Biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate, making the conservation movement of critical importance for life on Earth. However, recent debates over the future of conservation have been polarized, acrimonious and dominated by an unrepresentative demographic group. The views of the wider global conservation community on fundamental questions regarding what, why and how to conserve are unknown. Here we characterize the views of 9,264 conservationists from 149 countries, identifying specific areas of consensus and disagreement, and three independent dimensions of conservation thinking. The first two dimensions (people-centred conservation and science-led ecocentrism) have widespread support, whereas conservation through capitalism is more contentious. While conservationists’ views on these three dimensions do not fall into distinct clusters, there are clear relationships between dimension scores and respondents’ gender, age, educational background, career stage and continent of nationality. Future debates and policy processes should focus on the most contentious issues, and do more to include the perspectives of under-represented groups in conservation who may not share the views of those in more powerful positions.