Conservation: A Dream, Not a Problem
Conservation. Optimism. Two great words in themselves, but in combination they are compelling, even startling. When I heard talk of a Conservation Optimism Summit in London I was immediately intrigued. This came at a time when I was feeling pretty low (again) about the latest news regarding climate change, coral bleaching, the illegal trade in wildlife, and ocean trash. Nature’s problems seemed insurmountable. I tried hard to tap reserves of hope within myself – they had never let me down before – but came up empty. I felt lost.
So I registered for the conference.
Fast forward several months. It’s Earth Day and my brother is driving us from London to Dartmoor National Park where my parents live. While listening to Cat Steven’s “Morning Has Broken” and “Can’t Keep It In”, I reflect on what I’ve seen and heard over the past two days of conservation optimism.
I was struck by three main things. Firstly, by how young most of my fellow participants were. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were at some sort of cool event for millennials, perhaps involving social media or entrepreneurial startups. As the hours and workshops passed, I realized that’s exactly what this Summit was: a cool event. As one of the presenters said (more about her later), “we have to stop saying that young people are the hope of the future, that we are the leaders of the future. If we give young people the right skills and the right opportunities, young people can be leaders of today.” I couldn’t agree more. Of course, this is not to say we older generations can now sit back and twiddle our thumbs. We’ve done more than enough of that already.
Secondly, and this might sound a bit odd, I was reminded how thoroughly nice conservationists are. In my role as Communications Coordinator for the Cocha Cashu Biological Research Station in Manu National Park, Peru, I deal with a large online network of conservationist colleagues and friends, but I somehow don’t have many occasions to connect with them in person. So to be surrounded by a community of nature lovers, all genuine, sincere, passionate, and committed people, all of them fellow admirers and sufferers of “the splendour and travail of the earth,” was like a balm on an open wound. I felt distinctly less alone.
One of the most inspiring and entertaining plenaries for me was presented by Anna Oposa, ‘Chief Mermaid’ of Save Philippine Seas. Despite having no formal training as a marine biologist or conservationist, in 2011 Anna was galvanised into action after reading a headline: “Coral reefs twice the size of Manila destroyed.” In the six following years, she built a successful non-governmental organisation and a promising career out of nothing.
Not only is Anna a shining example of a member of the younger generation taking charge of her future, and of the incontrovertible fact that a single person with grit and determination can make a real difference, but also that anyone and everyone – you, me, the next door neighbour – can do this, no matter what their background or their level of education. There is really no excuse: we can all be conservation heroes. If we care enough.
I have come away from the conference with a resolve to celebrate conservation successes, with ideas for how to take things forward in my work and personal life, and with some thoughts on how to tell more positive stories, so that we feel empowered and in control, rather than guilty and helpless. We need to believe in our individual ability to make a difference, to be willing to talk to people with opposing perspectives, and, in the words of Marc Bekoff “to rewild our hearts and minds.”
It is time to act. It is time to accept we are all part of the problem, and we must acknowledge we are all part of the solution. There is no denying that nature – wildlife and wilderness and our connection to these – is in a bad way. We must face this truth head on. But there is no point in lamenting or complaining, or in being cynical or feeling anxious. We need to focus on re-framing our messages and actions in a hopeful and constructive way that inspires rather than discourages, that turns people on rather than turning them away, that fills us with optimism and energy rather than despair and apathy.
As Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at the University of Cambridge, succinctly reminded us at the end of his plenary: “Martin Luther King spoke of a dream, not a problem.”