What is “Conservation”?

What does the word “conservation” mean?

If we take an etymological approach, we find its roots in the late 14th century noun conservacioun, or the “preservation of health and soundness, maintenance in good condition, act of guarding or keeping with care,” from the Latin conservationem, “a keeping, preserving, conserving” (www.etymonline.com). Later, toward the end of the 19th century, the word maintained its preservationist values, specifically with reference to the preservation of nature and wild places. This is all fine and dandy, but away from etymology toward a more general interpretation, what does ‘conservation’ mean? How did it come to mean? Where did it come to mean? All these questions and more relate not only to the etymological history of the English word itself but to what has become a dominant global discourse and practice; a crisis; anthropogenic change; species extinction; reduction in forest cover; an obsession with equilibrium.

What do you think of when you hear that word, conservation? A class of one hundred undergraduate students at McGill University (Montreal, QC) responded to the very same prompt, closing their eyes, and describing images of ‘pristine’ wilderness, caribou, pandas, elephants and lions, tall-treed forests, indigenous people, a National Park, a faraway place, safaris, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), biologists. These varied interpretations or imaginings align with a ‘global conservation story’ that has been mainstreamed not only into Eurowestern society, but across the world.

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In Nairobi National Park, prides of lions such as these can be found just a few kilometers from one of the busiest, most economically active downtown cores in all of East Africa. © Liam Ragan

Diversity and Inclusivity

The global conservation story is just one perspective, and from the earliest days of American conservationism which informed it, the conservation movement has perpetuated an ideology and set of practices which have often erased indigenous and local voices, lives, and worldviews. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, there is danger in a single story, and so our aim at Connecting Conservation is to tell different stories – of success, of ‘failure’, of learning – from a plurality of perspectives. What does the word ‘conservation’ mean? We ask this question knowing full well that this word holds immense power, and does not adequately represent the diversity of approaches to environmental care and management that exist in the world. Here is where our two key values of Diversity and Inclusivity are so critical. One of the main purposes of this platform is to engage with and represent the voices and perspectives of individuals, communities, and groups who have traditionally been underrepresented due to colonial histories, access to information, or simply those who have less often been granted the opportunity to share their stories and knowledges. As we as a global community take on the largest problem our species has ever faced, it’s more pertinent than ever that those voices come to the forefront of the conversation, and that nobody is stifled in their efforts to build a sustainable society in which we all have a place.


Conservation is a daunting topic to discuss; the stage is immense, the rules are obscure, and the diversity of actors is neverending. More than that, we’re faced with the challenge of trying to figure out how this complicated thing fits into our society (or vice versa). The result is thousands of voices covering hundreds of topics, speaking a multitude of languages, having conversations which can barely be understood by anyone without an extensive background in the subject. This brings us to another of our guiding principles for this project: Accessibility. Since the care and management of natural resources is of crucial importance to every human, we believe it is the responsibility of those who study it to present their insights in formats that are accessible. That means doing so in language that the diversity of stakeholders can understand, and through forums that value multiple stories and productive conversation.

We also conceive of accessible information as taking different forms, because we know that folks learn and think differently; the written word is not always the best vehicle for knowledge. We want to experiment with audiovisual storytelling as well as written content. Thus, in the weeks to come, we’ll be reaching out to conservation researchers at McGill University whose work we think is important and asking them to share their perspectives with us through conversation. We want to think about accessibility as ‘two way’, bringing awareness to who usually gets to speak and who usually listens, which is why an emphasis will be placed on learning about the projects of students (both undergraduate and graduate), and publishing those interviews in formats that are both easy to understand but also critical and nuanced. Where possible, our hope is to include edited recordings of these ‘conservation conversations’, infusing a breath of fresh air into a field whose most common form of communication is often academic articles.

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A fisherman casts their line out over Havana’s Malecon, while the city inches upwards behind. © Liam Ragan


Acknowledging that ‘conservation’ has for many decades meant or represented a field of academic inquiry largely influenced by the natural or ‘hard’ sciences, in everything that this blog attempts to do, we will highlight and value Interdisciplinarity. For many young people – all four editors of this blog included – it is a socially learned fact: natural sciences study rocks and plants, stuff you can poke at, while social sciences study human organisation, culture, things which are less tangible or measurable. Much debate on the division between natural and social sciences has taken place in the realm of conservation, ranging from the general theory to the practical training that is given to conservation professionals. This is partly because conservation was first and foremost informed by natural scientists, who had little background or interest in attempting to understand the complex ways in which human communities are embedded in social-ecological systems.

This is why a critical discussion of conservation has to be interdisciplinary or boundary-spanning. Conservation practitioners must consider how cultural knowledge and human activity interact with biological diversity to form a complex social-ecological system whose parts cannot be studied in isolation. Put simply, biological conservation and cultural conservation are immensely intertwined efforts, the study and practice of which requires interdisciplinary training and thinking. While we’re certainly not the first to recognize the need for interdisciplinarity, in each of our academic careers we have encountered the difficulties that boundary-spanning education and action poses. By encouraging conversation across disciplinary boundaries, we hope to foster this type of interdisciplinary understanding.

So, what does ‘conservation’ mean?

To us, conservation is a biological, spiritual, scientific, and cultural endeavour, the traditional definition of which has not tended to include, yet whose success rests upon: incorporating a diversity of narratives through the inclusion of different stakeholders, as well as an interdisciplinary approach that values accessibility of its ideas.

One Comment on “What is “Conservation”?

  1. Pingback: Where To Begin: Realizing the Connecting Conservation Mission – Connecting Conservation

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