Michelle Nijhuis is a project editor at The Atlantic, a contributing editor at High Country News, and an award-winning reporter whose work has been published in National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, a critical history of the modern conservation movement, was published by Norton in 2021, won the Sierra Club’s 2021 Rachel Carson Award, and was named one of the best books of the year by the Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian, Booklist, and other publications. The coeditor of The Science Writers’ Handbook, she lives in White Salmon, Washington.
Q: You mention in your book that the most passionate conservationists want to save all lives, including human lives. In what ways do climate change and animal conservation interact?
The modern conservation movement has a reputation for prioritizing plants and animals over people, and while that reputation is largely undeserved, it’s true that conservationists have often treated human needs as separate from the needs of other species. The accelerating effects of climate change—and the tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic—make it clearer than ever before that our own health depends on the health of other species. So now we’re seeing conservationists of all descriptions, from youth climate activists to “Big Green” groups like the World Wildlife Fund, emphasize the connections among species.
Q: In your book you write that “hope is the subject of much discussion in conservation circles, both the need for it and the lack of it.” Why are conservationists skeptical about being too hopeful?
The pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Conservationists are more alert than most of us to the damage humans do to other species, and most of their experience teaches them to expect more of the same. But I think conservationists—and the rest of us—can find a great deal of hope in the history of the modern conservation movement. While conservationists have witnessed many losses, and the threats to other species can sometimes seem overwhelming, it’s important to remember that humans have already succeeded in protecting a number of the species we love and value today—bison, bald eagles, and many, many more. Those successes are significant, and it’s possible to expand upon them.
Q: Your book includes narratives about important influencers of the conservation movement. What do these intimate stories highlight?
Some of the people I profile—Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir—are better known as conservation icons than as real human beings, and it’s awfully hard to emulate an icon. In telling the stories of their lives, I wanted to show them as they really were—as brilliant, accomplished people who suffered, made mistakes, and were in a few cases deeply flawed. I also wanted to show that none of them worked in isolation. They collaborated and disagreed and learned from one another, and in the process they built a movement that still serves us today.
Another thing that became clear to me while writing about the early leaders of the conservation movement is that while many of them were privileged, by class and education and otherwise, they were often vulnerable, too. Many of them experienced great personal losses; some endured mental or physical illness; most sought out the company of other species because they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with their own. They were outsiders, or at least felt like outsiders, and that seems to have made them more sensitive to other species—and, perhaps, more willing to criticize the powerful institutions and interests of their time.
Q: How do race, class, and privilege affect participation in the conservation movement?
Conservation is often seen as a movement of wealthy white people, and there’s some historical truth to that generalization. Many of the first modern conservationists were elite sportsmen who wanted to protect abundant populations of the animals they loved to hunt, and some of them made an explicit connection between the decline of charismatic species like the American bison and what they perceived as the decline of the so-called “Nordic race.” Most early international conservation efforts by North Americans and Europeans were built on colonial relationships, and they often disregarded or interfered with existing conservation traditions, with disastrous consequences for humans and other species. The conservation movement has become much more inclusive in both its makeup and its strategies in recent years, but its elite roots are still evident in its overreliance on top-down approaches.
The recent calls by members of the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society for those organizations to acknowledge the flaws of their founders show that conservationists are aware of the darkness in the history of their movement. More important than public acknowledgments, though, is for these organizations to examine their past successes and mistakes and learn from both. Early conservationists had a lot of great ideas, but a few of them had reprehensible ideas, and the legacy of their prejudices continues to limit the reach and effectiveness of the movement.
Q: How are the names of species chosen?
Before humans could start protecting species in any systematic way, we needed a way of naming them that could be understood across national and cultural boundaries, and the person we have to thank for that is the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus established the system of scientific naming that is still in use today, and some five thousand species are still known by the names Linnaeus gave them—including our own species, Homo sapiens. Species new to science are named by the scientists who identify them, and while scientific names usually reflect some characteristic of the species or its habitat, others honor the coiner’s friends, enemies, and heroes: there is a species of horsefly named after Beyoncé (Scaptia beyonceae), a spider after David Bowie (Heteropoda davidbowie), a termite after the Colombian artist and political satirist Fernando Botero (Rustitermes boteroi), and a tiny neon-purple fish after the fictional African nation ruled by the Black Panther (Cirrhilabrus wakanda). There’s even a millimeter-long tropical beetle named after climate activist Greta Thunberg (Nelloptodes gretae). Many species are also known and loved by their Indigenous or other local names, many of which predate Linnaeus.
Q: How many species do scientists believe remain nameless and unknown?
Since Linnaeus’s time, scientists have named about two million species, and about eighteen thousand newly recognized species are still named every year. But there are an estimated seven million species that are completely unknown to science, and any one of them could go extinct before scientists even have a chance to name it.
Q: What advice do you have for future conservationists and people motivated by reading your book?
It’s easy to think of “saving species” as a series of isolated tragedies and emergencies, since that’s how conservation is often portrayed in the media—we hear about the last surviving Yangtze river dolphin, or the last two northern white rhinos. I think all of us, conservationists included, can become preoccupied with these extreme cases and forget that conservation isn’t really about saving the very last members of a species, important as those efforts can be. Conservation is about protecting the relationships among species—including the relationships between humans and other species—and in order to do that effectively, we have to protect species while they’re still common. We can’t wait until they’re rare.
The good news is that we know how to do that. The modern conservation movement has a long history, and traditional conservation practices have a far longer history. In recent years, the conservation movement has begun to recognize the importance of the local conservation expertise it has ignored for too long, and to support community-based and Indigenous-led conservation initiatives. For those who think humans just aren’t capable of doing right by other species, I recommend the work of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize–winning political scientist who showed that the proverbial “tragedy of the commons” can be avoided.
The extinction crisis is real. We can’t save everything. But if we act on the knowledge we’ve gained, we can save a lot—including ourselves.