The shaping of the global conservation agenda

Working alongside the IUCN, this project will identify key areas of controversy for conservation decision-makers and explore factors which shape the positions of IUCN members on these topics.


The world of international conservation is chaotic, especially with regards to its ethical and conceptual underpinnings. Conservation, since its origin, has always contained a wide array of driving motives and ideal end-points, personified by key figures throughout its history. A prominent example comes from the turn of the 20th century, when the strictly protectionist stance of John Muir contrasted the sustainable-use and equitable sharing approach of Gifford Pinchot. Over a century later this key conceptual divide still exists among conservationists, now accompanied by a suite of other issues including ecosystem valuation, the merits of working with corporations and the sustainable use of threatened species.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) was originally founded in 1948 as a global, combined voice for nature conservation. Its aims were to provide robust evidence on conservation related topics and to provide a constructive forum for debate on key issues and the future direction of the field. This forum takes place every four years at the WCC (World Conservation Congress), where Members propose and vote on motions to steer the direction of global conservation practice, as well as outlining the combined views of IUCN Members on important issues. However, throughout its history there have been major disagreements over the key tenets of conservation, reflecting divergence within the IUCN Membership and the wider conservation community. Recent topics of contention within WCC votes include bans on the domestic trade of ivory and the IUCN’s stance on genetically modified organisms. The Future of Conservation project is making progress in assessing the views of individual conservation workers, though to date there has been very little exploration of positions within governments and other Members of the IUCN.

This project will work alongside the IUCN to identify the key controversial issues for conservation decision-makers and explore the positions of IUCN Members with regards to these topics. Existing voting records from the WCC (World Conservation Congress) will be investigated using item response theory to indicate the contentious issues, the spectra of views within the Membership, and the position of each Member with regards to these issues. Results from this statistical analysis will then be compared with official stated positions of each Member in other international forums, accompanied by interviews with prominent figures within specific organisations. The outcomes of this study should give insight into the views of WCC decision makers, what the main points of conflict are, and ultimately to aid the IUCN in creating a constructive forum for debate on conservation issues.


David Tooby


Janet Fisher (Senior Lecturer at the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh).

Aidan Keane (Chancellor’s Fellow & Senior Lecturer at the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh).

Thomas Brooks (Head, Science and Knowledge, IUCN)


Natural Environment Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership

Collaborating organizations:

International Union for Conservation of Nature