1497 words • 6~9 min read

Conservation has a Trolley Problem

A train screams down the tracks. Dead ahead, a pile of of giant pandas frolic, inexplicably, through a bamboo stand growing through the rails. But wait! There’s a switch. Pulling it will divert the train onto another track, where a tank containing one of the last 30 vaquita will surely be crushed. Do you pull the lever, dooming the vaquita, or hold the line, flattening the frolicking pandas? Do you stammer indecisively, wondering how you ended up in this situation as you careen, inexorably, into into an increasingly unavoidable outcome?

What if, rather than the conductor’s seat, you’re at the helm of a conservation organization? What if the train wasn’t a hundred tons of steel and steam, but the relentless press of public will, funding, and focus upon which it is your duty to shape and direct into action?

What if conservation has a Trolley Problem?

Ah the Trolley Problem, the thought experiment turned pop-philosophy darling whose use and misuse is, at best, an annoyance to every ethicist I know. Regrettably, I do them no favors here.

Momentum and Inertia.

Conservation is a machine in motion. Every action, strategy, campaign, initiative, and funding directive is a decision about priorities, outcomes, and consequences both intended and unintended. Conservationists are playing against the slaughter rule. Deciding what to value, how to value it, and how to communicate that value to the public is a declaration not just of what we think is most important but what we feel is less important. Conservation is not, in general, a well-funded movement. Every effort draws from a limited pool of money, attention, energy, and blood equity. When every victory is temporary and every loss is permanent, time is a precious resource.

How often within the conservation world do we hear about the Big Truths–charismatic flagship species act as ambassadors, the economic utility of an ecosystem represents its conservation value, celebrities and popular culture bridge new audiences–without a critical look towards why those are among the prime drivers of conservation momentum. These examples are successful strategies. They work. They raise funds, yield policy changes, inspire stakeholders to take action, and create awe. And because they work, they become embedded in the fundamental process of conservation, because ‘this is how we do things.‘ 

And that means that the strategies perceived as the most successful become intractably locked into place. They get the lion’s share of funding, the most staff hours, the strongest commitments, and become even more successful. The trolley becomes harder to divert.

The Trolley Problem is not a perfect analogy. At least two key elements of conservation diverge from the conventional Trolley Problem. The first should be obvious: the decisions we make are positivist actions. It’s not really a choice between running over pandas or smashing a vaquita but rather a choice of which action, strategy, or campaign to adopt. It’s not really a zero sum game, either. Choosing to support panda conservation doesn’t also mean abandoning vaquita conservation. There are lots of trolleys careening towards conservation goals. The real decision being made on the conservation trolley is a risk-assessment. It’s the decision to stay the course, following a know track with an outcome that can be understood, or flip the switch, try something new, and risk failure.

The conservation train is constantly accelerating and the switches are not uniformly distributed. Staying the course means that it may take years, decades, or centuries before we’ll know if we made the right choice, if ever. The last chance to change tracks could be imminent or there could be another one further down the line. In the Conservation Trolley Problem, the choice is between known and unknown consequences, quantified and unquantified risk. If you toe to line, you know how many pandas are now napping lazily on the track. If you pull the switch, the outcome is much hazier. But the clock is ticking and whether you chose to stay the course or switch tracks, something will die.

Which brings us the second major divergence from the classic trolley problem:

The trolley driver is blind.

If we switch the tracks, we don’t necessarily get to see around the bend. We sometimes have good hypotheses, models, and estimates, but we rarely have enough data to predict with certainty the outcome. We can’t speak with confidence to the results like we can with the well-travel route. And that means change becomes even more difficult. The more we know about the outcomes of the well-tested strategy, the more data we demand before making changes. There are tremendous incentives to stay the course. We become unwilling to try new strategies, and that leads to the assumption that the proven strategies are the best strategies, they drive the most effective fundraising and produce the best possible outcomes. Funders, supporters, and stakeholders want to see success. An active failure is perceived as worse than a passive failure so we become terrified of pulling the lever and being the one who switched tracks for fear that the whole train might derail.

Maybe that is the right approach. Maybe we should maintain a high bar for diverging from the status quo. Looking out at the world, though, I somehow doubt it.

Humans, even conservationists, are uncomfortable with uncertainty. The broad resistance to risk-taking within the conservation movement is certainly understandable and in many cases, pushing forward with tried and tested strategies is often the approach. But failing to recognize why certain decisions are made and assessing whether they are truly the best strategy or just the most comforting can lead to the breakdown of large-scale conservation initiatives and leave stakeholders and institutions vulnerable to the gregarious confidence man–advocates with all the answers who refuse to acknowledge risks and unknowns. But beyond that, diversity is resilience. Even conservation failure can help inform future successes it those failures produce new insights.

So what is the point of all this?

The Trolley Problem itself is has become one of those pop-culture monsters that, though interesting, is of questionable utility (at least when applied to human decision making). Is the Conservation Trolley Problem any more useful beyond its role as a thought experiment? The vast majority of conservation organizations are not nearly as intractable as the picture I’ve painted here. Many institutions are actively looking for new and novel solutions to the most pressing issues in conservation. Even still, I think there is something valuable about looking at conservation decision making through different lenses, to think about why we choose particular strategies, especially those strategies which are perceived to be widely effective and tenaciously persistent within the movement. Bureaucracies exist to promote stability and the world is changing much faster than most large conservation organizations are capable of adapting. By preparing for a track change well ahead of the junction and empowering practitioners to decide when a change needs to be made, we can be better equipped to make those decisions.

We don’t just need a conservation movement committed to success, we need a conservation movement that is willing to risk failure, as long as it fails in interesting ways.


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Marine science and conservation. Deep-sea ecology. Population genetics. Underwater robots. Open-source instrumentation. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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