Conflict Exploration: The moral residue of conservation

Sitting with grief in a world of wounds

In conservation, often a choice has to be made for the lesser of two evils. How can conservationists cope with such situations of seemingly inevitable loss? Here, we share a personal contribution from Dr Chelsea Batavia, in which she takes us along in the background story of her recent publication The moral residue of conservation, addressing exactly this issue.

Moral Philosophy: Chelsea Batavia

Sometimes the most we can do to honour other lives is bear witness to their loss — to experience some form of grief

Chelsea Batavia earned her B.A. in 2007 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., with a major in Theology and a minor in Music. She completed both her M.S. (2015) and her Ph.D. (2019) in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, where she continues to work as a post-doctoral researcher. Her research draws on a mixture of social scientific and philosophical methods, and her interests concentrate generally on ethics in environmental management and conservation.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

This haunting observation was offered decades ago by conservationist-philosopher Aldo Leopold. His words take on new meaning today, as so many people around the world — ecologically educated or not — have been forced into isolation, sheltering against the relentless and unwavering assault of coronavirus. And yet, as we are bombarded by news of physical, social, and emotional wounds opened up by the pandemic, we also hear stories of flourishing and recovery. Although a number of such stories turned out to be false news, it can’t be denied that the waters are clearer and the air is cleaner. It also shows how eager people are to look for the silver linings of this crisis.

Mixed emotions

Certainly, I’m grateful for silver linings too. I have found myself eagerly seizing onto what small scraps of good news have surfaced through the crisis. But I’ve also been struggling to figure out how I should feel about these tentative (and probably temporary) environmental recoveries. As a person who cares deeply about conservation, I, of course, think these are good outcomes, but I’m not sure if I can (or should) detach those outcomes from the grave costs associated with them. There is some complex tangle of emotions I cannot put my finger on. It’s akin to the feeling captured by the lovely German word “schadenfreude”, yet even that seems somehow off base. I don’t think anyone is taking particular pleasure in the wave of suffering caused by COVID-19; it’s more that some are pausing to appreciate its welcome ripple effects. Is it ok to feel that way? At heart, I see this as an ethical question, which is connected to the idea explored in the recent paper I wrote with Arian Wallach and Michael Paul Nelson in Conservation Biology.

Is there the right thing to do?

Conservation raises all sorts of tricky ethical questions. Is it wrong to use lethal management to control introduced wildlife populations? Is it good to save endangered species by killing individual animals? Are trade-offs between different values morally appropriate? It may be tempting to reach for simple, straightforward answers — yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong — because this would mean it’s at least hypothetically possible to 1) know and 2) do the right thing (practicalities and logistics aside). But in the paper, my co-authors and I make the case that the moral grounds we tread as conservationists are far shakier than that.

Conservation often presents us with impossible dilemmas, where we know there are multiple things we should do, morally, yet we also know we cannot do all of them at once. The unfortunate reality is that, with these sorts of dilemmas, even if we make the best decision we can, our decision still implicates us in some amount of moral failure. It turns out philosophers have a term to refer to the moral failure of a good decision: “moral residue”.

Barred Owl (Strix varia) — ©Mdf, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Killing for conservation

An example may be helpful. For several years now, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been shooting Barred Owls (Strix varia) in efforts to test whether reducing their numbers will promote the recovery of the Northern Spotted Owl (S. occidentalis), a threatened species in U.S. Pacific Northwest. As of now, 2,435 Barred Owls have been killed. Conservation is a mission-oriented discipline, founded on the belief that it is good and right — indeed, imperative — to protect Earth’s diversity of life. Surely this means we have a moral obligation to promote the recovery of threatened species. So some conservationists may insist it is right for biologists to kill Barred Owls, believing it is more important to protect a threatened species in its native range than to preserve the lives of a few individuals.

And yet, grisly photographs of dead birds, bodies neatly arranged side-by-side, somehow seem to muddy the moral waters. Dave Wiens, one of the scientists affiliated with the lethal management program, has described shooting owls as “gut-wrenching”. That feeling is a cue, alerting us to the moral residue that remains when we kill Barred owls to save Spotted Owls. And feeling the way Wiens does is not just a natural but also, as we argue in the paper, an appropriate response to moral residue. Killing for conservation should be “gut-wrenching”.

Sometimes the most we can do to honour other lives is bear witness to their loss — to experience some form of grief. It is a harsh truth of the human condition that our capacity for care often exceeds our capacity for action. In those cases, the solution is not to care less. Quite the opposite. We are not robots, but sensitive, compassionate people. Rather than glossing over hard choices with callousness and bravado, conservationists need to really sit with the moral residue of their decisions, opening themselves up to mourn the harms they incur or enable in the world. This, I believe, is essential if we are to maintain our moral integrity as conservationists, as moral agents, and as human beings.

Some clarifications and qualifications

(1) The goal here is not to feel vindicated in any atrocities we perpetrate as long as we feel bad about them. It doesn’t work to put on a sad face while secretly patting yourself on the back — the emotion has to be genuine.

(2) If a key intention in highlighting moral residue is to encourage emotional openness, then it’s time to drop the euphemisms. “Harvesting” or “controlling” wildlife may be easier to swallow than “killing animals”, but this sort of language has a numbing effect that is antithetical to grief or compassion. Euphemisms are an excellent guard against negative emotion — that’s the point — but to open ourselves up, we must set those guards down.

(3) There is a critically important difference between a good decision with residue and a flat-out bad decision. If killing Barred Owls doesn’t promote the recovery Spotted Owls, we should not kill Barred Owls. Continuing to do so would just be wrong.

(4) Residue is not inevitable, and may even be a catalyst in a larger trajectory of moral progress. The desire to avoid activities that cause grief (to ourselves and others) may push us to identify unconventional conservation strategies that minimize harms; like using lights or guardian dogs to reduce wolf depredation of domestic nonhuman animals, or beehive fencing to deter crop-raiding elephants. These sorts of “win-win” strategies are not always possible, of course. Over the longer term, though, grieving the losses of our “win-lose” strategies may motivate us to push for macro-level (structural and institutional) transformations, which, I’m increasingly convinced, are absolutely crucial if we’re ever going to make meaningful success in conservation.

Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) — ©NPS photo by National Park Service employee Emily Brouwer, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

It is not a quick fix

Ultimately, though, I don’t think moral residue should be thought of as a solution. Recognizing residue will not fix anything, at least not in the way we want things to be fixed. But that doesn’t diminish its significance. As conservationists we are used to making hard choices — that much has not changed. But our moral lives are more than just the sum of decisions we make.

In so many ways we do live in a world of wounds, and those wounds may leave some of us feeling spiritually and morally decimated at times. The first instinct may be to self-soothe — turning our faces away and hardening our hearts to ease the pain. But this manoeuvre also strips away some essential part of what it means to be human. By allowing ourselves to be affected — to grieve the wounds we open and suffer the stings — I think we can reclaim and perhaps re-imagine a richer and more complex understanding of human moral responsibility in the world today.

But perhaps there’s more to it than grief

My goal in writing about moral residue in conservation was to point out that, at times, it may be appropriate to grieve a good decision. The question I ask myself now is whether it is ever permissible to celebrate the side effects of tragedy. The unsettling mixture of feelings triggered by stories of environmental recovery in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis brings me back to the idea of residue, but also leads me to think about it in a new light. In important ways the pandemic differs from the dilemmas we confront in conservation — clearly no one decided to inflict the virus on humankind to save the planet. Still, the common theme I see here is emotion; and specifically complex, expansive emotion.

I struggled mightily to compose this blog post because it felt inappropriate to think about, let alone worry about, anything except the pandemic. I realize now I was putting a cap on my feelings — as though I had some fixed quota of emotional responsiveness, and I was rationing all of it to virus-related sadness, fear, and anxiety. But really, there’s no need to be an emotional miser. A world of wounds has great potential for hurt, but also great potential for healing. In the paper, my coauthors and I emphasize grief as an integral part of moral experience. What I see now is that joy, too, is just as integral.

In conclusion

I think residue may be most significant as a challenge to clean, binary thinking. It reminds us that, just as morality does not boil down to either right or wrong, neither must our emotions align with either grief or joy. We can and should hold many feelings in our hearts, embracing the complexity of our moral and emotional lives, and navigating it with as much grace and generosity as we can muster. Perhaps it is not feeling any one particular way, but feeling fully, in all the ways that respond to the world with care, empathy, and love, that sits at the core of moral experience.

Call for discussion

Do you agree with Chelsea or do you have other ideas about how conservationists ought to cope with the aftermath of morally difficult decisions? Please contact us on Twitter ‘Exploring Conservation Conflicts’ to share your thoughts on this topic

Exploring various perspectives on conservation conflicts, including Conservation Biology, Moral Philosophy & Human Dimensions. Moderated by Tanja & Lysanne.

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