For co-existence, (bio)diversity and justice in conservation

Who loves whom, and why? Reflecting on loved vs. unloved others in relation to convivial conservation

By Judith Krauss, University of Sheffield

The NORFACE/Belmont-funded CONVIVA – convivial conservation research project aims to promote (bio)diversity, coexistence and justice for humans and animals around four predators: jaguars, wolves, bears and lions. Four animals which, despite the damage they can cause to those who live with them, inspire love and care locally, nationally and even globally. They are – for the most part – loved others, i.e. animals that elicit human desire for their continued existence because they are seen as cuddly, elegant, or otherwise capture human imagination (Rose & van Dooren, 2011). For their survival, significant conservation resources are expended. Yet what happens to the nonhuman nature that, for one reason or another, is not ascribed nonhuman charisma (Lorimer, 2007), is not turned into cuddly toys, is not seen as worthy of being a sports-team mascot? What happens to those that are awkward creatures because they create damage to things many humans care about (Ginn, Beisel and Barua, 2014)? What happens to those unloved others that are disregarded, neglected or actively the object of control, possibly in the name of conservation (Rose & van Dooren, 2011)?

Who is loved, who is unloved? By whom and why?

This distinction between loved and unloved others matters – not just to the nonhuman nature in question. It can reveal underlying rationales that shape decision-making about what animals are cared for, and those that can, or must, be sacrificed including for conservation (van Dooren, 2015). It can say a lot about what is considered conservation (Sandbrook, 2015) or indeed nature (Cronon, 1996).

This basic distinction between loved and unloved others shows how humans’ often fluid, often subjective perspectives can shape dominant thinking. Generally, humans favour in their conservation donations those that are seen as more charismatic and more akin to humans (Colléony et al., 2017). By the same token, there are declining, almost unknown creatures whose existence is vital for the global ecosystem (Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, 2019), yet who are so unphotogenic that they will never be immortalized in a conservation campaign. Conversely, creatures that may globally be considered ‘loved others’, i.e. targeted for life and tourism, may in fact be an awkward, unloved creature for those who live with them, on account of losses of lives or livelihoods (e.g. Tumusiime and Vedeld, 2012). Equally, as appreciation for nature increases in the Covid lockdown (Natural England, 2021), those that were unloved others may become loved in connection-deprived quarantine from other humans.

How do we live with awkward, unloved others?

What makes living with awkward, unloved creatures more difficult is that they, for a variety of reasons, are rarely at the centre of research into making living between humans and nonhumans easier. For example, there is a wealth of literature around human-wildlife conflict and, more recently, about human-wildlife coexistence, some of which emphasises the importance of moving beyond conflict and promoting positive human-wildlife interactions (e.g. Frank, 2016; Frank, Glikman and Marchini, 2019). However, the literature generally foregrounds charismatic megafauna (Marchini, 2014), i.e. the animals that – globally – are targeted for life, not death. How do you apply the insights from this research to awkward, unloved creatures if there is no (conservation/monetary/touristic) benefit from conserving them and/or no significant group of people advocating for their continued existence?

Convivial conservation and unloved others

Grey squirrel in the UK (seen generally as destructive invaders threatening trees and red squirrels’ survival)

There are elements to the convivial conservation vision (Büscher and Fletcher 2019, 2020) – promoted areas, long-term engaged visitation, embedded value – which also apply more to loved than unloved others, mostly because of the absence of benefit to be gained from globally ‘unloved others’. For instance, what would happen in a process establishing embedded value, if feral pigs on Hawai’i (van Dooren, 2015) or street dogs in India (Srinivasan, 2019) or grey squirrels in the UK were to be seen as being worth nothing?

However, the fourth element of the convivial conservation vision, i.e. shifting from spectacular to everyday environmentalism, in conjunction with the second element of celebrating human and nonhuman nature, are very applicable to unloved others. The reference to spectacular environmentalism links to Igoe’s (2010) spectacle of nature. Building on DeBord’s spectacle, ‘spectacle of nature’ highlights that nature is consumed as commodified images, in ways that are divorced from and ignorant of the contexts and structures which produced these images. Igoe’s argument is that human relations to conservation, and nature, to a significant degree are driven by these spectacles, i.e. by commodified links to far-away landscapes and species.

In contravention of these dynamics, everyday environmentalism proposes to celebrate human and nonhuman nature in the contexts where we live. The idea of everyday environmentalism, coupled with celebrating human and nonhuman nature, would thus fundamentally challenge the above-discussed, rather arbitrary preferences that govern who is seen as loved others, by whom, and why. Rather than prioritising spectacles of and commodified relations with ‘loved’, far-away and/or rare species and landscapes, it proposes paying attention to, celebrating and appreciating all loved and unloved others, however awkward, however unphotogenic. This would equally raise questions about re-valuing the above-mentioned feral pigs, street dogs or grey squirrels, and many more, non-mammal, unloved others.

In sum, the discussion about loved and unloved others emphasizes the selective, fickle ebb and flow of human favour, and its very real implications for decisions on nonhuman nature. Conversely, it emphasises the importance of an ethos of responsibility for all life, whether driven by philosophy (Levinas, 1989) or learning from indigenous knowledges (Rose, 2004) such as the Ubuntu ethic of respect towards all that lives (Chibvongodze, 2016).