“People, not wildlife, are the cause of coexistence problems,” says Yale Professor Changing Humanity’s Outlook of Nature
Researchers at Yale suggest changes to public mindsets in order to solve the coexistence problem
BY HANS YUAN
Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Policy Sciences Susan Clark is searching for solutions to human-wildlife coexistence amid challenges currently confronting biodiversity and biosphere health.
As someone who has spent more than 50 years in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and published nearly 400 published papers, the pressing urgency to develop better conservation strategies is testing Clark’s abilities to change the public’s perception of nature – including how humanity fits into the equation. In particular, she is interested in exploring how people can walk the fine line between development and conservation.
“[We] need to fundamentally change our underlying deep notions of the ‘good life’, or put another way, to revisit and modify our understanding of ourselves in this wildlife-and-wilderness-rich GYE place,” Clark commented in a paper submitted to the Journal of Multidiscipline Research: “This requires a kind of thoughtfulness at the individual and social level that goes well beyond every day, conventional practices.”
Hoping to draw attention to the loss of global biodiversity, Clark suggested a new “frame of mind” to ease and promote humanity’s much-needed transition to coexistence. Philosophically, the professor argued for an egalitarian view of humanity and wildlife as a means of helping people build a sustainable relationship with nature.
“We know that all living beings are attempting to realize their own good in their [world],” Clark said. “We humans are evolved biological creatures, just like everything else, and we are a part of the planetary system in which we live.”
According to Clark, this outlook on wildlife would promise respect to all species based on the fundamental ethical obligations as cohabitors of the planet. In practice, the mindset demands conservationists to act on ecosystems as a whole, giving support to all members indiscriminately. Morally speaking, it would be wrong to assess what species to save based on man-made metrics, like intelligence.
“It’s not fair to say, oh, pandas or something else, that’s A or B,” Clark said. “That’s the wrong kind of thinking. So you’d want to protect pandas and their ecosystem.”
There should not be a universal metric in place to evaluate traits, according to Clark. The measurements of subjective concepts such as intelligence or cuteness are dependent on a biased observer, meaning that the intrinsic values of all creatures — including humans — are equal.
Other conservationists have also maintained that the philosophy does not trivialize the inherent values of different species. In fact, Gao Yufang GRD ’23, Professor Clark’s colleague, stressed the importance of appreciating such intrinsic values, and not merely focusing on the materialistic gains they provide for humanity: “Every living thing has a right to exist, no matter whether they are useful to human society or not. We should respect their intrinsic value, and we should protect them not just for humanity’s benefit, but also for their own sake.”
Such views have not been met with complete public acceptance, according to Clark. Though the professor conceded that society is “highly resistant to new information and data [challenging] existing views,” she maintained the importance of developing mindsets to “foster attentiveness and show a sensitive kind of reciprocity of actions, feelings, and satisfaction amongst humans and wildlife.”
The professor also acknowledged the importance of valuing nature as humanity’s home, outside of its intrinsic worth.
“No one is [going to] have a good life if you don’t have a healthy environment. Not possible. We’re destroying the atmosphere. We’re destroying biodiversity.”
Similarly, for the practicality of promoting environmentalism in public, Gao emphasized the importance of being open-minded to his audience’s values. According to Gao, the best way to promote environmentalism is not through opposing preexisting notions, but to empathize with the challenges of the targeted communities.
Clark stressed the importance of creating a global movement, specifically mentioning the Jackson Institute on Yale’s campus. According to Clark, the institute is indispensable in its mission of considering grand strategies to tackle coexistence.
“I’d encourage students to branch out and not stay too narrow. You need to know what other people are doing so you can integrate it, emphasize it, and make your own mind up. So take courses that integrate and synthesize,” Clark said in closing. “We’re actually talking about very serious things about your future… I’m so lucky to be dead soon. These are very important things.”
Clark will continue to research natural resource management and policy in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.