Guest blog – Mark Infield – Feeling for nature

Mark Infield is the Director of Cultural Values and Conservation Programme, Fauna & Flora International.

As a child I grew up exploring the fields and woodlands, ponds and streams where I lived.  This was the starting point for a life-long engagement with nature and its conservation.  My interest in nature and commitment to its conservation is not driven by financial considerations, economic analyses or even by scientific interest.  It is emotional and personal.  I imagine many of you reading this feel similarly.

The modern conservation started in the 19th century based on such emotions, values and feelings; they are largely absent from conservation today.  Arguments for conserving nature are couched in economic terms, and, outside of fundraising appeals aimed at the general public, feelings for nature are rarely mentioned or reflected in policies and practices.  Yet we all know that connections to nature and place are profound and can have real influence on how people think and behave toward the natural world.

I am concerned about depending on economic arguments for conservation.  They are, in my experience, hard to demonstrate in practice, especially on the ground amongst communities whose support we need.  And they are a double edged sword that can equally create arguments against conservation.

Emphasising economic arguments undermines other values people hold in nature linked to historical associations with place and use, local knowledge, and to the culture and institutions of communities.

Ironically, conservation often weakens people’s connections to nature. If we need the support of people, and that seems to be one of the few things that conservationists agree on, when economic arguments don’t add up, bridges built on culture and values can be strong, stronger indeed than often over-blown financial benefits.

By reminding ourselves of what we, as individuals, value in nature, we can engage with people based on their connections to nature.  These may be very different from our own, but powerful nonetheless.  We can begin to exploring conservation through a cultural lens and look for ways to integrate the values of others into conservation initiatives.

We have worked hard to engage with communities but have rarely asked them what is important to them culturally in the land they call their own.

The irony of this dawned on me when, after several years explaining to the Bahima, a pastoralist people of Uganda, why Lake Mburo National Park was important, I learned that their name for their homeland was ‘The Beautiful Land.’  And in The Beautiful Land, they grazed Beautiful Cows, bred over centuries to be beautiful.  These cows provide a powerful connection between the Bahima and the land and define what it means to be Bahima.  But the park excluded these values.

Since 2005 FFI and the Uganda Wildlife Authority have been working to develop a cultural values approach to managing the park and integrate the Bahima’s values into the park through the Culture, Values and Conservation Project.

Economics drivers are important to our behaviour, but once basic needs are met, cultural values become equally important.  The idea that only economics matters to people these day is given the lie by the fact that over 80% of the world’s people hold that religion is important in their daily lives.   Whatever we may think about religion, this definitely suggests that beliefs and values continue to be important in how people think and behave.

During the Victorian era, with the industrial revolution at its zenith, Oscar Wilde famously described a cynic as someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.  In this period of market dominated thinking, I wonder whether we have slipped into cynicism and now see nature only as something to be bought and sold.

The conservation endeavour is not succeeding under current management.  There are victories; species clawed back from the brink of extinction; special places saved from the roar of engines spelling the end for somebody’s or some species’ home.   But nature is in retreat, as much in the UK, where official figures show a quarter of species identified as conservation priorities are declining, as elsewhere.  Market approaches are not working.  We need to be true to ourselves as conservationists, remember our beginnings, and bring feelings back to the conservation endeavour.

Mark Infield is the Director of Cultural Values and Conservation Programme, Fauna & Flora International.


26 Replies to “Guest blog – Mark Infield – Feeling for nature”

  1. I completely agree with that. I think it’s a trap that conservation organisations have fallen into (you may remember me arguing just such a thing elsewhere, Mark). Some things have value for their own sakes, and the value is not monetary. This is a rod we have created for our own backs.

    If we argue that it’s worth conserving White Tailed Eagles on Mull because of the tourism benefits, we end up with no argument for them on the Tay because there are no tourism benefits. Very false basis for argument.

    Did Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair make us all adopt their value sets? Or are we, the conservationists, the cynics?

    1. Thanks for your comments Sheila. I think you are right that we created this rod for our own backs. Mrs Thatcher, the Queen of Monetarism, and Mr Blair have much to answer for in this regard but we took the bait I think.

  2. Mark – I completely agree. For anyone who hasn’t seen it I would seriously recommend checking out the work on Common Cause at

    One thing to note is that I recently read a paper spurning the possibility of contingent valuation surveys – where you ask people how much money some aspect of nature is worth to them so as you can then attach a market price to it. I sat reading it and thought “fantastic, a paper which goes against valuing nature in purely economic terms!!”. However, this paper turned out to be written by experts commissioned by Exxon Mobil in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster. It was in their interests to show that pricing natural assets wasn’t possible – because people don’t really know what value to attribute. By showing this methodology to be faulty, Exxon hoped to be able to avoid paying the costs of the environmental damage they caused.

    While I would certainly side more with valuing nature inherently and working hard to break down the cultural assumptions and value chains which say that it can become a market asset with a price, I think this example serves as a small cautionary tale.

    On the whole though, when the conservation movement jumps into bed with the market and makes everything about economic value, it triggers the key values which have led us into the problems of overconsumption and resource depletion in the first place. In the long run such an approach will only reduce people’s genuine connection with nature, as you rightly say, and that’s not good. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the conservation movement needs much more of this – – and much less of this – (a controversial note to end on I know!).

    1. Thanks Ken. I also found Common Cause to be a valuable report presenting an important perspective. Stimulating self interest, when expressed through the drive to acquire more, will not provide a sustainable means of conserving nature, even if it provides site specific or circumstance specific successes. It will just dig our hole deeper.

  3. Thanks Mark for a thought-provoking article. (I was led to it by a friend, Matt, who commented above.)

    Whilst I agree with the central thrust of your argument that we have moved too far away from a “values-driven” approach to conservation – and environmentalism more broadly – towards a “value-driven” approach, I would also caution against seeing this as an either-or choice.

    In my view, both approaches are indispensible, and are required for very different audiences, as each audience is receptive to different stimuli. As far as engaging with people on an individual, personal level, I agree wholeheartedly that we need to appeal more to non-financial considerations – to emotion rather than to reason, to put it a little bluntly and simplistically.

    On the other hand, when making the case before governments, investors, businesses and the like, basing one’s arguments on sentimental grounds would be akin to speaking in ancient greek. Occasionally you might be lucky enough to get through to one or two politicians, CEOs and the like, but you’d have a much better chance of making yourself understood if you spoke their language, and that is one of dollar signs.

    In short, then, I perceive “value-driven” approaches (UNEP FI, TEEB, etc.) and “values-driven” approaches as complementary rather than contradictory. And in many circumstances, both are needed for the project/initiative/etc. to succeed.

    My final point (and perhaps a case-in-point) is that I have found this shift particularly prominent in the debate in Australia around the so-called “carbon tax – actually an emissions trading scheme with a three-year fixed price period before transitioning to a flexible price in 2015. (Disclosure: I work for the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and all views expressed here are my own.) As the political debate has gone on, I have found that the messaging around why we should take action on climate change for selfish, rational reaons (“it’s in our economic interest to do it”) has been slowly drowning out those voices that call for action for selfless, ethical reasons (“it’s the right, just, responsible thing to do”).

    For me, that’s one of the main reasons why public support for the (now legislated) scheme has slowly been eroded over the past year or two – we have simply lost half (or more) of our audience because we stopped sending out half of our messages.

    1. I fully agree with you Ken. It would be a mistake to remove ‘value’-based from the equation. My blog, and indeed my programme, is more about re-balancing the current emphasis on value and reminding people, conservation professionals, policy makers and nature lovers in general that their ‘values’, and almost all of us have them, are also important drivers of our behaviour than proposing another ‘silver bullet’ solution. No ‘one size fits all’ as a number of people commented but I would suggest that adding a values-based component to conservation initiatives will in all most all cases, add something to the set of arguments that can be made for conserving nature.

  4. Mark (Infield), I think we’ve seen a very powerful expression of what you are saying in the huge response to the Government’s proposals to sell the national forests – a very clear expression of the fact that deep attachement to the land isn’t something that happens in the third world only ! The rationalism of modern conservation thinking is stioll struggling to come to terms with what happened and perhaps explains why several conservation NGOs including RSPB have inexplicably reacted quite antagonistically to the public support for the Forestry Commission.

    Beauty isn’t completely absent from British environmentalism: in 2007 David Milliband made what I think was a seminal speech about land use in England. He stressed, very clearly, the importance of beauty. He also dismissed the sort of reductionist economic thinking whichm for example, argues that chopping off a corner of St james’ Park for development makes sense. The rationalist land use lobby, including conservation, rose up as one and through a Government Foresight study restored order, putting all the traditional arguments back in their place, in neat sectoral silos. What an absolute disaster – what David Milliband was arguing against is now coming to pass with a Government who just don’t get what you are talking about, Mark. Fortunately, as we’ve seen over the forests many people do get it – what I’d say now is come on RSPB and others and catch up – the biggest argument for the heathland that driving you into a corner is the very ‘sense of place’ people feel about the forests and its only through re-connecting with real people on the ground you’re going to get there.

    1. Thanks for your comment Roderick. I was out of the country at the time of the forestry revolt. I was sorry I missed it. I think that despite the increasing separation between people and nature in this country, scratch beneath the surface and you will still find strong emotional connections to nature and the particularly British notion of countryside. This won’t persist for ever though and unless we recognise it, nurture it, and re-invigorate it where necessary, there will be fewer and fewer supporters of conservation out there.

  5. Interesting and I can relate to the post.
    The messages one uses are entirely dependent on the audience. Those of us who believe that nature has a value beyond or equal to human value, form only a tiny proportion of the world’s population.
    Then there’s everyone else….
    Some believe nature has a value only in relation to people, and there are others for whom nature only has a value only in relation to themselves. Then there is still everyone else……
    The 2 big misconceptions are that people behave rationally and that they will value nature/biodiversity for its own sake.
    However, people are more likely to react to positive feelings associated with nature than the continual guilt that is pedalled by many.
    Interestingly and not surprisingly those of that love nature form a small minority of the population but control most of the conservation communications….

  6. I do get a bit nervous when people try to define the value of nature. It’s not something anyone can do well or accurately. We are part of nature after all and to try to value it – financially or even emotionally – just re enforces a position that nature is separate to us. Of course I have a lot of deep feelings about nature – but I don’t ‘believe in it’ like a religion, nor do I get overly emotional about some practical ‘management’ of nature. It’s there, we’re part of it and we allow it to be degraded at our ultimate peril. People need to be engaged with nature and then make their own value judgments about it. I suspect the majority in that context will then see it as a positive thing to be treasured. I think it’s right to keep amazing people about nature and giving them reasons why we should conserve it- that ultimately it’s for our own well being and even survival. Everything after that are secondary considerations in my view.

    1. Thanks for your comment Gert. I agree that getting too extreme in support of anything is not always helpful and we have to be pragmatic. That is why I would never suggest that economic approaches to conservation are not relevant and important. Multiple strategies are needed for sure.

  7. I agree with Ken (he’s good, isn’t he? Very high standard of comment, I thought, and I’m not easily pleased). A bigger mistake, made by a number of commentators, is that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to conservation. And that seems always to involve campaigning, always involves preaching at/lecturing politicians, and often involves waving a placard. This is exactly what turns a lot of people off. You have to tailor the approach to the audience. During a recession, under what is essentially a Conservative Government, in which the Treasury calls the shots, you ignore the economic argument at your peril. I agree that other, more emotional, arguments are necessary…but is anyone making the economic case and ignoring the rest? I don’t see anyone doing that, so (guest) Mark’s case seems to be more guilty than anyone’s of being a half-baked argument!

    1. Thanks for your comment CaperKylie. I fully agree that a one-size-fits all approach in not helpful. As I noted in my comment above, I see myself as trying to rebalance the current emphasis on economic approaches. We need to think again about conservation because we are not succeeding. Economics alone is not doing the job. But certainly that does not mean we can ignore them. Are the non-economic values of nature being ignored in current policy and practice? The rapidly evolving set of ecosystem services approaches and valuations has clearly been driven by economic thinking, but increasingly recognise the need to integrate what are referred to as the ‘cultural services’ provided by ecosystems. The increasing references to human wellbeing is another sign that the importance of non-economic values of nature is beginning to be recognized. I am just keen to see more and, in particular, to see values based approaches find a much stronger place in the design and delivery of conservation initiatives on the ground. I don’t think the argument is half-baked at all!

  8. I have a rushy field down near the stream – the value of this area is low. However, to me this is my favourite area on the farm. I often see barn owl hunting over it and the flowers are stunning in the summer. To me it is the most valuable area on the farm.

    The love that humans have of wildlife is priceless.

  9. Well, that all happened in a rush! I was taken by surprise at how fast these things are. Blog out, comments streaming in. All very exciting for me. The internet is really a very happening place and it is clear I need to become better at navigating it effectively.

  10. Pingback: Dare we bring ‘emotion’ into conservation?

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