(Verso Books, 2020)
Capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable. In the spring of 2020, the world began experiencing this fact more acutely than ever, as humankind struggled to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the outbreak it was easier for capitalists to cherry-pick the benefits of economic development at any cost and ignore its disadvantages. Now, many white-collar workers have adapted to working in isolation, while other essential members of the workforce put themselves at risk daily, from healthcare providers supporting infected patients to grocery store workers ensuring their communities have basic necessities. Though many conservatives call the pandemic a liberal hoax, workers across political affiliations feel the effects of capitalist responses that support corporations and billionaires before those most in need. As we head into an uncertain future that predicts, at best, months of social distancing measures and, at worst, a global recession and millions of fatalities, the need for radical social and economic change has become desperately clear. In their recent book The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene, Netherlands-based sociologists Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher unravel the tangled relationship between ecology and the economy, and propose a new form of environmental conservation that would catalyze broad improvements across all areas of life.
In five chapters and an intermezzo, the authors outline the major players in the conservation movement over the past few hundred years, explaining their successes, contradictions, and heuristic potentialities. They firmly place modern conservation within the Capitalocene, asserting that our epoch’s most influential forces have been globalization and capitalism, and not the dominance of humans as proposed by the Anthropocene. The book then acts as both a theoretical and practical guide for anyone looking to reevaluate their relationship with capitalism—and the future of life on earth.
In the first chapter, the authors outline three recent trends that summarize the conservation field: mainstream conservation, new conservation, and neoprotectionism. Mainstream conservation uses a capitalist model that revolves around protected spaces and a nature/culture dichotomy—the idea that humans are intrinsically separate from nature, not a part of it. New conservationists want to do away with that dichotomy and integrate human and natural environments while managing them through capitalist systems. Neoprotectionists resist capitalist commodification of nature and want to increase the nature/human divide, and some propose dedicating half of the planet to protected “self-willed” nature areas. The major flaws of these three positions are their varying dependence on capitalism and the nature/culture dichotomy, both of which, the authors explain, are woefully insufficient frameworks for theorizing a sustainable future on Earth. Instead, they offer an alternative: convivial conservation, their radical proposal for collaborative and transformative socio-natural relations that rejects capitalism and dichotomies and promotes reorganizations of power, resources, and civic engagement.
In such a referential book, I would have liked to see more time spent with the theories of thinkers like Donna Haraway and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The authors mention them briefly, but I suspect their interdisciplinarity and (especially Haraway’s) unorthodox rhetoric made them hard to incorporate into an academic survey such as this. As Bücher and Fletcher write, “challenging capitalist hegemony…entails challenging its definition of what is ‘realistic’ or ‘possible.’” However, The Conservation Revolution ultimately offers more conventional versions of concepts introduced by Haraway and Tsing. Haraway’s call to “stay with the trouble” in the Chthulucene—her term for a “timeplace” in which we can and ought to potently live-with and die-with each other in response to the mandates of the Capitalocene—takes greater conceptual risks and offers more possibilities than convivial conservation. Similarly, Tsing’s theory of nonscalability—her framework for imagining a world that prioritizes transformative social relations over progress-obsessed and homogenous scalability—could easily dance with Bücher and Fletcher’s degrowth proposal, but Tsing’s use of the unpredictable Matsutake mushroom industry as a foundation feels more imaginative—and generative—than the latter’s focus on the economic history of conservation.
Though the book lacks examples of the “unrealistic” imaginings it calls for, it does include concrete steps we can begin to take and their writing is saturated with a sense of urgency. As the world experiences the catastrophic effects of political and economic systems that prioritize profits over people, The Conservation Revolution provides an essential foundation for reconsidering the status quo and prompts us to move toward a more equitable, sustainable future.