The Value of Being Wild: A phenomenological approach to wildlife conservation

May 5, 2020 | Studies

By Dr Adam Cruise – Stellenbosch University


Given that one-million species are currently threatened with extinction and that humans are undermining the entire natural infrastructure on which our modern world depends (IPBES, 2019), this dissertation will show that there is a need to provide an alternative approach to wildlife conservation, one that avoids anthropocentrism and wildlife valuation on an instrumental basis to provide meaningful and tangible success for both wildlife conservation and human well-being in an inclusive way. In this sense, The Value of Being Wild will showcase the concept of eco-phenomenology as an important non-anthropocentric alternative to the current approach to wildlife conservation, namely sustainable development.

The problem with this dominant paradigm, as Chapter Two  will reveal, is that sustainable development has not only failed to provide humans and future generations of humans with their own needs but, as per the latest IPBES report, failed in arresting the freefall decline of wild species. The situation currently requires a radical overhaul of the current system.

 As emerged from the later work of French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), eco-phenomenology is particularly well-suited as a practical alternative to sustainable development. The core reason is that eco-phenomenology moves away from a human-centred framework toward a far more inclusive approach that embraces the conservation of wild animals as well the wild environment they dwell in, beyond any human needs (although humans are embraced within the approach too). Merleau-Ponty helps us to move away from anthropocentrism to a more inclusive approach in conserving wildlife, since his phenomenology does not consider the human animal’s relationship in the world as exclusive (to use and exploit wild animals solely for their benefit), but inclusive (as an interconnected biological component in a broad ecological system). The strength of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of phenomenology is that it facilitates an understanding of all living and even non-living entities, such as air, water and soil, as interconnected and interrelated within a broad biosphere. While Merleau-Ponty did not address the concept of wild animals or the biosphere directly, his later work points to the fact that human animals cannot exist outside a world that provides life-giving force to all living beings.

Phenomenology, as developed by Merleau-Ponty, is a concept that recognises the axiological qualities of the natural world are inherent and ineliminable from the discipline of traditional phenomenology, hence the term ‘eco-phenomenology’, developed in one reception of his thinking.  Eco-phenomenology offers a return to a world that humans have tried hard to alienate themselves from, in that it approaches the natural environment and wild animals, not as a complex set of objects and objective processes, but rather as they are experienced and lived from within by the attentive animal who is entirely a part of the world that he or she experiences. Merleau-Pontian eco-phenomenology thus emphasises a holistic dialogue within a more-than-human world (Abram, 1996: 65).

Eco-phenomenology is a concept that points toward an applied strategy but so far this has not been attempted in earnest. This is specifically true when it comes to wildlife conservation. The Value of Being Wild, therefore, sets out to employ the concept of eco-phenomenology in order to provide a new practical wildlife conservation approach that challenges, and potentially replaces, the current prevailing policies as employed by global governmental and inter-governmental agencies. In particular, this alternative frame is posed as a replacement for the failing anthropocentric conservation practices currently in place in South Africa. This dissertation will therefore conclude by exploring strategies where conservation of wildlife is not taken as instrumentally-valued, or even intrinsically-valued, but rather as wild-valued in that the existence of wild animals as wild is conserved within a broader, more inclusive overall ecology that supports the survival and flourishing of all living beings that include plants, wild animals and human beings.

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