Are you S or D?

Martin Harper wrote an interesting blog last week about S-type conservationists and D-type conservationists.  Which are you?

The gist (you should read the original to check the details – and read some interesting comments) is that there are conservationists (S for supply) who act for nature in its own right through direct nature conservation action (like nature reserves perhaps) and those (D for demand) who take a more indirect and human-based approach (like altering economic policy perhaps).  It’s  an interesting proposition but not quite right in my view.

It’s not quite right because it mixes motivation with approach.  It is perfectly possible to believe that the conservation of nature is a moral imperative which need not benefit our own species (S-type) and yet believe that the best way to achieve nature conservation, practically, is through influencing the economic drivers of biodiversity loss (D-type).

One of the strengths of the RSPB is that, whatever its motivation, it has for a long time been a mixture of S-type and D-type actions – a mixture which is almost unique amongst nature conservation organisations.  And it is a mixture because from nature’s point of view, it needs both approaches and you have to shift resources between them whenever you can see an advantage.

I remember the arguments which used to exist in the RSPB many years ago between S-type and D-type nature conservationists.  A bunch of S-types would argue that more and more resources should be put into buying land because land acquisition was a ‘certain’ route to conserving nature whereas a bunch of D-types would argue that nature reserves were very expensive, covered a tiny area and if we put the same resources into employing lobbyists then we could solve nature’s problems through advocacy that delivered sustainable agriculture, forestry and fishery policies.  To which the S-types would retort that success was not assured through policy and any gains could be lost through somebody else’s future lobbying.  The D-types would reply…no, let’s not replay that again.

A mixed strategy is probably needed because different threatened species need different things and, very importantly, you can make better progress in different directions at different times.  At a time when government takes no notice of NGOs then you might, if you can, better direct your efforts into those practical actions where you can just get on with it and do some practical good.  When government is open to working with NGOs then you might make significant gains from developing a close and influential relationship with government.  You would have to decide where the balance of power lies at any particular time.  And you tell me where we are these days.

It’s a useful thought experiment to consider S-types and D-types but it is to do with choosing the right actions rather than why you want to save nature.  Nature needs both approaches and it needs organisations who are excellent at being Ss, Ds or S&Ds.

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8 Replies to “Are you S or D?”

  1. I thought Martin's blog was very interesting - but didn't quite know where I stood till you explained it !

    I imagine everyone takes the way RSPB has gone for granted now but when I was on Council in the mid 1980s it was a very, very live argument - superficially weighted in favour of the nice, safe, S reserve buying strategy. There was a real argument which in the end resulted in RSPB engaging with agricultural policy - and the rest is history.

    About the same time, very relevant to 2011, Nicholas Ridley proposed the sale of the National Nature Reserves for the first time. There was a lobby in RSPB whose eyes lit up at the thought of some of the juicy sites and how much better they'd run them than the Government - but, in sharp contrast to the NGOs and the forestry sale in 2011, wiser heads prevailed and RSPB (and other NGOs) said no way very firmly. At the time I couldn't imagine a subtler and more certain way of choking off an RSPB that was growing into a real threat to political vandalism - feed the growing chick what it wants till it can't swallow any more. There'd have been a deal on running costs - which the Government would have reneged on at the first possible opportunity and left RSPB and others with a crippling bill taking all their resources to service - a sort of conservation debt crisis. I don't think we'd have the RSPB we have today which, having taken the D road, is actually doing far better on the S road - buying and managing reserves - than it would have done if it had stuck to safety.

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  2. Interesting, and it takes an economist to make the distinction! If there were unlimited resources (for which read cash) then the S approach would/should get priority. Nothing, ultimately, beats buying a piece of threatened habitat and running it as a nature reserve in perpetuity. As we all know it's the 'running' part that's the challenge as it needs revenue to keep it all going. Unlike a commercial estate that can afford to manage land for profit, NGO's as charities obviously can't (and shouldn't - although I'm amazed by the comments I see elsewhere that apparently the RSPB does in order to line it's own pockets - but that's another subject). Like Roderick suggests you can't be one or the other and a balanced approach between the 2 is right. After all - lead by example down the S road gives you the strength to your elbow down the D route.

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  3. I think this is a fascinating debate Mark, so thank you for continuing it from Martin's blog. Yes, I would make the same distinction between motivation and approach, and I also strongly agree that a mixture of S- and D- is the key to success.

    It is interesting to hear that bit of RSPB history, and how the organisation moved toward more policy advocacy. I think the sector might be approaching a time when we need to go even further and explore more and new demand-side approaches to access new mechanisms for conservation delivery.

    At present, conservation delivery in the UK is heavily dependent on just two mechanisms - agri-environment and the implementation of the Nature Directives. Now, I'm a risk-averse kind of gal, and it makes me pretty anxious to have so many important eggs in so few baskets.

    But even assuming we are happy with a bit of rish, those two mechanisms, which so many in our sector seem to believe are untouchable, will undoubtedly face increasing threats over the coming few years. We'll have to fight to save them, and even if we succeed, chance are they will be weakened as a result.

    Combine that with the fact that we know that maintaining our current levels of conservation delivery will be insufficient to achieve a reverse in the decline of UK biodiversity, and we are left in a bit of a pickle. We need to do more, much more, and our old friend agri-env and the ND's are not up for the challenge.

    We need to prepare to defend our existing mechanisms, as I doubt we'll get anything that good again in my lifetime. But we also need to look for new mechanisms - to spread the risk, to fill the gaps, and to allow us to do much, much more.

    And I think that is where the S/D approach distinction is perhaps most useful. Because I fear, and I'd be very happy if someone told me I was wrong, that we've reached the end of the road in terms of arguing for regulation and incentives to protect nature on moral grounds. Perhaps it's only temporary, and things will go full circle, but in the current economic and political climate I think it would be miraculous for us to succeed in arguing for regulation or incentives that go beyond the protection and enhancement set out in the Nature Directives or agri-environment.

    And that, to me at least, suggests that we need to consider how we can use more demand-side approaches to secure delivery mechanisms for nature conservation. Perhaps that involves markets, perhaps changing societal values, or perhaps something no-one has thought of yet. But we need to start thinking and looking now.

    Since I have waffled on for far too long, I'll add one final point. I say all this as someone who is a passionate believer in the S-side of things. For me, saving nature is all about the moral imperative not to knowingly extinguish other species. But the way to do that MUST be about exploring and shaping new mechanisms that may appear less direct, alongside fighting tooth and nail for those we already rely upon. I may be an overly optimistic person (well, I am), but I really believe we can do both. Right, I'll shut up now.

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  4. Afraid all above me,I just think that it is all one thing you are either for more wildlife and wish to improve it which doesn't always rely on money or you just couldn't care less.

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  5. We of course need a balance of both approaches as already stated, i especially enjoyed Roderick's contribution. As a raptor worker the species I am mostly interested in (but then I also like other birds plants butterflies, moths, reptiles not to mention amphibians and mammals) live at relatively low density so in our crowded isalnd will never have significant parts of the populations on nature reserves, this is true of many many species of several orders so we need good policies to ensure their health and its often policies that on the face of it are not directly linked to conservation hence the need for D conservation. The real rub is that many of those species whilst having a degree of legal protection and being nominally helped by such things as agri-environment schemes often fail to thrive as they should. Notables in the bird world are farmland birds where the excellent work of both RSPB and GWCT should be much more listened to and certain predators, which sections of the community dislike so much they flout the law and kill them, this we have widely discussed elswhere but are they the only examples? I have some worries about reptiles, is the law protecting them obeyed as many are afraid of or have phobias about them, I don't know.
    As conservationists we somehow need to be specialists and generalists embracing all and knowing about all sorts of indirect ways or policies in order to protect/ enhance and maintain wildlife, I suspect that we should all be open minded in a constant effort to be better conservationists and still find the time and space to enjoy it.

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  6. S is great - its solid and more controllable
    D is great - its wider reaching
    But I can't help feeling there's a missing element. Neither approach really addresses the issue of what society thinks and feels about nature conservation. If S is limited by resource and D is limited by political transience and fickleness, we need an approach that makes nature conservation a cultural necessity. The arguments for nature conservation and approaches to conserving nature are largely happening outside of any mass public awareness and appreciation.
    We need conservation resource aimed at making civil society look at nature-damaging behaviour in the same way as things like drink driving or racism. NGOs needs to understand why nature conservation is so peripheral to peoples conscious lives when it's so essential to their wellbeing. And then they need to work out ways of addressing this.

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