CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Conservation policies may reflect the practical benefits of nature -- food, medicine, clean water and air. But in this week's issue of Conservation Biology, three scientists present a scientific and philosophical case for conserving nature on its own merits.

Some conservationists, they point out, suggest that preserving nature for its inherent value is arbitrary, subjective and unlikely to motivate most people. The sometimes contentious debate focuses in part on the idea that every organism in the natural world has innate worth regardless of whether or not it has "instrumental values" that benefit humans.

"This paper changes the conversation by calling for rigorous thought and evidence in the discussion of intrinsic versus instrumental value," said Michael Paul Nelson, a professor of environmental ethics in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. John A. Vucetich, animal ecologist at Michigan Technological University is lead author, and Nelson and Jeremy Bruskotter, an environmental sociologist at Ohio State University, are co-authors.

Recognition that nature has intrinsic value, they write, "represents a well-reasoned justification for conservation." Moreover, just as the intrinsic value of human beings provides a cornerstone for social justice, extending such values to nature would require that environmental policies incorporate concepts of fairness, equality and well-being in decisions that affect the natural world.

Scientists have estimated that more than 80 percent of the Earth's land mass is influenced by human activity. "Habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species are having tremendous impacts on plants and animals," said Vucetich. "If conservation policies are guided solely by human interests, then we're dishonoring the moral value of those creatures." 

According to the authors, other conservationists argue that the value of the natural world cannot be adequately quantified in dollars and cents. However, using such a measure as a basis for policy, they write, "entirely misses the obligation that intrinsic value entails -- to be truly concerned with treating an intrinsically valuable object in a just manner or with concern for its welfare."

Moreover, some have argued, recognizing the intrinsic value of nature leaves conservationists open to being viewed as anti-human or misanthropic. "Skeptics of nature's intrinsic value sometimes ask, What good is 'it', anyway? Where 'it' might refer to the giant burying beetle, the devil's hole pupfish, the Dusky seaside sparrow, or any object in nature whose instrumental value is not appreciated," Nelson and his colleagues write. Following that logic, they add, it would be reasonable to ask, "What good are you?"

The authors suggest that organisms, both singly and collectively, possess many of the same attributes that underlie the intrinsic value of humans, such as the ability to experience pain, to sense their environment or to flourish. "The critical question is," they write, "What is the best means for weighing and adjudicating competing values that involve intrinsic values?"

Nature is explicitly recognized in policies such as the Endangered Species Act, the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity and the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species. In addition, legal scholars such as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas have argued that nature should have standing in court proceedings through the participation of knowledgeable representatives. In Pennsylvania, a grassroots group invoked the "rights of nature" in 2014 by including the Little Mahoning watershed's interests in a lawsuit over oil and gas wells.

Researchers have barely scratched the surface to understand how notions of intrinsic value should affect public attitudes toward conservation, the authors add. Rather than being a "flimsy notion" that distracts from the development of sound conservation measures, they conclude, the intrinsic value of nature provides a robust and necessary basis for developing a conservation-based relationship with nature.

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Michael P. Nelson, Oregon State University, 541-737-9221

John A. Vucetich, Michigan Technological University, 906-370-3282

Jeremy Bruskotter, Ohio State University, 614-292-8949