What are the values that people attach to birds? How do they change over time, and how are the underlying moral commitments then expressed in the legal and practical implementation of conservation? These questions are at the heart of Moral Entanglements by Stefan Bargheer. The book provides a well written historical account of bird watching, ornithology, and nature conservation in Britain and Germany, from the naturalist collectors of the late eighteenth century to current efforts in international biodiversity conservation, as well as fascinating insights into the societal and political settings of each of the two countries and how these have shaped two distinct sets of practices and institutions.
Alongside the historical account, Bargheer conducts a sociological analysis of the moral values underlying the actions of relevant players in each country. His key thesis relies on contrasting work and play as the basis for conservation. He argues that birds are so well loved and protected in Britain because of the longstanding tradition of bird watching as a leisure activity. Birds, Bargheer contends, are particularly suitable as toys in a collecting game, turning nature into a playground worth protecting for the game’s sake. He contrasts this with the German approach, which originally relied on birds being given a role in the world of work. They were protected for providing economically valuable services such as pest control in a system of agricultural production modelled after the factory shop floor, and that rationale for protection fell away with agricultural industrialisation, leaving a gap that proved hard to fill based on an intrinsic moral value of birds alone.
The deep dives into sociological theory mark this book as an academic monograph, but I found it an interesting read nonetheless. In particular, I thought Bargheer makes a convincing argument about how the collecting game has shaped the relationship of many people with birds, and how the shift from specimen and egg collection to listing and nature photography turned a morally questionable practice into a motivator for nature conservation. A motivator that is not only more powerful than abstract moral directives, but one that provides a win-win situation: An enjoyable pastime results in knowledge production (the BTO and its surveys being his prime example) and ultimately conservation action.However, this strong focus on the collecting game also illustrates why the book left me wanting. Ecosystem services and natural capital pervade present environmental policy discussions, clearly showing that the economical rationalisation of conservation is not a thing of the past. And even within the metaphor of the collecting game, Bargheer’s investigation of the moral drivers is focused almost exclusively on the actors engaged in conservation already. His conclusion - that the joy of partaking in the game of bird watching is the primary means for engaging people to pursue activities beneficial for conservation – is then limited to this group as well. This leads me to the elephant in the room - another collecting game, rich in its own set of entanglements. And it is here also, that Bargheer’s contrast of the playful British and the economically rational Germans, is perhaps exposed as a stereotypical oversimplification. The division of birds into the useful and the harmful, and the reliance on economic arguments – rational or not – is still very much alive in an industry for which the British countryside quite literally remains the factory floor. It is then perhaps a very sobering insight that moral arguments may have little chance of providing a solution to overcoming this current conservation challenge.