rely. Ostrom’s extensive work with her colleagues shows that people can sustainably manage natural resources by developing responsive social and governance structures in their local and regional communities.
Conservation as a professional field came into being to counteract changes to the natural world brought about by industrialism and the population growth of the last two hundred years. These forces have fueled consumptive growth effects that now exceed safe planetary boundaries for our existence. Humanity’s exploitation of the Earth’s resources is already overshooting some regenerative planetary boundaries, and current societal activities indicate severe detrimental effects if continued. Examples of this overshooting include biogeochemical excesses in nitrogen and phosphorus, excessive greenhouse gas emissions, and globally diminishing biodiversity. These trends will surely result in a vastly different human society, likely with environmental conditions generally much less preferable than those that many people enjoy today.
By making caring for the environment and other life forms a priority, the negative change effects that follow from industrialism and our species’ population growth can be reversed for the benefit of the whole community of life.
Conservation and Evolutionary Positive Behaviors
Our capacities for caring are illustrated in mainstream conservation approaches that create protected areas, community-based management of environments, campaigns for species survival, and public-private partnerships for landscape management and for promoting ecosystem services. Mace frames such conservation approaches over the last several decades as “Nature for itself,” “Nature despite people,” “Nature for people,” and “People and Nature.” All of these approaches to conservation reflect our sense of caring but have yet to succeed systemically, partly because of a long divide between those who champion the intrinsic (e.g., nature for nature’s sake) versus the instrumental values of nature (e.g., ecosystem services and classic economic valuation of nature). Tallis and Lubchenco review the internal conservation debate and call for inclusive conservation that embraces various conservation ethics.
Following this call, a more enduring conservation approach that effectively counters evolutionary tendencies for short-term, environmentally degrading behaviors is to recognize and embrace other innate emotional altruistic behaviors, which lead to sociophilia, locaphilia, and biophilia. Much more emphasis must be given to these positive, instinctive affiliations that people have with one another, particular living beings, favored places, and nature in general. D.S. Wilson demonstrated such an approach in The Neighborhood Project, wherein positive engagement counters negative human tendencies and leads to actually caring for the environment in an urban context.
Sociophilia—love of people—is evident in individuals in their marital, parental, and familial relationships, and in non-family interactions, including friendships, neighborliness, working fellowships, tribal associations, and belief-sharing groups of religious, cultural, and political kinds. Sociophilia is expressed by empathetic and compassionate actions between those in close relationships and by altruistic actions toward unfamiliar individuals and collectives. Extension of such behaviors to all of existing and future humanity is an ultimate aim in caring.
Locaphilia—love of place—is manifested in attachments people have to environments of home, neighborhoods, and familiar landscapes. Bodily security and emotional and physiological comfort motivate such feelings, which we often characterize in other animals as the homing instinct. Locaphilia is expressed in caring for the qualities of places, whether built or natural environments, and in caring for processes that produce and maintain these environments. Another ultimate aim should be to extend caring for local places to our entire planetary home.
Biophilia—the love of other living creatures—is evidenced in the close associations people desire with other beings. This is especially true with animals and plants people choose to share their home and work places, particularly pets that have friendly behavioral exchanges with individual people. Biophilia is expressed in our knowing and providing for the well-being of individual animals and plants and the needs of their kind. Biophilia also extends to natural associations of individuals of different species in ecosystems. The continuing existence of all life calls for further extending biophilic caring beyond such personal associations to encompass the global environmental commons of the airs, waters, lands, and other species, as well as chemical and physical processes that sustain life’s existence. This is biodiversity conservation writ very large.
Caring for nature can become the ethical norm through the proactive, positive engagement of the heads and hearts of humanity. To so proceed, organizations and institutions can create educational programs for members, visitors, and the general public that reinforce biophilic and locaphilic connections with nature and foster empathy for all other species and the environment. Measures to gauge the effectiveness of such programs have been proposed by Helen Perkins in developing a system called the “Love and Care for Nature” scale, which could be incorporated into the conservation community’s ability to demonstrate success. Effectively reinforcing connections to nature as previously discussed may rely on what Darwin saw as the most important evolutionary caring behavior, compassion. In reviewing the evolutionary evidence for compassion, Jennifer Goetz, Dacher Keltner, and Emiliana Simon-Thomas reveal that compassion, “the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help,” is nearly universally present across cultures and individuals. With biodiversity at risk globally, compassionate caring emotions can inspire and lead to productive conservation actions.
In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold described the “Ecological Conscience” as “an affair of the mind as well as the heart.” Both emotional and intellectual arguments can be made to inspire caring. Additionally, to inspire a culture of caring, conservation professionals must help people extend themselves beyond their very immediate surroundings to care for species and environments both local and distant. However, there is no single, easy way to inspire such care or to “act locally and think globally.”
For urban populations who have little day-to-day connection with mostly natural environments, drawing on their biophilic relations with other living things such as houseplants, gardens, and pets may be the most productive avenue to increase concern for the natural world. In the United States of America, the household population of dogs is 71.6 million and of cats, 73.6 million, and these numbers are attributed in large part to the separation of urban populaces from nature (www. petfoodinstitute.org). Further, 72 percent of U.S. households partake in gardening, and 33 percent have food gardens. The conservation community should consider how to tap the intense feelings already established in gardeners and pet owners, extending their biophilic caring to species in natural environments.
For rural populations, conservation organizations can usefully promote a caring, place-based land ethic that enables long-term community flourishing, as advocated by Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, and others, and as demonstrated in some global programs. The Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago works with local people in the Peruvian Amazon to establish national protected areas designed to assure that the culture integrity and traditions of indigenous communities are respected while also protecting the natural environments they inhabit. We must draw on diverse approaches and tools—including education, new technology such as social media, and significant public engagement—to engender caring for nature in both urban and rural peoples and to establish conservation as a new social norm.
People should understand the consequences of each of their actions on the environment and―through caring―undertake actions that nourish and replenish the earth in a manner that rewards people and nature in a symbiotic relationship. Celebrating caring may be the inspiration that will move people to embrace conservation as an essential part of their way of life.
The Challenges for Conservation Organizations and Nature-Focused Institutions
Organizations and institutions face three main challenges in inspiring people to care. These are a lack of financial resources to devote to conservation actions, a lack of effective communication to motivate people to care, and the necessity of changing societal norms to encourage and reward conservation behaviors.
Underpinned by the short-term views of many people, annual global economic activity of about $77 trillion fuels much of the ongoing destruction of the environmental commons globally. These consumptive economic interests prevent the successful biosphere stewardship that would enable humans to continue as a viable species. With only a few billion dollars collectively, conservation organizations and nature-focused institutions attempt to reverse the impact of this large economic force on planet Earth.
Such an imbalance of financial resources requires creative thinking to foster creative conservation! Undoubtedly, countering actions and new thinking may upset members and significant donors of conservation organizations and nature-focused institutions, but we must respond to the moral calling to do what is right. For the betterment of humanity, we have been inspired in the past to heed moral callings that countered economic interests and systems. Such instances include the abolition of slavery and the outlawing of the slave trade, the struggle for gender and racial equality, and the preservation of lands in perpetuity rather than for economic exploitation. In creating a norm of a caring ethic for nature, the conservation community should look to these movements for inspiration and guidance. Conservation organizations and nature-focused institutions need to better understand how to establish progressive social norms and to catalyze the citizenry to actions for environmental conservation.
Additionally, it has been shown that inspiring a majority to care for the future is possible. Motivating people to care is achieved by demonstrating impact on future generations and fostering local to global behaviors, which in turn leads to a majority rule that curtails the behavior of free riders who do not cooperate and over-exploit group resources. Today, we need to think more innovatively to effectively engage and inspire humanity to a moral calling to save itself and the earth.
Creative conservation has to enable recruitment of more people beyond those already engaged in caring for the natural world. The challenge is to get the majority of people to manifest altruism (through empathy and friendship) and to express sociophilia and biophilia for all beings by caring for nature―the whole community of life. We can achieve this in part by creating inspirational, positive engagements with society. More positive narratives pertaining to humans and nature will surely aid such transformations. Researchers have demonstrated that many human languages show a bias toward the use of positive words. Organizations and institutions need to be mindful of such word biases in crafting their public communications. In line with this, Clive McAlpine and colleagues call for transforming societal values at three levels: “(1) being responsible and ethical in our dealings with other people and our environment; (2) better integrating ourselves into our communities; and (3) reconnecting with and valuing nature.”
An additional challenge is the relative absence of public celebration of pro-nature behaviors. Conservationists have generally not been accorded acclaim or other social rewards―as are entertainers and athletes―except in their own professional community. Restoring natural conditions such as to soil or a forest landscape may be publicly recognized as good actions but are not routinely held up as behaviors to be emulated unless there is clear economic benefit. Both the negative connotation of the word “conservation” and the lack of admiration for conservation actions are further indications that we have neglected to improve our relationships with our home planet. These challenges can be overcome in part by seizing the potential for new, positive conservation alliances to engage the public.
The Potential for Conservation as Caring at Nature-Focused Institutions
Visitors and members of nature-focused institutions provide a great opportunity for promoting conservation as caring and for positively changing societal concern for the environment. Annually, as much as 10 percent of the world’s population visits such institutions for a variety of reasons, including positive experiences with families and friends. Those who attend zoos display a relatively high understanding of ecological issues. Studies indicate that a significant percentage of these visitors care about biodiversity and particular species. Zoo visitors develop greater empathy for and emotional connections to animals during their visits, and parents often view a zoo visit as a chance to instill ethical and moral thinking in their children. Research has shown that 10 percent of visitors surveyed have a deep understanding of the institution’s conservation goals, and that over half of visitors leave zoos and aquariums with better understanding of how they can help conserve the animal species and their environments. Students who visit zoos, aquariums, museums, and botanic gardens on field trips also typically gain a better understanding of key environmental issues, like climate change, through their experiential learning―learning that can persist beyond the institution’s gates. Visiting zoos also increases the confidence to achieve general tasks through self-efficacy (or empowerment toward individual sustainable tasks), and is a predictor of conservation related behaviors.
The aforementioned lessons, however, do not always lead to long-term behavior changes and actions. Visitors to zoos and aquariums are more likely to act for conservation activities during their visits, as emotional connection to animals and concern about conservation issues are stronger while present in such institutions. There is potential, however, for improving visitor experiences in a manner that more effectively engages visitors to care and foster better environmental behaviors and actions leading to conservation. It has also been found that focusing on caring for wildlife in both in situ and ex situ contexts can lead to pro-conservation behavior. The compassionate conservation movement offers many examples for institutions to emulate in this vein.
If nature-focused institutions worldwide motivated and effectively organized just 10 percent of their visitors (approximately 70 million people) to care for nature long-term, this number of people would likely be enough to establish a new social norm of conservation as caring. Such a norm would be reinforced by new alliances between conservation organizations and nature-focused institutions.
New Alliances of Conservation Organizations and Institutions to Foster Caring Behaviors and Mobilize the Public
Conservation organizations and nature-focused institutions have a variety of resources to inspire and inculcate caring. Many are large and powerful organizations dedicated to environmental improvement and biodiversity conservation.The agendas of these organizations vary greatly, and depend in large measure on their support bases—whether from large grants (from governments, foundations, or private individuals) or popular memberships. Several organizations count millions of members (the World Wildlife Fund, 5 million; the Sierra Club 2 million in the United States; The Nature Conservancy, 1 million), and they contribute financially to specific conservation purposes. These members can be motivated to further act toward larger conservation goals that they have been suitably informed about and inspired to care about.
Smaller organizations at local and regional levels can and do invite public participation in caring directly for the natural world. A concern for conservation organizations—local, national, and global—should be creating productive alliances with each other and governmental bodies where appropriate. These alliances can foster behavior changes in visitors and members to incorporate caring through engagement, education, and empowerment.
Engagement means interacting with the general public in formal and informal ways to target conservation issues and promote caring. Education to foster caring involves actively transferring information about interactions between humanity and the rest of the natural world, as well as societal impacts. Empowerment means enabling people to understand how their individual and group actions can make a positive difference for the conservation of nature. This combination of engagement, education, and empowerment can potentially create significant, large-scale developments of conservation as a social norm. Such a new norm will influence and change individual human behavior, which should be the critical focus of conservation organizations in order to achieve real-world impact.
Establishing systemic partnerships between nature-focused institutions and conservation organizations can mobilize hundreds of millions of visitors and members to become more responsible global citizens. People so recruited would be more likely to consume “green” goods, behave more sustainably, lobby for environmental and conservation policies by communities, governments, and businesses, and engage themselves in restoration and wise management of natural environments.
Improved behaviors in the commercial markets are needed to achieve a truly sustainable relationship with the natural world. Other long-term changes that demonstrate caring will involve improvements of environmental policies and practices at global, national, state, and local levels. This will mean that governmental and private sectors respond to their constituents by committing to conservation.
Whether greater caring behaviors have been more fully adopted by the general public can be measured by several indicators:
- greater financial resources of organizations and institutions;
- larger organizational and institutional memberships and volunteer corps to participate in conservation;
- more and better environmental components in the curricula of public and private education systems;
- positive change in sustainable markets and environmental policy;
- improved governance of environmental systems, including strategic planning; and
- measurable reversal of defloration and defaunation at landscape scales;
At present, conservation and other aspects of environmentalism are second- or third-tier political issues. Much of this relegation is likely due to insufficient understanding and engagement, and thus a lack of caring, by people in general. Until more people care, conservation actions―which in many ways are determined and effected by political decisions―will remain a low priority. In commenting on the findings of Ashley Whillans and Elizabeth Dunn about monetary valuing of time as a negative in relation to environmental concern behavior, Jason Goldman suggests that communicating the self-beneficial advantage of such behavior may be a most productive course to take. While this corresponds with observations on the distribution of environmental concern among Americans, such thinking reinforces the individualistic, short-term consumptive ethos behind the environmental crisis and ignores that practice of an altruistic, caring ethos can lead to sustainable existence for our kind. In this relation, Victor Yocco and colleagues found that visitors to two large zoos in Ohio were very predominantly biospheric or social/ altruistic in their conservation concerns, which had been identified also as the prevailing outlook of people in Latin America. We need to motivate people everywhere to use their varied influence on political systems to create the change necessary to support governance of environmental systems that is true conservation, restoring the health of the biosphere. The findings that recognition of one’s own and others’ contributions to a cause is most effective in stimulating cooperation gives great hope for political change through alliances such as we advocate here.
Year after year, conservation organizations, government agencies, and academics document the continued demise of the natural world. Although conservation successes occur, the downward trend in the biosphere’s health has clearly not reversed. Without a massive, concerted effort to motivate people individually and to get society to care more fully and forcefully for the natural world, environmental conservation efforts will not succeed generally, and global environmental degradation will continue. New, more systemic, dynamic alliances between nature-focused institutions and conservation organizations can create opportunities and capacities to foster a new societal norm of conservation as caring for nature. These new alliances, united behind this common theme, can motivate people to engage in the political dialogues and processes that govern society and so change collective human behavior, allowing us to become a sustainable species respectful of nature.
We thank Curt Meine for reviewing several drafts and providing insight and additional references on the subject. We also thank Anja Claus and Brooke Hecht for providing additional references and ideas. And thanks to Francie Muraski-Stotz for her thoughtful editorial observations.