Restoration vs. preservation: the psychology of nature conservation

Marcus Nield

The dramatic growth of ecological restoration, from mass reforestation to the large-scale reintroductions of long-lost species, is providing a welcome cause for optimism among often overly-pessimistic conservationists, argues Marcus Nield

The past few months have been particularly momentous for the restoration movement. Armed with shovels and seeds 44,000 volunteers in Ecuador smashed the Guinness World Record for ‘most trees planted in one day’. Meanwhile, a five-year beaver reintroduction trial in Scotland concluded that the species can boost Scottish tourism by millions of pounds while benefiting the surrounding area’s ecological health. The WWF and Rewilding Europe initiated the largest reintroduction project in Europe to date, repopulating vast tracts of land with European bison and the Obama administration unveiled a strategy for a ‘butterfly highway’, consisting of long stretches of nectar-rich flowers to assist the migration of threatened species.

These stories are a breath of fresh air amid a language of conservation that is often riddled with bleak prophecies and laments – and given the steamroller of consumer culture this is hardly surprising. But conservationists’ despair pours into public communications and in desperate attempts to garner support, severity, danger and crisis are emphasised, creating a society so overwhelmed with threats of apocalyptic eco-nightmares it retreats into passivity. The public become as stumped as the trees they couldn’t protect.

“If humanity is to reverse the abuse of Earth, people’s relationship with nature must be framed in a more optimistic manner.”

Environmental psychologists say this scare tactic is grossly counterproductive. Dr David Sobel, education writer and doctor in psychology, coined the term ‘ecophobia’ – the fear of ecological disasters and interaction with the outdoors. He warns that the fear fertilised by negative media regarding the environment leads to inaction. An editorial in the journal Bioscience declares: “We contend that there is a continuing culture of hopelessness among conservation biologists…and that will influence our ability to mobilise conservation action among the general public.”

On the other hand, an illuminating study by Carly Armstrong from the University of Toronto suggests that psychological catalysts for environmental action reside within positive sentiments such as gratitude and love. If humanity is to reverse the abuse of Earth, people’s relationship with nature must be framed in a more optimistic manner.

Restoration projects are now providing a repertoire of success stories that are lifting the tone of conservation. Reporting these triumphs forms links within our minds between the environment and a hopeful vision of the future, reigniting those positive affiliations that lead us to act. The shame and blame of conservation turns into a loud and proud celebration.

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The concept of restoration speaks to those desirable human traits of creativity and nurturing. Its language is not of loss but gain. There is a choice: either disproportionately focus on depletion and wonder why people hide behind sofas, or start pointing to the rise of tangible opportunities to rebuild platforms on which biodiversity can flourish.

Moreover, here is an occasion to see the fruits of one’s labour. Restorationists can see with their own eyes the metamorphosis of dust into wilderness. A preservationist, on the other hand, often sees slightly less worse situations than what would have been. There is no doubt that both are essential, but the former has an attractive allure that environmental psychologists suggest may be more likely to harness public interest.

E.O. Wilson, one of the most prominent biologists of our time, hit upon the subject when he proposed, “Here is the means to end the great extinction spasm. The next century will, I believe, be the era of restoration in ecology.”

Photo title: Two European bison, a species part of Europe's largest reintroduction project to date

Photo credit: © Flickr member Iamsch

  • Carmen

    Wonderful article that touches on all my interests and tells me why I feel so upset with all the emails I get asking me to sign this petition or that, or donate to this or that, which all seem to suggest that the planet is almost beyond saving. I find myself much more willing to get involved in success stories or potential success stories.

    Thank you for this.

  • Tracy Brighten

    I’m certainly in favour of positive news Marcus and too much negative news can be bad for our wellbeing. I agree too that it’s important to foster people’s creativity and nurturing. I think we need to be given information though, even if it is negative, but rather than be left with woe, we need to be offered a way to help, a way to do something positive.

    You are a little harsh on conservationists. They work very hard to protect our animals. Here in New Zealand, a few years of effort in Kiwi conservation can be wiped out by a couple of dogs on the loose overnight. By raising public awareness, conservation groups and the media can help conservation efforts and change bad news to good news. The sites I visit such as Forest & Bird, NZ DoC, Kakapo Recovery, and in the UK the RSPB, are very informative and provide ways to help. They also have projects for children to get them involved.

    Although there are many petitions in circulation Carmen, and it isn’t possible to sign them all, I try to choose a few that I feel most strongly about and sign them with a comment. In doing that, I feel I may have helped in some small way. Single voices together can create change. :-)

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