“There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths.”
Mark Nepo (2011). The book of awakening: Having the life you want by being present to the life you have. Conari Press.
Nepo’s quote captures our reaction to finding that wildlife values in the Western United States are shifting in a direction that appears favorable to biodiversity conservation. The last several decades show that biodiversity is in serious decline, and many have concluded the solution to this trend is changing human thought and behavior. One might easily assume, and fervently desire, that our findings of wildlife value shift tell a story about how people have become convinced of the negative outcomes of current behavior and thus deliberately made changes for the sake of biodiversity. However, our findings suggest a more unexpected path.
Our data show a widespread shift from domination to mutualism wildlife values over a 14-year period since 2004. Domination represents a view wherein wildlife are resources to be used and managed for human benefit. By contrast, through a mutualism lens, wildlife are regarded as part of one’s social community, deserving of rights like humans. With domination, wildlife are “others.” With mutualism, they are “one of us.” Wildlife values have changed because wildlife are being re-classified to be in the same moral community that includes humans.
If this shift was not deliberately orchestrated, then what caused it? We hypothesize a two-step process: First, as western society became more urbanized, educated, and affluent, people were removed from both the risks associated with wildlife and direct dependence on wildlife for subsistence. Second, as people were removed from direct interactions with wildlife, the tendency to anthropomorphize (seeing wildlife as having human traits) increased. This tendency was enhanced through various media that continually depict animals as human-like, as pets, and even as members of one’s family. This process provided the impetus for the change in values toward wildlife.
So what concrete effect does this shift have on biodiversity? Different values spawn contrasting views of acceptable policy. For example, while domination would support lethal control of wildlife to enhance human pursuits, mutualism supports educational approaches and restraints on humans to protect wildlife. While domination prioritizes economic well-being, mutualism favors protecting endangered species. Importantly, as we look to the future in democratic societies, policy ultimately tends to reflect prevailing social values. This suggests that, if the trend toward mutualism continues, we will see positive outcomes for biodiversity protection.
That would be a tidy ending. However, there is more to this story with other unexpected pathways. As the public increasingly regards wildlife as part of their social community, new problems arise. For example, people visiting National Parks may wish to get closer to wildlife, which poses a danger for both the animals and humans. For wildlife management, this poses new and important challenges to establish norms of interaction that help foster human-wildlife coexistence, rather than simply eliminating ‘nuisance’ animals. Nevertheless, these new challenges would be well worth the trade-off, should the shift in social values help prevent further biodiversity loss.