Rethinking conservation in the Anthropocene


We know that humans are a dominant force shaping the planet, but there’s a debate over whether this really constitutes a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. For now, let’s leave this debate aside and focus on a practical question: for conservation biologists, do the ideas of the Anthropocene give us any insights into the types of conservation projects we should pursue?

One of the core ideas of the Anthropocene is that we live in a matrix of human impacts that are extensive and far-reaching. There is no “wilderness” any more, only landscapes impacted to varying degrees by humans. The implications of this for practicing ecologists are nicely summed up by Ellis:

To advance the science of ecology in an increasingly anthropogenic biosphere, it is useful to begin with “The First Law of the Anthropocene”: the ecological patterns, processes and dynamics of the present day, deep past and foreseeable future are shaped by human societies (p. 316).

Modern conservation practitioners choose their projects from a diverse portfolio of strategies. Two weeks ago, Kiza wrote about assisted colonization, which is the strategy of deliberately moving a species to a new habitat when global change renders existing habitats uninhabitable. A related idea is the “rewilding” movement, which is the restoration of an ecosystem through the re-introduction of extirpated species (Nogues-Bravo et al. 2016). Conservation biologists also think hard about optimal siting of nature preserves, environmental restoration aimed at mitigating certain high-profile stressors (like invasive species or toxic chemicals), and best strategies for minimizing the impacts of land use change. In many large ecosystems, conservation projects are selected by a diverse group of actors in agencies and NGOs pursuing several of these strategies at the same time.

Though all of these conservation actions can be valuable, it isn’t easy to measure the benefit of a particular project. For example, how much “benefit” might accrue to an ecosystem following the removal of an invasive species? Would another conservation action, like remediation of toxic contaminants, give a greater ecosystem benefit per dollar spent? This question matters, because conservation projects have opportunity costs associated with other, forgone projects. In lieu of real measurements of the cost-effectiveness of categorically different conservation projects we must rely on our own judgment to decide what types of projects to pursue. This opens the door for cognitive biases in the way we value certain types of conservation actions. For example, does the creation of a nature preserve or a national park seem like a greater conservation accomplishment than large-scale remediation of contaminated soils? Do we as conservation practitioners have a bias toward valuing conservation actions focused on “wilderness” more than conservation investments directed at human-dominated landscapes?

Let’s look at an example of a conservation strategy that might be the poster child for conservation in the Anthropocene: retrofitting road culverts and removing dams to restore the movement of migratory fishes. Road culverts and dams are by far the most common structures in our rivers and streams: in the United States, we have upwards of 4 million of them. Nearly every river flows through thousands of these structures on its journey from headwaters to mouth. In-stream barriers such as road culverts and dams block the movements of migratory fishes, disrupting breeding migrations and fragmenting freshwater habitats into a mosaic of isolated patches. Habitat fragmentation of this sort is a leading cause of declining freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem services worldwide. In much of the US and elsewhere there is growing investment in restoring ecosystem connectivity by retrofitting road culverts and removing obsolete dams.

Retrofitting road culverts and removing dams to restore fish migrations are quintessentially Anthropocene conservation actions, because these conservation investments are targeted at human-dominated landscapes. When we retrofit road culverts, we’re enabling fish to navigate through a matrix of societal infrastructure to reach historical breeding grounds. Not much wilderness is involved! Though these conservation projects occur in human-dominated landscapes, they can be incredibly cost-effective. For example, careful prioritization of barrier removals in Great Lakes tributaries could lead to a doubling of the amount of accessible fish habitat in the entire basin for a mere $70 million (Neeson et al. 2015). How many other conservation actions might have this return-on-investment? Would the same $70 million be better spent on purchasing land and setting aside nature preserves in a relatively pristine portion of the Great Lakes basin? As a point of comparison, the ongoing Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has spent nearly $1.6 billion on a wide range of restoration projects since 2010, but outcomes assessments are ongoing (GLRI 2014).

So, does Ellis’ First Law of the Anthropocene make a difference for practicing conservation biologists? Maybe it is worth reflecting on the biases we may have in the way that we value different types of conservation actions, and whether ideas from the Anthropocene might shape our valuation of conservation projects in human-dominated landscapes.


Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (2014) Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan II. Available at
Nogués-Bravo, D., Simberloff, D., Rahbek, C., & Sanders, N. J. (2016). Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation. Current Biology 26:R87-R91. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.044.
Neeson, T. M., Ferris, M. C., Diebel, M. W., Doran, P. J., O’Hanley, J. R., & McIntyre, P. B. (2015). Enhancing ecosystem restoration efficiency through spatial and temporal coordination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112:6236-6241. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1423812112.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking conservation in the Anthropocene

  1. Thanks for your post, Tom, and welcome to the blog!

    At the end you call for reflection on the biases people bring in evaluating conservation actions in the context of the Anthropocene. I take it that you mean that, given the brute fact of pervasive anthropogenic change, we ought to give higher value to actions taken to make human-dominated landscapes more habitable for other species. Is this what you are driving at with your example of dam and culvert removal in the Great Lakes Basin?

    If I’m right about your view, I wonder if you think Ellis’ theory—more even than his “First Law”—makes a positive contribution to that process of reflection. The core of his view seems to be that human alteration of landscapes is a brute fact of life: “Sociocultural niche construction in an increasingly anthropogenic biosphere is neither new nor disastrous, but the perpetual activity of human societies engaged in the intentional cooperative engineering of ecosystems since prehistory” (p. 319). Do you think that acceptance of that fact might make the effort to make human-altered landscapes as ecologically rich as possible more acceptable?

    But let me ask another question, addressed to you as an ecologist. It occurred to me that Ellis is really offering a pretty strong challenge to the discipline, namely that to go forward it needs to internalize a comprehensive theory of human beings, just in order to understand the ecosystemic phenomena it aims to study. Thus he says

    Accepting sociocultural systems as a global force of nature represents a paradigm shift across the natural sciences that is no less significant than evolution by natural selection or plate tectonics. For ecologists, the meaning should be very clear. The forces of humanity are now akin to those of climate geophysics or biology and therefore as fundamental to understanding the processes that shape life on Earth as the sciences of climate, soils, or biology. To engage in scientific study of ecological pattern, process, and change as it exists today and for the foreseeable future demands a firm grasp of the human sciences and their deep integration into ecological theory and practice. It is no longer adequate merely to study the consequences of human transformation of ecological pattern and process: Ecology must become a science of their ultimate causes. (pp. 319-320)

    Do you agree with this strong claim? Do you think that the work you do requires something like the theory of human sociocultural niche construction Ellis is suggesting? Or do you think that his claim is too strong, and that ecology as a science does not need as fully developed an account of human society as he says?

  2. As someone who is currently in school in the hopes of becoming an ecologist, I do wonder what our responsibility is to know and understand the workings of human groups. Now that the effects of humanity on the Earth are no longer ignorable, is the study of anthropology unavoidable in the study of ecology?
    In the context of the article as a whole, it is interesting how conservationists’ efforts can be so intertwined with cultural and cognitive biases. When pondering this, it’s hard not to get mired down in the simple question of it all: why do we conserve? Is it in order to keep the planet inhabitable for our species? Do we care for our planet in an attempt to make up for the harms humans inflicted? How can a community even fathom conservation in areas that are not human-dominated if their entire view of conservation is founded in the human-benefitting effects of a cleaner environment? If the lens truly is so focused on humans it would seem that the study of human systems is necessary to the study of ecology.
    The interactions between people and their environment are complex and often frustrating. What do you think that my responsibility is, as a fledgling scientist, when considering the Anthropocene as the underlying context behind the interactions between humanity and the world we live in?

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