During our ‘Conserving’ Conference at the University of Sheffield earlier this month, we were extremely lucky to have the chance to talk with two of the keynote speakers about what the theme of this year’s conference meant to them:

Helen Tiffin

1) How does your research engage with the theme of ‘conserving’?

My current research is on the (unfortunately, and in some ways insoluble) vexed relationship(s) between animal welfare proponents and environmentalists. Though their interests should be united, in persuading a generally uncaring majority to consider the interests of the “more than human world” (Philosopher Val Plumwood’s term), they are often at odds, philosophically, ethically and in practice. At this time, my focus is on “alien” eradications, by shooting, poison drop, etc in order to restore “pristine” environments. But as Fred Pearce points out, biodiversity is perhaps going to increasingly rely on aliens to form a “new wild”. Meantime, many animals/ environments are being subjected to “cruel conservation” in what may be a misguided attempt to turn back the clock.

2) How does your particular academic discipline tend to approach questions of conservation, and how does your own work differ?

My original discipline was literary studies, and I worked on the ways in which animals, environments, and conservation measures were represented, historically, and in the present, in all kinds of writing, including scientific accounts. But I also have a Science degree, so some of my work differs radically from that generally done in English or Literary Studies departments, though some is congruent with the area of Cultural Studies, often grafted on to Literature and Communications disciplines.( e.g. my last published article, “Do Insects Feel Pain?“, was a summary of significant scientific research on the Insecta from 1980 to the present. The second last was on the ways in which the Congo region of Africa has been represented, in fiction and reportage, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Last (co- authored) monograph was ” Wild Man from Borneo: a cultural history of the Orangutan“.

3) What, in your view, are biggest problems with some of the public discourse surrounding conservation?

(a) From an Australian point of view, not nearly enough public discourse, with the exception of climate change. Even the latter is driven usually by economic considerations. And in the current case of the Great Barrier Reef endangerment by the massive Adani coal mine, and the incredibly dangerous Abbot Point loading facility, Government secrecy and draconian measures recently undertaken to actually prevent public discourse.

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( b) “Habitat loss” is a useful euphemism for relentless human population expansion and economic greed. But the passive form, and the apparently agent -less happening of “habitat loss”, helps keep discussion of human overpopulation out of the arena. But we have reached the point where, if we wish to have any biodiversity on the planet, we must begin to discuss it. Once humans are here, we have an absolute duty to look after them as best we can; but the right to bring as many into the world as we choose, is a rather different matter. This taken for granted right does need serious discussion, in spite of its unpalatable historical associations, if we are to have any “conservation” of species apart from the human.

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( c) Whether assumed through rights, religions, or economics, the normative assumption of anthropocentrism needs unsettling.

Rosaleen Duffy
1) How does your research engage with the theme of ‘conserving’?

My work examines the global politics of wildlife conservation, and I have mostly focused on the role of the conservation movement in the global South. What I am most interested in is how conservation practice can be made more socially just – for me it is important to examine how conservation intersects with race, gender, colonial history, the dynamics of capitalism, and concerns about global security. This is essential in order to build better practice in the future.

2) How does your particular academic discipline tend to approach questions of conservation, and how does your own work differ?

My ‘home discipline ‘ of Politics and International Relations is not known for a large body of work on conservation. In a sense that has been positive because this prompted me to engage with other disciplines in a search for explanations, theoretical framings and methodological approaches. I count myself as a political ecologist – which squarely addresses the politics of global environmental change, including wildlife conservation and seeks to develop the notion of the production of nature to move beyond narratives of destruction and construction of nature.

3) What, in your view, are biggest problems with some of the public discourse surrounding conservation?

I will confine my comments to wildlife conservation in Africa – the public discourse is dominated by the need to save charismatic megafauna (elephants, rhinos, gorillas, lions), This narrows the focus and allows conservation to sidestep the more awkward questions about how conservation is linked in to a colonial history, how it can perpetuate racial stereotypes (particularly evident in debates about poaching), and how it can be responsible for exclusion and (sometimes) violent dispossession of some of the worlds most marginalised communities.

[The BASN ‘Conserving’ Conference was held at the University of Sheffield on 18th/19th November in conjunction with ShARC]