Endangered Species Day was introduced as a resolution by Congress in 2006 to encourage “the people of the United States to become educated about, and aware of, threats to species, success stories in species recovery, and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide.” This year, Endangered Species Day (May 18) began with a devastating school shooting. It really had me questioning how appropriate it would be to emphasize the importance of wildlife conservation while so many in the world and our nation seem to place little value on human lives. In a time where human rights are being enthusiastically attacked by the Trump administration, however, it has become necessary to think critically about how our nation promotes policies that undermine public protections and the way this affects vulnerable communities. Basically, I realized that there are connections between our wildlife conservation policies…and the social disparities built therein.
Hear me out. The connection is not necessarily obvious at surface level, I understand. Social justice is at the core of environmentalism. Conservation works to ensure the preservation of cultures, heritage, and livelihoods. The spaces we often deign as devoid of “nature” or “environment” are not as readily included in conservation conversations, often at the risk of alienating entire communities and ecosystems. From pristine lands to over-burdened industrial areas, environment is all around us.
I had a conversation with Lia Cheek, fellow woman of color and colleague at the Endangered Species Coalition, to further explore the relationship between endangered species protections and social justice.
Charise: Why do you think the way we view the environment is important for conservation and how is this tied to social justice?
Lia: We look at nature as something to use up. Something that exists to serve our needs. We look at it without emotion, without acknowledgement of the life it holds and its right to existence. Even the words we use to describe it, Nature, natural worlds are inanimate.
Charise: I like how you emphasized the idea of Nature with a big N. When we view it that way, it tends to be exclusionary of underrepresented groups – and that spills over into environmental regulations and even the research questions that are asked. We see this especially with policies and processes that are based solely on economic considerations, with very little regard for both science and community input.
There is also a tendency to forget that “environment” includes built environments, urban areas. Loss of biodiversity affects us all. And we’ve seen the benefits of conservation in urban areas: greater accessibility to green spaces improves mental health and well-being, marked increases in perceived safety, cleaner air to breathe, protection and restoration of terrestrial and aquatic species. The assumption that city-dwellers (especially those who aren’t as socially privileged) do not care about or benefit from species biodiversity in their communities, that they do not notice when the trees are cut down and the birds stop singing, is unfounded. Social justice is the fair treatment of others. We should not put the needs of wildlife above those of humans, rather, we should treat both fairly, and consider more than just our wallets and convenience. It is unjust to distribute resources unfairly, and it is unfair to expect those being treated unjustly to consider conservation their top priority.
Lia: Sure! This is part of the same thread. The way we currently manage wildlife and natural areas feels a lot like colonialism. It’s all about control isn’t it? Controlling the populations of animals that we find inconvenient, like predators, boosting the populations of species that we gain an economic benefit from. That same mindset is built into our other government institutions, which are built around increasing profit and subduing inconveniences, and these goals can often mean stepping all over people’s rights, case and point, the battle at Standing Rock and the keystone pipeline. It’s a very ego and self-driven model that is in the fabric of the way our country is run. The question then becomes, who is this system of benefits really for, and how do we make our institutions expand the circle of who is benefiting from this policy of profit to include folks who have been marginalized.
Wildlife and social justice
Charise: How is wildlife conservation, specifically, a social justice issue?
Lia: The underlying decision to use differences to other a community or another life, rather than a recognition of the similarities is the same. When you “take” an animal without awareness of or respect for its right to existence, without acknowledgement that it has a purpose, a desire, a meaningful existence besides fulfilling your intended use for it. Or without understanding that it experiences moments of joy, the understanding of what family is just like you do. This is the same act of “othering” that creates space for injustice and the violation of human rights when they become inconvenient. The refusal to recognize another life as similar to one’s own is the choice that is at the heart of both colonialism and extinction.
When we think about what it means for a species to go extinct, to cease to exist in any form or feather, memory or song, forever, this knowledge can manifest such a deep sadness in us that we can try to turn away from it to protect ourselves. We push away the instinctual pain we feel that comes with the knowledge that we’ve lost a species to extinction, or the pain and fear we feel when we have to hear about the injustices committed against African Americans by the institutions we are a part of, or the empathy we might feel with immigrant families being torn apart while we stand by and watch. We can choose to close our eyes to the painful and frightening, but when we do this, we are also closing our eyes to the humanity of others, and the connection we have to life on earth. And this is important because we make this choice every day. With when we choose to stand up and speak out about an injustice or sit quietly and watch it play out. When we choose to open that email asking for your help or delete. It’s something about ourselves that we all need to be aware of and watch carefully.
Charise: Yes, beautifully put. I would add that the right to existence is what makes this a justice issue, not just for wildlife, but for people. Through diversity of life, we can exercise our human rights to food, health, and culture. If certain people are not given access to this right, that is unjust. On the flipside, if certain groups are not provided with the basic freedoms afforded others based on race, income, religion, or otherwise, we cannot expect conservation efforts to succeed. We can’t say we’re dedicated to conservation when there are still people being eradicated through the country’s prison pipeline, gun violence, and toxic pollution, with little input on solutions.
Conservation requires conversations
Species conservation is necessary for the protection of wildlife, a valuable natural resource. With so many attempts to dismantle science-based environmental regulations, we are putting more than our natural resources at risk. But we can change the narrative of who gets to benefit from “nature.” We can push for more consideration of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in scientific research and policy decisions. Instead of stifling community members or excluding them from discussions outright, we have to listen to and incorporate the problems and solutions they have already identified. Addressing the inherent biases in our institutions from an intersectional perspective is the first step in serving vulnerable communities justly. You can start by joining the conversation. If you’d like to learn more about how our Science Network members engage in their communities around justice-based issues, check out our Science for Justice blog series.