The Dichotomy of Conservation and Production: Reconceptualising Biodiversity

Ecosystem Engineers

Management of the Australian landscape drastically changed with the arrival of Europeans in the 18th Century. Not only did the colonisers bring with them management techniques adapted to completely different ecosystems, they also brought the dominant paradigm of that time: that nature needed to be conquered by man. The advent of the industrial revolution and the subsequent replacement of traditional techniques for the extraction of food, fibre and shelter from ecosystems with fossil-fuelled machinery saw the fruition of the eternal struggle between man and nature. We have now entered a new geological era, the anthropocene, defined as such because of the degree to which humans now manipulate the earth’s biogeochemical processes to serve human purposes. In doing so, civilisations have begun to consider themselves separate from and superior to the natural world. This anthropocentric mindset has created a cultural and cognitive divide between the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the services these ecosystem provide (ecosystem services), such a clean water, food, waste decomposition and climate regulation. In essence, we have forgotten that we rely on the natural world not only for quality of life, but life itself.

Picture 6 Diagram from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment showing relationships between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being.

 Production vs Conservation

But what does this have to do with biodiversity conservation? By understanding the paradigm within which we live, we can begin to understand why current land management decisions are being made. In recent decades, the importance of natural ecosystems is again being recognised and environmental movements have advocated the need to conserve them. Such conservation movements have made headway by reconceptualising the way natural resources are valued and managed. The establishment of national parks, nature reserves and land care groups are good examples. Yet the colonial paradigm – that is, the segregation of humans and natural environments – pervades and persists. It creates a spatial and conceptual divide between land which is managed for human purposes – productive or urban land – and land which is managed for biodiversity – conservation land. Fundamentally, this view fails to conceptualise the human being as part of the natural world and part of biodiversity. It is therefore unequipped to recognise the systemic nature of biodiversity threats.

The real threats

Ironically, although we consider humans separately from ecology, it is humans who are the underlying causes of biodiversity loss. Every decision we make as an individual impacts biodiversity. Many of these choices, particularly the consumption of products and services, have unforeseen consequences which negatively impact upon ecosystems. Collectively, these decisions create societies in which provisioning systems, such as those for food, energy and transport, are degrading ecosystems globally. These social and economic systems create social norms so that many people aspire to have lifestyles in which their everyday actions indirectly cause ecological harm. Many such people simultaneous seek to protect biodiversity, however, due to the spatial and temporal disconnect between ecosystems and their services, people are unaware of the impacts their actions have upon the environment. Until we recognise these systemic realities and their inherent causal relationships, biodiversity will continue to decline. Biodiversity is impacted by the way in which non-conservation land, such as urban and agricultural areas are managed. In fact these land uses are becoming more common as populations increase, however they have great potential to support biodiversity when managed from a human-ecological perspective. Biodiversity is what exists when landscapes are not degraded.

Picture 7

Revegetation of a once degraded landscape at Lynfield Park, on the NSW southern tablelands, producing livestock and tree products and supporting a diversity of flora and fauna (Weatherstone, 2003)

 Redefining biodiversity 

Biodiversity decline is directly caused by a failure to comprehend the meaning of biodiversity, and the subsequent definition and measurement of success, which shapes management styles. The era in which the narrow and separatist definition assigned to biodiversity conservation arose is now in gradually declining. Conceptual frameworks used in the discipline of biodiversity conservation are now broader than original focus – to protect and preserve endangered cute and cuddly animals and their habitats. While species-centric work is valuable and necessary, it is only a fraction of the biodiversity pie. Yet, unfortunately, the term biodiversity conservation continues to evoke such connotations, rather than its accurate meaning; the management for diversity of life.

 The term therefore needs reinvigoration. We need to shift the focus from the conservation of species and vegetation communities towards a broader, more holistic approach, which seeks to actively improve and enhance our natural capital. Biodiversity can be produced, not merely conserved, if we consider the systemic interdependence of humans and ecosystems. By imagining the landscape we desire and indeed require; landscapes which provide a range of ecosystem services – supporting, regulating, provisioning and cultural; we will effectively manage for both biodiversity and production.


Weatherstone, J., 2003. Lyndfield Park: Looking Back, Moving Forward, Land and Water Australia & Greening Australia.  

Leila Alexandra

About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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1 Response to The Dichotomy of Conservation and Production: Reconceptualising Biodiversity

  1. A thought-provoking post Leila from someone who clearly has a strong connection with the land.

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