Department of Anthropology


“How do we think about conservation, and who is it for?”

How do we think about conservation, and who is it for?”

At first thought, this seems like a fairly easy question, but last week marked the inaugural talk for the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme, where it turns out that this question is not so simple. Prof. Dame Georgina Mace, a Sussex Alumni who did her PhD at Sussex ~40 years ago, gave a talk entitled ‘How should we value nature in a human-dominated world?’.

As a 3rd year Conservation Science PhD student at Sussex, it is inspiring to see what you can achieve in conservation science over your career. Georgina led the process to develop the criteria, used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), for listing species on The Red List of threatened species. Among other broad-scale and policy relevant work that Georgina has worked on, such as assessing ‘Planetary Boundaries’, and now working on the Natural Capital Committee for the UK government, I would like to focus on a thread that is particularly interesting to me, and that is: How has the focus of conservation research and who it is for, changed over time?

Georgina spoke about how, since she did her PhD at Sussex, we have gone through 4 different stages of conservation research, as she identifies them.

 Stage 1: Nature for itself

Research in this stage was about exciting wild species and places, and protecting them because of what they are, e.g. through designing protected areas. However by the 1970s/80s it was clear that this approach alone was not working.

 Stage 2: Nature despite people

This stage focused more on the ravaged landscapes, overharvesting, and trying to stop destructive human pressures. By 2000 this didn’t seem to be working either.

 Stage 3: Nature for people

This 3rd stage saw a turn in the way people thought about conservation, the focus was on protecting nature because people depend on it. It was about describing the ecosystem services and benefits that humans gain from nature, and the economics of protecting it.

 Stage 4: People and Nature

The current stage is similar to stage 3, but focuses more on the dynamic interdependence between humans and nature, and how to manage both together. This stage looks forward into the future, with the rise of predictive modeling, and how to design ecological systems to be resilient to human impacts.  With rapid environmental change, this stage tries to work out ways of buffering the impacts of people.

 So, how do we think about conservation, and indeed, who is it for?

Over time, we have been moving from just thinking about protecting animals and landscapes, from trying to decipher the benefits that humans get from nature, to present day which focuses on the interactions between humans and nature. We have gone from preserving nature, to focusing on maintaining the future form, function, and adaptability of nature. As Georgina described that what is needed in the future of conservation research is to focus on the interaction between people and nature through an interdisciplinary approach, Sussex starts it’s Sustainability Research Program aimed at linking departments to conduct interdisciplinary research to solve the world’s conservation issues.

The current stage of conservation links in very well with my PhD research, which focuses on quantifying the exploitation from humans of terrestrial species and developing ways to track this exploitation. Georgina’s talk reminds me that conservation needs must look at both the natural and the human side of the story. After a very honest and frank talk from Georgina, it is clear that conservation is continually growing and evolving, and has highlighted the importance of developing research that has a direct input into policy. The work that Georgina has done since her PhD in the field of conservation science is a testament that change is possible.

Dan is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Sussex, and is particularly interested in natural resource use and conservation. Broadly Dan's PhD aims to quantitatively assess the exploitation of terrestrial species in the tropics.


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By: Caroline Grundy
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Last updated: Friday, 13 May 2016