Give a Little to Get a Lot: Conservation and Sacrifices

One of the things humans seem to struggle with most is the idea that, to put it bluntly, we don’t always get what we want. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We need to accept that sometimes we need to make sacrifices for the greater good. You get the general idea, and it’s telling that there are so many turns of phrase to describe the same basic concept, which in all cases is that sometimes we need to give something up, or accept that we can’t have something, in the interest of a larger goal.

That’s a particularly acute subject when it comes to environmental conservation, where people are sometimes require to make sacrifices, because there’s no way around the fact that some of the activities we are engaged in are unsustainable. It’s not that they could be made sustainable, but that they simply can’t go on. Think, for example, of limiting visitors to fragile natural sites because tourism is damaging plants and interfering with animal populations. People who want to visit may have to give up that dream in the interest of protecting the very place they love enough to want to see it.

This example is perhaps the classic one of the conflict between human desires and the need to do the right thing by the environment, but there are of course others. Reclaiming wetlands and dunes, removing structures for habitat conservation, and more. All of them involve requiring people to give something up for the environment: a recreation area, for example, housing, businesses, or something less tangible and immediate, like the ability to move freely through a natural area.

Communities are often hostile to environmental measures like these, perhaps obviously because people generally don’t enjoy being told what to do, and communities particularly resent it when outsiders arrive and tell them how things are going to be done. There’s an unfortunate tendency when it comes to conservation and environmental projects to bring in outside consultants and experts who make all the decisions and then present a finished plan to the community with minimal discussion or outreach, and unsurprisingly, the community usually lashes out in response.

What consultation there is tends to take place with like-minded people who are interested in environmental subjects and want to work with the project. Those people are naturally going to express support for plans that may require sacrificing things or changing a way of life, because they believe in the cause and they understand what may be required. These aren’t the audiences, however, that conservation groups need to be winning over; they need to reach the groups of people who aren’t informed about environmental issues, and who don’t have the benefit of an interest in saving the environment paired with an understanding of conservation subjects.

Those are the people who need to be persuaded, and not in a way that treats them like ignorant obstacles, but in a way that treats them as invested and valued human beings and members of the community. Otherwise, communities end up trapped in protracted battles over conservation initiatives that should be reasonably basic and easy to put through, and officials may find themselves spending millions on litigation and associated costs that they could be putting to much better uses.

In my own life, I’ve had to make choices that involve putting the environment (and other things) over myself and my own self-interests, such as not visiting ecologically-fragile places that I would love to witness in person. Even though I’m fascinated by them, and think it would be the opportunity of a lifetime to have a chance to be there, I also know that tourism is damaging and there’s not always a way to practice tourism and travel ethically. So I make the considered choice to look at images instead, to read research reports, to support conservation in the hopes that these places can be stabilised for the good of the environment and the benefit of future generations; maybe someday, they’ll even be stable enough for me to visit.

I’ve also, of course, made selfish choices, because I am no innocent when it comes to wanting things I can’t necessarily have without cost. The myriad of choices I make every day hang on a delicate and complicated ethical rubric, and I do not always make the right choices. Making the right choices is hard. Sometimes we proceed out of ignorance (deliberate or otherwise), and sometimes we consciously decide to go against the interests of the larger whole to get what we want—or, conversely, we recognise that sacrifice is the right thing to do, and we give up on a given desire.

Life is hard. Being an adult is hard. Making sound ethical choices is hard. And we need to be able to honestly assess the choices we’re making, and ask ourself how and why we’re making them. Culturally, we must also be aware that as we demand sacrifices of others, we need to explain the benefit to them; and the benefits to society at large, in the hopes of building, over time, a society where the idea of giving something up for the greater good is integrated into the larger rubric people use to make decisions. Such conversations, though, must not stray into the world of shaming people for perceptions of ‘selfishness,’ keeping instead to the complicated tightrope walk of living in a shared society where divided we fall, but together, we have the capacity to be mighty.