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Environmental conservation today is both romanticized and treated as an emergency. It is a race against the clock in a crisis of extinction and a divine calling from God. It is both squishy in its definitions and incredibly concrete in its data-driven calls to action. It is as easy to enter the field of conservation with a utopian ideal of “saving the world” as it is to fall into hopelessness at the scale of the problem. That’s the finicky needle Michelle Nijhuis is trying to thread with her book Beloved Beasts (W. W. Norton & Company, 2021).
“Fantasy and despair are tempting,” she writes, “but history can help us resist them.” When I talk to her on Zoom, from her home in the small town of White Salmon, on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, on the border between Washington and Oregon, she points to the noble aspirations that founded the conservation movement and how they remain relevant even today. “The mission of conservation biology, and conservation in general, can still be summarized as the protection of biological diversity, ecological complexity, and the evolutionary process—in short, the preservation of possibility,” she says.
Possibility, not hope, is what Nijhuis says drives the work of making the world habitable into the future. The book’s subtitle—“fighting for life in an age of extinction”—gives a distinctively proactive, almost positive spin to a topic that is most often described in shades of doom and gloom. Saving species from extinction is not rosy, but Nijhuis says she was deliberate in her framing: “I feel like journalists and writers do a pretty good job of explaining complex problems, but they—we—don’t do such a great job of talking about the equally complex solutions or possible solutions.” That’s what she aimed to do with this book. “By looking back at the history of the modern or global conservation movement,” she tells me, “I hope to find…ways in which conservation could move forward, could overcome some of its some of its previous mistakes, and build on what it’s learned over the last 100 years or so.”
The conservation movement has gone from a simplistic effort to save single species to a global movement willing to embrace complexity.
Knowing full well that the book couldn’t be an exhaustive history of the movement, she organized it based on the stories of individuals at turning points or conceptual advances in this tradition that we call conservation. By digging into the questions they wrestled with and exploring the ways in which their thinking changed over time, she’s able to give a glimpse of how the movement as a whole has grown and evolved during the past century and a half.
Over time, she says, the conservation movement has gone from a simplistic effort to save single species to a global movement willing to embrace complexity, both in what it’s trying to preserve and how. And she says it’s the recognition and acceptance of that complexity that gives the movement—and the planet’s ecosystems—a fighting chance.
A Rocky Start
Beloved Beasts starts off in the early days of the movement, when the words “conservation” and “environment” have no ecological basis, and extinctions were just starting to enter the public consciousness. “In the middle of the nineteenth century, these complacent humans learned that they were both less exceptional and more powerful than they had believed,” Nijhuis writes.
She does not shy away from the sticky question that has spurred endless debate in conservation circles: What is humanity’s proper place on Earth? Nijhuis explores the ways in which people have simultaneously played the role of conquerors of nature as well as its divinely anointed stewards. Humans are both victims of climate change and the perpetrators who have caused it. We are all these things at once and more. We are the only species that has a concept of humanity as a whole, and that makes us a force to be reckoned with, while also putting our place in the web of life at risk. Her skilled analysis of historic texts brings levity to the weight of the subject of the role of humans when she writes that “Darwin left his fellow Victorians in limbo, dangling inelegantly between mushrooms and minor gods…”
As Nijhuis digs through the historic works of major figures and classic examples in the movement’s history, from Darwin to DDT, she does not aim to sugarcoat the ugly realities and awful mistakes. “There’s one word I use sparingly here: hope,” she writes frankly in her introduction. “Few if any of the most influential early conservationists were motivated by what might be called hope. They were motivated by many other things—delight, outrage, data—but they had little confidence that the work they were moved to do would succeed in rescuing the species they loved. They did it anyway. As Leopold, in one of his grimmer moods, wrote to a friend, ‘That the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.’ ”
Conservationist Aldo Leopold, like so many of the heroes in the conversation space, was a White man. And that is consequently the case for many of the characters in Nihjuis’ book, though she is intentional about putting the spotlight on historic women who were not given the credit they deserved for their contributions to the field. She is realistic about the tangible progress each character made, honest about their flaws, and forthright about just how much work is left. “The story of modern species conservation is full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons,” Nijhuis writes.
I cringed reading some of the case studies Nijhuis uncovered in her reporting. In the chapter about the seminal role of bison, for example, she writes that “[Theodore Roosevelt’s] commitment to saving the bison was both genuine and infused with racism, for he believed that bison were essential to the pursuit of the strenuous life—which in turn, was essential to the survival of white masculinity.” For the people who fought to save the remaining members of the species, “the rescue of the bison had nothing to do with the people who had depended on the species—and a great deal to do with their own illusions about themselves.”
This level of ego was unfortunately frequent in the stories Nijhuis shares, but she does not deify scientists. Nijhuis makes clear that they are as capable as anyone of abusing their power, as was the case when biology was used to make a case for eugenics, or when efforts to discuss population control got twisted to exacerbate gender and racial inequities.
Critically, Nijhuis makes space for a vision for how different this important work could—and should—look going forward. And what kind of leaders we should hold up as conservation heroes in the future.
Who Pays and Who Benefits
When it comes to international conservation efforts, Nijhuis makes clear that this top-down enterprise was initially an extension of colonial power, with all its paternalistic complexities. She writes that “many Africans came to believe, for good reason, that the conservation measures supported by colonial governments and international groups were intended to reserve the continent’s species for foreigners—and prevent Africans from using the resources they regarded as their birthright.”
That inequity arises time and time again in Nijhuis’s studied analysis of the movement. And she leans into the nuance: “Though biologists routinely argue that biodiversity benefits everyone, social scientists know that the costs and benefits of conservation are unevenly distributed,” she writes. “In many cases—and all parts of the world—the poor carry the burdens of conservation, while the wealthy enjoy most of the ecosystem services.”
The time to save a species is when it is common, not on the brink of extinction.
To counter these heart-wrenching examples of shortcomings and failures, Nijhuis highlights narratives about positive change, too, upsetting this power dynamic and centering the efforts of marginalized communities, who are often the best at understanding and implementing truly sustainable conservation measures. For example, she suggests that trophy-hunting can actually be (though certainly isn’t always) a net-positive for local communities, which can control the number of animals killed, and use the funds paid by hunters to further local conservation efforts. “In the best cases, they are examples of sustainable utilization: colonial nostalgia, harnessed by the formerly colonized to further multispecies survival,” Nijhuis writes.
She also explores the intersectionality of conservation efforts. In the case of bird conservation, for example, though contemporaries around the turn of the 20th century blamed women for the avian deaths caused by the feather trade that was most often used in hats, Nijhuis points to the fact that many prominent early birders were women. And that the decidedly masculine “passion for possession” that fueled collectors to kill the few remaining members of endangered species was in stark contrast to the approach of many women conservationists at the time, even if they didn’t identify as such. In fact, the women who fought to protect birds took their tactics from their experience fighting for suffrage. Throughout the book, Nijhuis uses wit in her writing to help to bring these complex characters to life: “Enthusiasm for watching live birds soon began to compete with the enthusiasm for wearing dead ones,” she writes.
A Radical Reimagining of Society
The characters in the book consistently lead Nijhuis to the same conclusion: that the time to save a species is when it is common, not on the brink of extinction. To achieve this, she points to the conservationist Leopold’s grand reimagining of what conservation should entail. As someone who grew up in Wisconsin, in the cult of Leopold, I was particularly moved by the ways in which Nijhuis highlighted how Leopold’s perspectives were decidedly justice-oriented. This was not something I had fully grasped in my own reading of his works in my younger years.
For example, Leopold argued that the protection of rare species was a protest against biotic violence—that is, violence against living things or their ecological relations. He pointed out that solutions to truly save species would require people to change their relationship with the land and the ecosystems it supports. And that the rightful role of people should be not gods or mushrooms but “plain members and citizens” of the Earth’s ecological communities. Nijhuis’ reflections on these conceptions struck me: “The role of plain member and citizen, it seems to me, allows all of us to acknowledge our interdependence with the rest of life—as well as our species’ unique ability, and responsibility, to guard its independence from ourselves,” she says.
The reorganization of society, by definition, is a reorganization of power.
Leopold, as Nijhuis describes, was not advocating for the passing of a few fish and game laws. Such changes are woefully inadequate to address the scope and scale of the problems the Earth is facing. Instead, she says, he was calling for a complete reorganization of society.
When I ask her about what that really means, she does not shy away from a radical reimagining: “He was right that conservation does require a societal reorganization,” she tells me. “Throughout human history, conservation has been a practice that communities have undertaken as part of their routine—part of their daily lives to ensure their own survival.” But as our society has gotten bigger and more complex, and we’re less directly dependent on these resources, she says, it has gotten easier for us not to practice conservation in our daily lives. And that’s the crux of the problem. “Conservation should be something that’s practiced by everyone,” she says. “I think it does have to become more than a special interest.”
Conservation has to be a critical component of how each of us lives in the world and interacts with the networks of beings around us, Nijhuis argues.
“The reorganization of society, by definition, is a reorganization of power,” Nijhuis explains.
So for all the good intentions and brazen displays of White male dominance that have colored the conservation movement thus far, she argues, “Perhaps the most powerful thing they could do was share that power.”
That’s why much of Nijhuis’ reporting looked at community-driven conservation work that centers the efforts of local people to define their own problems and solutions. She sees the way forward as one in which conservation is flipped from top-down directives to bottom-up structures of mutual support. Protection, empowerment, and self-determination should be extended to all people and all species, which is why the rights of nature movement is gaining so much traction today.
The last reporting trip that Nijhuis took for the book was to Leopold’s historic home in Wisconsin in December 2019. She didn’t know at the time that it would be her last trip for a long while. None of us did. But a year and a half into a pandemic lockdown, we have seen some glimmers of what a radical reimagining of what a society might look like. And while there are so many ways in which we have squandered opportunities and fallen short, I can’t help but think that Leopold would see this as an opportunity. “We are clever cousins of the mushrooms, promoted beyond our experience,” Nijhuis writes, and “our dependence on the rest of life can remind us of our vulnerability, and help us use our influence with humility.”
Breanna Draxler is the environmental editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.