Saving threatened habitats worldwide

The absurd art of conservation

21 February, 2013 - 09:18 -- John Burton
Tropical forest in India. © David Bebber / The Times.

I have to confess a sympathy for absurdist philosophy. For a rationalist, anti-theist like me, absurdism fits very well with the way a conservationist needs to look at the world. If there is no meaning to life, then it is important to keep all options open and do as little damage as possible.

I go along with Albert Camus, an absurdist who believed that the beauty that people encounter in life makes it worth living.

People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life but still provides something for which to strive.

In the case of most conservationists, it is the preservation of biodiversity, and wildlife itself (ie beauty, in all its manifestations) which provide that motivational objective.

Camus insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between an invented meaning of life and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd. An interesting thought, about which my personal feeling is that life is too short to worry about it. Keeping some of the world in a vaguely original state is an important enough philosophical statement in itself, and certainly provides ‘original beauty’ for future generations to encounter.

For me, many of the materialistic arguments that most conservationists seem to propose, like the capitalist societies they are rooted in, are ultimately doomed to failure. There is a limit to resource exploitation, and ‘sustainable development’ is an oxymoron. 

Conservation for the sake of beauty, for indefinable aesthetics, ‘because it is there’ makes far more sense, in the long term. Read Simon Barnes’ books and articles – he really understands this more than any other writer I know.


Submitted by Robert Burton on

I had to Google 'absurdism'!
Is not the problem with conservation for the sake of beauty the fact that conservation for any reason costs money? And there is no money to be made from beauty except by charging people to look at it. Materialist arguments may be doomed to failure, unless we can find some balance in 'having our cake and eating it' and limiting resource exploitation. It may be the only way of maintaining some sort of 'original beauty', perhaps somewhat scarred, until Utopia arrives, in whatever form.

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