Still Wasting the Rain?

It is exactly 30 years since I started to write the book that became Wasting the Rain (eventually published in 1992).  I have been thinking about this book a lot in the last couple of years, as Chris Schulz and I have been working on the history of the World Commission on Dams as part of the FutureDAMS project.  How different, I finding myself asking, is the world of dams today to that three decades ago?

When I sat down to write Wasting the Rain, I had been working for more than a decade in dam construction, river basin planning and irrigation.  I had done a PhD on the downstream impacts of the Bakolori Dam in Nigeria on floodplain agriculture, worked for an engineering company on a dam resettlement project, and studied the economy and ecology of African floodplain wetlands.  I had seen several dam projects and irrigation schemes from the inside.  I knew a little about the way development projects worked, and why sometimes they didn’t.  I had learned what the people affected by large-scale development projects thought of them, and how they responded to the changes the projects caused.

The title of Wasting the Rain was taken from the comment of a young civil engineer in Nigeria on the ways in which floodplain people used seasonal river flows.  The drylands of northern Nigeria were rainless for about nine months of the year, and the river was in spate only during the short rainy season.  To my friend, this floodwater simply ran to waste.  It seemed obvious to them that a dam was needed to hold it back, so it could be properly used, both for irrigation through the long dry season and for hydropower.  Enter the helpful engineers stage right, with hydrological models, design blueprints, the surgically accurate application of concrete and steel, their dams, canals, roads and power stations, to make all new, and better.

Wasting the Rain was written to offer an alternative view of people, rivers and development in Africa.  It looked at water and land from the perspective of the people who live in floodplains. It focused on the ingenuity of floodplain farmers in adapting cropping systems to variations in floodplain soils and flood depth and duration, and their skilled integration of agriculture, fishing, livestock and off-farm income around the annual flood.  In Africa, as elsewhere, floodplain communities and ways of life are built around, and sustained by, the seasonal dynamics of rain and river.  Floodplain people across Africa do not waste the rain at all, they use it very cleverly.  They do not build dams (at least, not large concrete ones), but they build adaptively on the opportunities offered by river, soils and rain. 

By contrast, the book argued that the true wastage too often lay in the construction of dams.  Dams are expensive, complicated and exciting projects to build.  In a country like Nigeria in the 1980s, after a decade of drought in the North, the federal government was looking for ways to invest spiralling oil revenues from the South: dams and irrigation schemes looked like a perfect development solution, a one-shot inoculation of modernity that would transform the country.  There were also rich pickings, both legal and illegal, from the many contracts to study, design and build projects. 

The Bakolori project in northern Nigeria was a classic in this respect.   Its dam was technically effective, built soundly, and more or less on time and to budget.  But the irrigation scheme that it was built to supply was (like other large scale irrigation schemes then being developed in Africa) completely uneconomic, offering far lower yields and rates of return than had optimistically been promised in the cost-benefit analysis.   Meanwhile the dam had the range of social impacts on floodplain people that have become depressingly familiar.   Those farming the floodplain upstream, whose homes and land were flooded by the reservoir, were moved to resettlement villages built on barren laterite hills above the dam, and promised irrigation water once the project was finished.  Those living for hundreds of kilometres downstream found the floods they depended on changed – floods came late (because the reservoir was filled before water was released), were smaller than previously, and unpredictable in timing.  The communities in the irrigation area itself, below the dam, had their land bulldozed as irrigation canals were put in, but had to wait until the dam and supply canal were finished before getting it back, or receiving water and staring to farm again.  It was a long hungry wait, and there were angry blockades of the dam in protest, and an undocumented number of protestors were killed.

When I look back now, I see that Wasting the Rain was romantic about the life of toil and poverty in the un-dammed floodplains of Africa.  I was young and naïve, and arrogant in presuming to write from the perspective of the people I had met working the land along Nigerian rivers.  But I think I was right to point to the effectiveness with which local people adapted to the spatial and temporal variability of environmental conditions in African river floodplains.  The way they used land contrasted sharply with the ideas that drove dam projects.  At Bakolori, the project’s designers promised economic ‘development’ (even if this never materialized), and in its name they completely restructured the landscape to fit their blueprint. They tried to lock future development into a straightjacket of concrete, and gtheir plans did not work.

This line of argument in the book owed a lot to the work of Californian Anthropologist Ted Scudder, who had studied dams and irrigation projects all over the world.  He started by working with Gwembe Tonga people of the floodplain of the Zambezi displaced by the Kariba Dam in the 1950s.   From the 1960s, he and Elizabeth Colson followed evacuees in Zambia through from one generation to the next.  In the process they, and their students, showed how long the negative impacts of resettlement could last.  In the 1980s Ted began to set out a more holistic approach to river basin planning, building in particular on studies of the River Senegal.  Ted was not opposed to dams in principle, but urged that they be used to support and improve floodplain agriculture rather than to attempt to transform it.  He argued that dam projects should be designed to address the needs of both reservoir evacuees upstream and those suffering from disrupted floods downstream.  He became very interested in the idea of drawdown agriculture and irrigation  around reservoir margins, and planned releases to provide predictable floods for downstream farmers (drawing in particular on the work of Jackie King, and what have become known as ‘environmental flows’). 

In 1998, Ted Scudder became one of the Commissioners of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), and his ideas (and his breadth of experience and charismatic enthusiasm) meant that his approach had quite an influence on the Commission’s findings.  One of their seven strategic priorities was ‘recognising entitlements and sharing benefits’.  In particular, the Commission suggested that ‘people adversely affected by a dam project should be among the first to benefit from the project ( p. 243).  That was classic Scudder.

When the World Commission on Dams’ report,  Dams and Development, was published in 2000, I felt that at last there was a clearly laid out approach to dam planning that could render unexpected negative social and environmental impacts something from the past. It did not, of course, work out like that. 

After 2000, my own research took me away from water and dams to look at the social dimensions of biodiversity conservation projects.  It has been very interesting to turn back to dams as a member of the FutureDAMS consortium.  So what has happened in the 30 years since I sat down to write Wasting the Rain?

Frankly, it feels like groundhog day.  After a short lull after 2000, dam planning and construction surged in the developing world, and there are an awful lot of new dams.  Some things have changed.   Different sources of funding dominate the sector, and different corporations (notably from China) are designing and building dams. The negative impacts of dams are better recognised, and there are new frameworks for dam planning to guide dam developers to avoid them, notably the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.  There is a growing interest in the identification and management of ‘risk’ in hydropower projects from lenders and investors.

However dams are still mired in controversy.   Negative social and environmental impacts have not gone away.  Far from it.  New large dams come with all the problems familiar from the old pre-WCD world – downstream impacts unrecognised in technical planning, or ignored; people displaced by reservoirs whose resettlement left them permanently disadvantaged; grassroots movements demanding environmental justice; economists struggle to find a rule-based approach for navigating benefits and costs.  Irrigation schemes in sub-Saharan Africa today are failing to deliver in just the same ways as their predecessors: overpromising, underperforming, and expensive. 

Why has so little changed?  Every observer has their own preferred list of reasons, just as they have their own assessment of how skewed the balance between benefits and impacts of large of dams really is.  For what it is worth, here is mine.

The problem today, as in the 1980s, is that dams epitomise ‘development from above’.  They emerge from a technical development planning complex that sits outside the societies that they chiefly affect.  They are designed in terms of national or international development needs, not the needs of floodplain people.  They are conceived of as a way to increase the size of the national economy, and to bring the maximum number of people within that economy out of poverty.  Questions of the distribution of the economic pie are treated as secondary. 

Too often, riverine societies are therefore treated as eggs that have to be broken to make the omelette of development.  Dam planners essentially see the ideas of floodplain people as irrelevant to development decisions, believing that their needs and interests can and should be traded off against national need, or that by some alchemy they will be transformed into sophisticated wage workers thriving in an expanded urban economy.  To those planning dams, knowing what floodplain people think and feel about the future is only important if it is useful in negotiations to persuade them to move quietly from their land.  Their dissatisfaction, or plight, is a project risk that needs to be managed. Compensation for losses due to the project is a costly necessary evil, to be minimized to protect the positive balance of the cost-benefit analysis.

Politically, many dams are built as if riverine people do not matter, because the unfortunate truth is that those people actually do not matter very much in political terms.  They are not wealthy or powerful; often they are not literate, their villages are often remote and they can often be fobbed off with promises.  If there are protests, these can easily be contained and localized (unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when groups like Narmada Bachao Andolan in India pushed back hard against the state).  It also really doesn’t matter greatly what anti-dam activists in industrialised countries think, because in the end they also have little influence on dam decisions on the ground.  Opposition and legal battles may slow dam projects down and make them more expensive, but they rarely stop them altogether.

At best, the calculation of costs and benefits is done well enough and early enough in the planning process that the dams built have a plausible chance of delivering net benefit.  But very often such assessments are formulaic, sometimes merely box-ticking exercises.  Large dams remain risky projects for fragile developing economies, dogged by cost overruns and negative impacts, and fuelling debt and inflation.  Moreover, if the benefits promised to affected people do not materialise, or are smaller than planned, while costs (financial, social, environmental) are larger than expected, nobody will know: economic assessments of completed projects at maturity are often done by interested parties such as funders, but they are rarely published anywhere that is subject to peer review.  There is much too little learning from mistakes, because such learning is painful and threatens too many vested interests inside and outside the country where the dam is built.

OK, so if I was naïve thirty years ago, I accept that I am cynical now – at least about dams (and irrigation schemes).  Nonetheless, it has been both shocking and depressing to come back to the dam world and find the same mix of problems, arguments and protagonists, the same kinds of impacts and injustices, as in the 1980s and 1990s.  Too many dams are still being conceived and planned without adequate consideration of issues such as long-term impacts on resettled and downstream communities, reservoir methane, or the long-term sustainability of growth-based economic development models.  Their legacies will be the damage they do to the long-term productivity of floodplains and the welfare of their people, the accumulation of national debt (which will trigger further grandiloquent projects in future whose supposed benefits are calculated to repay it), and the burden of costs of dam removal at the end of their lives.  This is a Faustian bargain today, just as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

What can be done?  Well, reading Dams and Development would be a start.  It got at least some things right.  As it said, we need an approach to dams that makes those affected into the main beneficiaries: not bought off, moved and forgotten, but treated as the key stakeholders.  We need to treat floodplains as the heart of future development, not raw material to be consumed to feed endless economic growth elsewhere.   We need joined-up thinking about rivers and their waters, not narrow attempts to find sites to build dams.  We need a river industry, not a dams industry, willing to consider rivers from an interdisciplinary perspective, and capable of holistic planning. 

We also need an approach to development that does not assume that water is being ‘wasted’ unless a river is dammed.  ‘Options assessment’ was another key proposal of the World Commission on Dams: what is the development problem, and is a dam the best solution to it?  Development planners need to stop operating as if they still believed that economies could ‘take off’ into soaring and sustainable flight (as the anti-communist economist Walter Rostow assured generations of development planners it could).  We need an approach to development that treats climate change as important, and does not sacrifice rivers and their people in the name of a pumped-up energy grid.   We need an approach that does not see development as a transitive verb, something done to people, but instead sees it as helping people bring about change themselves. 

So, cynicism married with idealism: perhaps a disastrous mix.  Nonethetheless, I see a world of dams that is as coercive and dysfunctional as it ever was. 

I am reminded of a Hausa proverb used by my old boss in Nigeria about the implications of development for small farmers whose lives were upended by the dam and irrigation project at Bakolori: hauka ne ga kaza ta auri kyanwa.  It means ‘it is madness for a chicken to marry a cat’.   The cat is the development planner: woe betide those swept aside by the cat’s paw in the name of the greater good.

Thanks to David Hulme, Chris Sandbrook, Chris Schulz and Jamie Skinner for comments.  They bear no responsibility for the views expressed. An abridged version of this blog appears on the FutureDAMS project website.

Thinking post-Covid

We started writing Thinking Like a Human back in 2012.  That now seems a long time ago, in our own lives, and in the world around us.  At the time we had adjacent offices in the Department of Geography in Cambridge, and lots of opportunities to meet and chat.  Since then, Chris has moved to the new Cambridge Conservation Initiative building, and taken over as Director of the Masters in Conservation Leadership.  Bill has retired after a period as Head of Department.  In 2020 and 2021, Covid has made a shambles of all routines of academic life: we are working from home, and the idea of being able to meet in person and spark ideas seems something from a remote world. 

It has been replaced with a world of all-digital communication. This feels very different.  It is pretty good for some things – seminars or committee meetings, for example, or conferences attended by people from all over the world, no longer constrained by visas and costly air flights.  But it has been bad for others.  We have found it especially poor as a medium for conversation. And so, while the world of blogs, and social media of all kinds, has blossomed under Covid, we have found ourselves lonelier and more isolated.  We miss being able to talk about things we have noticed, or what we feel about things happening in conservation or the wider world.  We miss the opportunity to urge each other on to develop and write some passing thought (or to stop being silly about others).  We have found ourselves more easily drowned by the onrush of digital stories.  We have both been challenged by the simple logistic and emotional demands of lives under lockdown.

And so, ironically, in a time of digital supremacy we find we have written less since the early days of Covid-19 than at any time since we started.  It is not (we hope) that we have stopped thinking or dreaming, or being irritated, or rejoicing, but that we have found it harder to find the space to reflect and to write.  Doubtless both urge and opportunity to write will return, and Thinking like a Human will be back to business-as-usual.  Until then, we will be self-indulgent.  Our output has always been episodic (neither of us is a diligent digital animal).  But now, more than ever, we will ignore the siren call of ‘more is better’ – more words, more ideas and arguments and more readers. We will write when we see opportunity or a need, or have an idea that won’t stop bugging us.  We hope you will understand, and stay with us through what seems to be emerging as a bit of a fallow period.

Green Development?

Recently I held in my hands a printed copy of the new Fourth Edition of my book Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World.  It had been a long while coming.  The contract I signed in 2012 set a submission date of December 2014: the manuscript was finally submitted in 2019, a cool four and a half years late.

In my defence, revising it was hard.  When I blithely agreed to do a new edition, both I and Routledge thought in terms of a quick update, with maybe a few new bits of writing to meet some of the more enthusiastic suggestions of reviewers.

It did not turn out like that.  Too much had changed – and too much was wrong with the previous edition (not least that I found it long-winded, choked with quotations that made it hard to read).  I ended up rewriting almost every paragraph, restructuring the argument and adding new chapters.  I cut words and references fiercely, like a gardener clearing brambles.  But as hard as I cut, behind me new words took root and grew.

I should have known it would be difficult to do justice to the field of sustainability and development.  I had made exactly the same mistake twice before. This was the fourth edition of the book.  The original was written in the 1980s and published in 1990.  It was written in a world without email or Internet: I spent my small advance on my first ever word processor (the remarkable Amstrad PCW).  At that time, systematic thinking about environment and development depended on the World Conservation Strategy (1980), and the Brundtland Report (1987).  The second edition appeared in 2001 and the third in 2009.  These had to respond to the 1992 ‘Rio Conference’ and the explosion in international debate and policy that followed it (not least about the UN Conventions on Climate Change and on Biological Diversity) and the Millennium Development Goals.

Everywhere there was more to say: more case studies, more theories, more contrasting ways of looking at the problems, more arguments about what ‘the problems’ were and what perils lay in particular ways of defining them.  Everybody had an argument to make about sustainability, nature and human futures. There had been endless meetings and reports, generating well-intentioned statements that ranged from the visionary to the self-serving, the heartfelt to the platitudinous.  A huge crop of new academic writing had sprung up, with new disciplines (for example ecological and institutional economics or conservation biology) flowering and new ideas setting seed (for example ecosystem services, natural capital,  resilience and governance).

In the face of this growth industry, the second and third editions of Green Development grew fatter, slower, less sharp.  By the time I finally turned seriously to the new edition, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development had taken place back in Rio in 2012, and the Sustainable Development Summit in New York in 2015.  The Sustainable Development Goals had generated their own explosion of scholarship. The challenge of dealing with all this material seemed overwhelming.

Curiously, as I hacked my way through thickets of old writing and new, it was the first edition to which I turned for the heart of the new book.  Not just because it was shorter and better written (or at least I thought so), but because of the critique of the conventional model of development that it built upon.  These were the debates of my youth.  I was doing my A Levels in 1972 when The Limits to Growth appeared, and the new Ecologist Magazine produced A Blueprint for Survival.  The following year saw publication of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People MatteredThe very title of Only One Earth by Barbara Ward and René Dubos, also 1972, summed up the impossibility of accepted ideas of growth.   Like others of the generation who watched the Apollo missions unfold, I took for granted the idea that the Earth was a unique and limited place in an inhospitable universe.

Doing my PhD on the impacts of development projects on small farmers in the African Sahel, I discovered Robert Chambers’s Rural Development: Putting the Last First, and later the works of Murray Bookchin and Robert Goodland. I realized that development as often brought problems as solutions.  And that was what I meant by ‘green development’ in the title of the first edition.  As I wrote in my first blog for Thinking Like a Human in 2014, the word ‘green’ is so loosely used that it might seem meaningless, a rough label for any kind of ‘environmental’ argument or action.  But to me the word seemed useful to draw together challenges to the conventional development model of unceasing economic growth, of unconstrained production and consumption, and the appropriation for profit of non-human nature.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as sustainability became a mainstream idea, critiques of Western developmentalism got rather drowned out in the torrent of academic and popular debate.  Now it has come into its own again.  In the 1970s, environmentalists spoke rather piously of existential challenges to human futures.  Today such challenges are unmissable, particularly in the form of climate change.  Moreover, the poverty of international policy responses has drawn attention to the structure of the world economy, to failures and limitations of governance and the pervasive inequalities and injustices that characterize and entrench them.

The standard model of development that served industrialized countries so well for so long is once again understood as a problem, not a blueprint for the future. In the 1970s, the key concept to frame this understanding was ‘limits to growth’.   This time around, attention is focused forwards,  on degrowth.  Can we build an economy of care, of the commons, of simplicity and conviviality, of cooperation?  Can we achieve prosperity without growth?  Can we rethink economics to deliver happiness?

When you are writing a book, you can keep tinkering with the text (indeed, that is one reason why books get delayed!).  But as soon as the manuscript is delivered, that window closes.  As an author you suffer agonies until publication day, watching new publications appear, and the world you have written about start to change.

So it was with the new edition of Green Development.  In the months after submission in 2019, the newspapers were full of Extinction Rebellion protests in the streets of London and other cities, and Greta Thunberg lecturing jaded politicians about their responsibilities to the earth.   The new edition of Green Development finally appeared in print back in January 2020.  Holding the finished book my hands then, I measured it against this explosion of interest about new ways of living.  I had re-centred the book on critiques of developmentalism, but I wished I had done more.

But now even January 2020 seems a lifetime ago.  The Covid-19 pandemic, with its cascade of closed economies, locked down people, and death stalking ordinary lives, has changed the debate again. Some commentators have drawn hope from responses to the pandemic, seeing vision, courage, empathy, care, a respect for science, and sheer hard work in the common good.  To some, the radical policy innovation demanded by Covid-19 arguably shows what might be done to build a sustainable and just world. Climate change may be a slower burn crisis than Covid-19, but, as Greta Thunberg points out, it demands as serious a response.

Yet radical change is scary.  The familiar exerts a huge pull, particularly for those who have been doing well out of the existing system.  Calls to re-establish ‘business as usual’, global trade, high street shopping, cheap air flights and holiday travel, are strong.  To re-imagine human futures is one thing, to lead or even follow the policy change is unnerving and takes courage.

And some Covid-19 policy-making is not encouraging, marked by short-sightedness, greed, selfishness, and aversion to risk.  We sense the pulling up of drawbridges, the closing off of sympathy for those who are different from ourselves.  The Black Lives Matter protests have focused global attention on structural injustice and inequality, and the bloody and coercive histories behind the wealth of ‘developed’ countries.

Thinking about Green Development, I recognise that it probably does a better job of explaining problems than offering solutions.   I comfort myself that if you don’t understand problems you can’t fix them, although this is an easy cop out.  Thinking about the book in the light of this extraordinary year, the Covid-19 pandemic holds up a mirror in which we can look at ourselves and our societies.  If we gaze into it, we see not a world easily remade, but a set of intractable challenges and tough choices.  Many of these are horribly familiar, even if they strike us as new.

Old entrenched problems are often the hardest to solve.  But one thing is very clear: never has bold thinking about what matters in the world been more urgent.

Coronavirus and Conservation: a global situation report

The global covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on all sectors of society around the world, including wildlife conservation. The nature based tourism sector has collapsed, fieldwork is often impossible, and donors are withdrawing funds. This represents a serious challenge to conservation, which will endure for years to come. At the same time, there may be a glimmer of hope in that the situation could open up new possibilities for transformative change in relations between people and non-human nature.

Bill Adams has written two excellent articles on covid-19 and conservation on this blog in recent weeks – the first considering the broad implications of the pandemic for conservation, and the second describing his personal experience of this year’s ‘silent spring’ in a Cambridgeshire village. Like Bill, each of us is experiencing the pandemic in our own way, with great variation from person to person and place to place. However, like the blindfolded men of the Indian parable who each encounter a different part of an elephant but cannot see the whole, it is difficult for any of us to understand clearly what is happening in the conservation sector around the world.

In an attempt to see more of the elephant, I circulated a short survey about conservation and covid-19 to the current and former students of the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership. The Conservation Leadership Alumni Network (or ‘CLAN’) are a global network of established mid-career conservation leaders from 75 countries. Many work ‘on the ground’, and are well placed to share information about what they see happening, and their ideas for the future. The survey was circulated on Wednesday 15th April. By Tuesday 5th of May it had received 31 responses (from a total of 179 alumni) from 6 continents and from 9 different cohorts. The rest of this article is a brief situation report based on the responses. Sharing of the results on this blog has been approved by the alumni cohort representatives. To protect anonymity no specific countries are mentioned. Continue reading

Silent Spring

The freedom to take an hour’s walk or bike ride each day has been one of the unexpected pleasures of the Covid shutdown.   April was scarily dry, with day after day of blue skies. Blackthorn bloomed in the hedges, and the nettles, docks and rye grass began to cover up the winter’s accumulation of plastic and cans. The occasional cowslip and jack-by-the-hedge appeared, just holding their own. Repeating the same routes, you get to remember where these flowers are and look out for them, like neighbours suddenly become friends.

The most remarkable thing about cycling under Covid has been the emptiness of the roads. This has been a silent spring, although not at Rachel Carson foresaw it. The silencing this spring has been of human engines. The roads lack their usual freight of hustling SUVs, the thrusting executive saloons, zippy commuter bubbles and trucks. There have been a few delivery vans, hunting for addresses like queen wasps checking out the roof tiles for a place to nest. But the exurbia of the Cambridge countryside, the outer commuter land, has been silenced. Cars lie parked up in front of new refurbished and extended houses, suddenly redundant. Rat runs have turned into country lanes, and those vehicles that pass announce their coming, pass and fade away, leaving silence behind them.

The Covid countryside is spookily empty, like a film set for an episode of Poirot, or Lark Rise to Candleford. To travel in it is to feel the experience of previous generations, before the roads became a Scalextric track for commuters, before the roads were metalled, before the internal combustion engine drove out the horse, before even the routes between villages were turnpiked. Roads lead past the site of a Roman villa, past Saxon villages, medieval churches galore, inter-war bungalows and postwar council houses. In every village there is a war memorial. The contemporary world momentarily silenced, a bike ride traces a landscape of former neighbours, ancestors and ghosts.

And, joyously, that landscape is not silent. Blackbirds and robins fill the air with song, woodpigeons, jackdaws and rooks shout heartily about their affairs. On one back road, there is a particular telephone wire where a yellowhammer sometimes sings, and over several woods a buzzard has been circling and calling. Stop by a flowering blackthorn or, now, hawthorn (the appropriately named May tree), and the air is filled with the buzzing of bees and hover flies, a deep hum that speaks of Summer’s own engine spinning up.

This year, spring has moved ahead, but it is as if the human world is paused.   It is disconcerting to walk along a road and hear bird song; to stand on a junction at commuter time and see not a trail of cars rushing homeward nose to tail, but the road empty in both directions; to smell not exhaust fumes but hawthorn blossom; to hear not the grind of car tyres but a robin’s song. Overhead, no planes fly. The other evening, watching a skylark sawing away a hundred feet above a wheat field, I was slightly shocked to see a movement behind it – an airliner 30,000 feet higher, heading northwest, presumably on the great circle route to America.

Not only is the countryside quieter, it is also cleaner. With the lack of vehicles comes a new clarity to the air and ground. No particulates, no NOx, no sulphur, no ozone in the air. No microplastics ground from tyres, no hydrocarbons or heavy metals in road runoff. Do this for long enough, and maybe the nitrate pollution that has become such a pervasive homogenizer of lowland floras in the UK would fade away.

Lockdown offers a window into an ecological past, a vision of a possible ecological future. As Chris Sandbrook pointed out when he read a draft of this blog, lockdown’s fortuitous timing, on the cusp of a warm spring, offers the chance to appreciate the year’s ecological unfolding, at a time when it is a delight to be outside. Nature provides a solace for our suddenly grounded and enclosed lives.

This closeness to nature, and our new appreciation of each other, might lead us to imagine a different future, one where we live more frugally, we care for each other, we appreciate the support of previously unsung heroes of ventilator machine, dustbin and delivery package. We might imagine a world not built around the motorcar, where the skies are not crowded with airplanes, where nature can be found and appreciated outside our front doors, in gardens, parks and roadsides.

This is not the world we came from scant six weeks ago. It is also not the one being demanded as pressure grows to ease lockdown. The dominant concern of governments and businesses is to restore the economy, to bring the old world back. And so, while commentators like George Monbiot have urged the government to use the economic shock of covid to rebuild a different economy – a greener economy – this is not what is in prospect. Back at the start of March, the boss of Ryanair condemned ‘irrational panic measures’ in response to Covid.   At the star of April, Easyjet received a £600m loan from the government and the Bank of England to tide over losses from grounding its fleet. In the middle of April, the BBC reported that US airlines would receive a £20 billion rescue package.

As the government considers lifting lockdown, there seems little chance that the economic machine might be restarted in a mellower and less destructive gear. Nature has, briefly, thrived this spring. Restoration of the status quo will end the ephemeral rapprochement with nature, and leave only its echo behind.

The real and horribly familiar silent spring is still the default model. Agricultural sprayers are still at work. Even now, the fields of wheat and rape are largely stripped of unprofitable life. The great ecological silencing goes on, and the industrial vice around nature still tightens. Alternative visions are likely to prove mere mirages, swept away when this season of lockdown is done and the toiling machinery of our lives clanks back into action.

And yet the questions are persistent. The world we know may be one where ecosystems are routinely squeezed and run down, but can the world not be made to work a little differently? Perhaps we have become less ‘socially distanced’ from nature as we have watched this spring unfold? If so, maybe we will remember this closeness in the months and years to come, and – each of us, as we can – seek out new ways to live. Covid has scrambled all our systems of provisioning, employment, socialisation and health. We have had to live differently, and relate to people differently. Can we keep the best of that and weave it into the recovery to come?

Meanwhile, the day is again blue, woodpigeons are making scuffling love on the roof and the blackbirds are doing their best to sing all the parts of the dawn chorus. The evenings are still drawing out, and there skylarks over the field near the church. The first swifts have made it back from Africa, even if they come now as single spies and not battalions. There is a world to build, but for a moment I need to go out and listen to the sound of silence. And build up the fierce heat of remembrance for the times to come.


From passion to professionalism and back again: the battle for the soul of conservation

The following article was first published in the Seeds of Change report produced by the Biodiversity Revisited project. With their approval I am reposting it here (with some very small edits to the last section). It was written before the COVID-19 outbreak took place.

Once upon a time, the conservation movement was filled with radicals brimming with passion, ideas and a willingness to take direct action. They chained themselves to buildings, hugged trees and wrote folk songs. They were noticed by a few students and enlightened politicians in Scandinavia, but they were ignored by the corporations and Western governments that were driving biodiversity loss around the world. Realising that the grassroots approach was not working, some among their number began to call for a new direction, reimagining conservation as a slick and well-organised professional movement that would get the attention of decision-makers.

Conservation organisations gradually adopted this model, developing well-crafted strategies, standard operating procedures and financial safeguards. New ways of framing and communicating conservation were developed, drawing on ideas from the world of business to sell biodiversity as natural capital, with salespeople organised into ‘business and biodiversity’ teams. And new courses were developed to train conservationists themselves to be more effective, going beyond biology to incorporate other disciplines and the applied skills of management and communication. As a result, conservation began to get a seat at the decision-making table, attending the World Economic Forum, holding gala events in royal palaces, and being followed on Twitter by A-list celebrities. Conservationists congratulated themselves on a job well done.

Time passed. The loss of biodiversity continued… Fossil fuels were burned faster than ever.
Forests also burned or were cut down. The oceans warmed, reefs were bleached. Happiness was measured in units of consumption.

A girl refused to go to school on Fridays until meaningful action was taken. She sat down outside her national parliament building with a sign. She spoke with authentic passion and others took note. An accidental movement was born. Elsewhere, a group of activists chose to use direct means to bring about change. They organised on social media, recruited followers and occupied the streets. An intentional movement was born. People noticed. Politicians noticed. Meetings were held with ministers. Crises were declared. Decision-makers promised to take meaningful action.

The professional conservationists were perplexed. They had been talking to the same decision makers for years but hadn’t had much impact. Now change was happening not  because of the conservationists’ skills, suits and glossy brochures, but because of unprofessional movements of radicals with passion, ideas and a willingness to take direct action. What’s more, the professional conservationists were very tired. They worked long hours in offices filling in funding proposals and timesheets. They wrote press releases about the wellbeing benefits of spending time in nature but rarely had time to do so themselves. They heard the chants of student protestors outside their offices but couldn’t join them because they had a meeting to get to.

The conservationists had some choices to make.

Like any fable, this tale is oversimplified and slightly silly, but perhaps contains some kernel of truth. Certainly elements of it ring true to my own experience. I direct the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership, which aims to equip conservation leaders with the skills they need to be effective agents of change for the natural world. A core part of the teaching programme covers professional skills such as strategic planning, financial management and partnership building. I strongly believe that these are useful and important skills for conservation leaders to acquire and our alumni tell us that they have been highly valuable in the workplace.

At the same time, I see conservation organisations that are more and more ‘establishment’ in their design and outlook, mirroring the structures and practices of the corporations and political systems that they say they wish to change. Yes, conservation may be more organised and professional, but has this come at the expense of the creativity and passion that enticed many to the conservation world in the first place? And why are so many conservationists completely over-worked and close to burnout, with a work-life balance no better than a trainee in a city bank?

The challenges with the current model of professional conservation have been brought home to me by the recent growth of the Extinction Rebellion movement in the UK. This group has burst onto the scene over the last year with a series of mass-participation occupations (bridges and streets in London and elsewhere around the country) and with hundreds of members willing to be arrested to draw attention to their cause. I don’t agree with everything they do or call for, but I am deeply impressed by their commitment, energy, organisation, and willingness to take deep personal risks. Crucially, they have done all this with a strong sense of friendliness and collective support, which is a joy to behold.

So, indeed, conservationists have some choices to make. Should we continue the journey to professionalisation on its present course? Or should we lay down our laptops and instead lie down in the streets with the protestors? Perhaps the answer lies between the two. The world does need organised, skilled and professional conservationists and their organisations. But it also needs them to stay in touch with the authenticity and the energy of mass protest movements, and never to forget that their raison d’être is change, not conformity.

Finding the right balance should not be a passive process. It is easy to say that a plural approach is needed, with different groups playing complementary roles towards the same ends, but this can be a smokescreen used to justify inaction. Rather, the mainstream conservation movement should actively seek to engage with the new wave of direct action movements. This means offering support in terms of knowledge, contacts and even funding. It also means listening and learning, for the new kids on the block have a lot to teach the old guard. This is why I invited members of the Cambridge branch of Extinction Rebellion to speak to our Conservation Leadership students this year about the role of direct action in bringing about change.

The new wave of direct action groups have brought a much needed jolt of energy and public awareness to environmental issues. This is exciting but challenging for the mainstream conservation movement. Working together may be difficult, but it is surely worth the effort.


COVID-19 and Conservation

These are strange, scary and fascinating times. Watching the COVID-19 pandemic grow throws us into the fantastical world of films or games. It brings disaster close to home, and to the people we know and love. Courage, altruism, ignorance and fear are all on show on our screens and in our hearts.

COVID-19 has temporarily come to dominate many other concerns, especially for those (like me) who were previously largely insulated from the life-threatening challenges of war, hunger, poverty and disease.  Reflecting on the evolving crisis, I find myself wondering whether it might change our thinking about the things we were worrying about before it hit, and if so how? When we get back to them, will we see them differently? What, for example, might the crisis have to say about conservation?   Here are some first thoughts. Continue reading

Brexit Political Ecology

Now that the UK’s exit from the European Union is but days away, it seems an opportune time to reflect on what the new regime might mean for nature and the countryside.

The future of nature did not figure prominently in what passed for debate before the 2016 Brexit referendum, although conservation organisations put on record their belief that Brexit would damage nature in the UK. This lack of attention might seem surprising, since for EU sceptics the Common Agricultural Policy has long symbolized the bureaucracy, waste and arbitrariness that they associated with EU membership. Moreover, British farmers contrived to combine dependence on EU subsidies with grievance at the bureaucracy and constraints involved in getting them.

And it turns out that Brexit has strong rural roots. I recently read a fascinating paper on this by Sally Brooks of the University of York, published in the journal Sociologica Ruralis. While much has been made (particularly since the disastrous showing of the Labour party in the December 2019 elections), of the tendency of ‘left behind’ working class voters in northern cities to vote for Brexit , Brooks notes that rural England also voted strongly to leave the EU. The rural vote was 55% to 45% in favour of leaving, with the highest ‘leave’ polls lying in the East Midlands, on the borders of East Anglia: the two highest Leave votes were in rural South Lincolnshire constituencies (Boston 76% and South Holland 74%), a region of good soils and productive farms heavily dependent on EU migrant workers.

Behind this vote, Brooks argues, there lay a vision of English (rather than British) nationalism that drew heavily on nostalgic ideas of rural England. This imagined countryside was a feature conservative nostalgia through the twentieth century, from Kipling through Stanley Baldwin or Churchill to John Major. The Conservative Party presented itself as the protector of rural tradition.

This image of an unchanging rural world survived the progressive transformation of the countryside, its communities and nature: estates were broken up and farms amalgamated, machines replaced farm workers and the hedges and ditches of inefficient old landscapes were reworked into the factory floor of the productive British farmer. Through it all, the imagined English countryside, of hedgerows, cricket, old churches and pubs, seemed to offer a sense of continuity. Rural was ethnically homogenous (meaning white) and spoke of permanence, even as Suez and small bitter colonial wars marked the end of imperial dreams. The rural scene was a refuge from the cultural and economic changes emerging in Britain’s increasingly diverse, cosmopolitan and multicultural cities.

Sally Brooks argues that this changed in the 1990s, as counter-urbanization brought affluent urban in-migrants to rural areas. From green wellies to fine dining, the rural became fashionable, and villages sprouted fancy cars in front of former farmworkers’ cottages. The old agrarian ruralism was challenged by newer and more complex ideas of the rural.

There was a powerful politics of reaction. In 1995, the Countryside Alliance was founded to campaign for the threatened ‘rural way of life’. They built on issues such as the proposed ban on fox hunting to create a much wider agenda opposed to rural transformation. A series of London protests culminated in the Countryside March: Liberty & Livelihood in September 2002, which attracted 400,000 people.

The rural/urban fault line exploited by the Countryside Alliance built on the idea of a threat to rural England (and therefore England itself, and by extension the UK) that came from the cities, and from immigrants, and, above all from ‘Brussels’ and the European Union under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

In the years of Labour government (1997-2009), this idea of a battle between the rural/tradition and urban/modernity provided an ideological banner under which disenfranchised Conservatives could organise. It was fertile ground for the rise of UKIP (the UK Independence Party). The idea of an imperilled English ways of life, of ‘Europe’ as a ‘foreign’ threat, was red meat to the rising Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative Party.  It was their power that led David Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership before the 2015 general election, and to hold it a year later, triggering the years of rancorous debate that have followed.

What I have been trying to think about is this: if Brexit came in part from a particular vision of rural England, what ideas are likely to shape the future of rural areas in Brexit Britain?  Policy choices have been well signposted. Very quickly after the 2016 referendum, environmental organisations turned to lobbying for nature in the post-Brexit future that is now upon us. Under arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove, the government started to ask some surprisingly open and novel questions about how agricultural and environmental policy should be organised. In 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government published a White Paper on the natural environment, The Natural Choice and a ‘strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services’, Biodiversity 2020. In 2018 it published A Green Future: a ‘25 year plan to improve the environment’, and Parliament passed the Agriculture Act, which promised a new ‘Environmental Land Management’ system, which would replace the old system of agricultural subsidyies with payments for environmental benefits (better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding).

This is not place to get into the details. But despite the optimism among some conservationists, I find myself reflecting on what ideas and principles are likely to shape the post-Brexit ecology of the UK. What will be revealed by the new governance regimes? Which interests will be best served by the new policies? Where will nature find space as the new political economic regimes unspool?

First, I think it is clear that British conservation policy will continue to be Balkanized, with separate policies for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland dealt. This has been a growing trend since the old Nature Conservancy Council was broken up in 1990. It has been an important part of the sense of identity in Wales and Scotland created by devolved governance, and brought some conservation benefits (notably Scottish national parks). It has allowed a variety of policy experiments, but reduced the consistency of conservation policies across the UK.

Second, British conservation policy is likely to become more parochial. It will lose its European horizon. The hope of many Brexiteers is to free the UK from ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ and from pan-EU agreements. Although EU nature policy (notably the Habitats and Water Directives) has drawn heavily on previous British experience, Brexit Britain wishes to be shot of it all, able to make its own rules. However good those rules are, and however effectively we concentrate on protecting species and habitats characteristic of these islands, the idea of nature in Britain managed as a coherent part of a continental whole will be weakened. In an era of rapid climate change, threats to migratory birds, or invasive wildlife diseases, policy isolation brings risks, however alluring it looks.

Third, paradoxically, Brexit Britain looks likely to pursue an aggressive policy with respect to nature outside Europe. The nature we are encouraged to be concerned about is increasingly understood as ‘global’, in tropical rain forests or African savannas. A Brexit British government might well hope to please a nature-minded electorate by ‘standing tall’ internationally. The cynic might see control of deforestation or the wildlife trade in the tropics, or the creation of vast protected areas in UK Overseas Territories, as much easier targets than (for example) regulation of scallop trawling, salmon farming, neonicotinoid pesticides or foxhunting. The protection of global nature offers politicians ample opportunity for good grandstanding with limited danger of political blowback at home.

Fourth, Brexit conservation policy will be carried forward under continued austerity. Whatever happens, economic forecasts suggest there will continue to be little money for the everyday grind of governance. And much though British people may love nature, when laid alongside other priorities for a shrinking tax base (the National Health Service, roads, public transport, social services – the list is endless), it is likely that government conservation investment will continue to shrink. It is also likely to be dominated by novel and experimental projects: the 25 Year Plan points to small dollops of new money for tree planting, for ecological restoration, a ‘nature recovery network’ and ‘green infrastructure’. These are all good ideas, but unless funding is sufficient to take them beyond the photo opportunity and Twitter story, they will not be worth much. The government has found a neat mantra in ‘public money for public goods’, but the bottom line will depend on how much public money there proves to be. The key decision here will be how much of the money that formerly went on agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy is directed to conservation. Future spending plans will be revealing.

Fifth, in the context of ongoing austerity, Brexit conservation will be increasingly private, dependent on philanthropy, the Lottery and corporations to secure and manage wildlife-rich land. In 2010, the Lawton Committee called for conservation landscapes to be ‘bigger, better, more joined up’. Those looking for exemplars of such strategies inevitably point to big private estates, either owned by wealthy individuals (e.g. Knepp or Glen Feshie), conservation organisations (e.g. RSPB, National Trust) or corporations such as water companies. Luckily, there have always been enlightened wealthy landowners who have favoured nature, and British conservation policy has always been a pragmatic mix of stick and carrot, working with the owners of private land to conserve nature.   Government spending on nature conservation dates back to the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. In the heat of planning during the Second World War it was accepted that it was in the national interest to conserve nature, and this should not be left to the whim of the wealthy, or done entirely at their expense. It will be interesting to see how nature governance evolves in our Brexit future.

Sixth, it seems increasingly clear that in future nature will only survive in the UK where the market finds space for it. The politicians creating Brexit Britain are opposed to ‘big government’. They want low taxes, and are happy to live with limited government revenues and limited controls.   The idea of ecosystem services and natural capital now pervade all UK government thinking about nature. The idea of nature as something that can be destroyed or restored or created opens up a neat link to the working of markets. Whether formally managed in terms of ‘biodiversity offsets’, or more loosely treated in terms of ‘net gain’ (a central idea in the 25 Year Plan), we are likely to see nature pushed around, destroyed by development here (in Green Belts or transport corridors) and created there (new ‘village greens’ or urban flood-control ‘wetlands’). There will be good-news stories to offer social and formal media, but there are already too few government scientists to measure ecological change. And I fear that once-powerful government bodies will have teeth that are only good for smiling in photo-ops.

I have written about my own complex feelings about the 2016 referendum elsewhere.   My sense of loss and alienation in the country I grew up in has not yet eased to any great extent. Yet I accept the need to live in the moment. I try sometimes to do as our Brexit enthusiast leaders urge and look forwards.   But when I do, I see a bleak picture, of nature reduced to what a shrunken state can pay for and what the elite can buy and chooses to manage well. Meanwhile, I see us fed stories of nature and countryside made good and flourishing, of private vision and corporate wisdom. I fear we may be beguiled by weak versions of the old myth of an unchanging countryside, without either the scientific capacity to measure how things are changing or awareness of non-human life thinning around us.

These are not predictions. To follow Margaret Atwood, in her introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale, they are more like ‘anti-predictions’. Perhaps, if I describe the future I fear, it won’t happen like this.  I hope not.  For the moment, I can but wait and see.

Listening and loss

Recently, on a run in the fields around the village where I live, I realised that I could not hear a skylark. At one level, this is not surprising, because the agricultural landscapes of Cambridgeshire are as species-poor as any ecosystem short of a car park. But this was a place where I had heard skylarks last year, and the year before. A farm access track through wheat had created a kind of accidental skylark plot, giving the kind of open weedy ground cover that scientists have shown that skylarks like, providing a slim toehold in the sea of pesticide-perfected arable crops.

My first thought brought a familiar lurch of anxiety – were there perhaps no skylarks this year? Was my rather barren corner of England not to be enlivened by the lark’s heart-stopping seesaw song, rising above the agricultural prairie below? It seemed all too possible. Skylarks have been declining in the UK since the 1970s, and no amount of agri-environment spending or skylark plot design has made much difference. Skylarks are simply disappearing from our skies and fields.

But a second thought followed, almost equally unwelcome. Was the problem with me and not the landscape? Were there in fact skylarks singing away, but I simply couldn’t hear them? This was, unfortunately, also quite likely. In recent years my hearing has deteriorated. I have struggled to hear quietly spoken students in lecture halls, and indistinct colleagues in meetings. More depressingly, I have stopped being able to hear birdsong.

For me, hearing loss was a gradual process, an imperceptibly slow change that involved a narrowing and a thinning of soundscapes. My mind did not register the change, and my brain adapted. I got good at listening, I got quite good at lip-reading, and found myself choosing to sit so that peoples’ faces were not shadowed. I did a lot of guessing what people said from context (not always successfully I have to say). And I no longer heard many of nature’s sounds: the subtle chuckle of stream water, the thick whisper of wind in poplars, bumblebees on the rosemary.

With birds, it was hopeless. Vaughan Williams did his best with the violin in The Lark Ascending, but the reality is more varied, more exhilarating, and to me almost completely inaudible. I found myself scanning the sky for singing birds so that I could cup my hands behind my ears and maybe hear a faint wisp of song: a mug’s game. In Nature Cure, Richard Mabey describes movingly the sense of loss he experienced when he could no longer hear birdsong. I felt some measure of the same loss, a small extra sad erosion of my sense of nature.

Last year I bit the bullet and was fitted with hearing aids, courtesy of the National Health Service. They were brilliant.  Indeed my hearing was at first too brilliant, and I was deafened by the running washing up water, disturbed at hearing conversations across coffee shops and on trains. I also discovered that meetings are not necessarily more interesting when you can hear everything.

I thought I would be self-conscious about having hearing aids, and surprised myself that I wasn’t. They were an unwelcome indicator of senescence, but they felt like just one more age-defying prosthetic. I like to think of them as enabling devices that offer new powers – like a wetsuit, binoculars or a bicycle.

The big win of having hearing aids has undoubtedly been that I can hear birdsong again. Back garden songbirds have been a deafening delight this spring, and I have started once more to hear birds before I see them. But last summer it was undoubtedly the endless improvisation of the skylarks that gave me the most delight.

Losing and regaining hearing has made me more sensitive to the sound worlds people live in. I learned how impatient people can be at those who cannot hear, or hear badly. And I realized how many people choose to live in a world of curated noise. People walk the streets, talk to friends on the trains and run the bare footpaths between Cambridgeshire fields, with earphones plugged in place. Their phone, podcast or music streaming service is a constant companion. The continuous stimulation of ear and brain seems a necessary prop a sonic backcloth to life, a kind of aural comfort blanket. What drives this dependence on recorded and transmitted sound? A concern that without stimulation we will die of boredom? A fear that that incoming sound will be disturbing, or discordant? A refusal to have our sound world will be penetrated and spoiled by that of someone else? Do we have a fear of silence?

The natural world is never silent, any more than it is ever truly empty. Acoustic ecologists analyse the complex soundscapes that life creates. Clever algorithms tease apart different species from their sounds, calls or song, separating and identifying different species and sometimes individuals from the apparent chaos. The machines work perfectly happily beyond the human register, as anyone who has played with a bat box knows.

But acoustic ecologists also tell us that we live in a world that is gradually losing natural sounds as species are lost from familiar landscapes and populations shrink. Soundscapes are as vulnerable as smellscapes, and almost everywhere more transformed. Human made sounds overlie all others. Traffic, garden machinery, aeroplanes provide a roaring carpet of mechanised sound, against which we pour endless music into our ears in search of pleasure and meaning, not knowing and not caring what we listen to, happy to have the streaming algorithms curate and armour our sonic defences.

Every spring, I suffer what I have come to anticipate as a regular anxiety of the turning year. I sense a fear that the natural world will not kick-start itself again after the short cold days of winter, that bumble bees will not re-appear on the rosemary, that swallows will not turn up by the pond, that swifts will not burn their way through the skies above the streets.

There isn’t a word for this anxiety, although I think many people attuned to nature suffer from it. It reflects the stress of ‘living in a world of wounds’, which Aldo Leopold described. I think of it as a kind of ‘spring fear’ (perhaps something of it is captured by the delightful German word torschlusspanik, the fear of time running out). It is a consequence of knowing too much about the homogenisation of ecosystems and the destruction of natural diversity in the modern world.

My gradual loss of hearing has taught me something about the gradual loss of biodiversity that we are experiencing. Year by year, non-human life is thinned out, losing numbers and diversity, leaving only the familiar co-habitants, the tough and hyper-adaptable, the parasitic and the domesticated. These changes seem unstoppable, endless, a slow decline of a vibrant world into some shadowland of uniformity.

The opening paragraphs of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the world refashioned by organochlorine pesticides in terms of lost sounds. She wrote of ‘a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh’.

I usually don’t wear my hearing aids when I am running. So, there I was, on a field corner, with no skylarks to be heard, and two questions running round my head. Were skylarks really singing, and I simply could not hear them? Or were they missing, marking one more step in their long decline? Could my prosthetic ears conjure skylarks back into life, or were they gone? Was this spring perhaps to be the first of many such springs, or even the first of all future springs, without the skylark’s song?

Silence, and how we deal with it, are key challenges for conservation. In a world of wall to wall noise, we need to take time to listen. We must talk about what we can hear, and what we are missing. Otherwise we will remain oblivious to the growing silence around us. And we may miss the fact that no neat device exists to bring lost soundscapes back, except in sad recorded archives of a once rich natural world.

The global conservation movement is diverse but not divided

In a break from tradition for this blog, the majority of this post comprises the Authors’ Accepted Manuscript of a published paper entitled “The global conservation movement is diverse but not divided. The full paper can be found (with very minor editorial tweaks from the text below) in Nature Sustainability . I have posted it here, with permission, in order to make a near-final version freely available from the date of publication.

Should biodiversity be conserved for its own sake or because it provides benefits to people? Should nature have to pay its own way in the marketplace? Should people be displaced to make space for protected areas? For several years I have been studying the different ways in which conservationists think about such fundamental questions, how these ideas are shaped, and how they affect conservation practice. Recent debates between ‘new conservation’ and more traditional approaches have shown just how lively the resulting arguments can be.

Convinced that published positions in the new conservation debate did not capture the diversity of views in the wider conservation community, I got together with Janet Fisher, George Holmes, Rogelio Luque-Lora and Aidan Keane to develop the Future of Conservation Survey. Launched in 2017, this survey was designed to capture the views of a large number of conservationists on some of the key issues under debate in conservation. We were blown away by the response. The paper reproduced below reports data from over 9,000 respondents we believe have professional experience in conservation. Since we began analysis for the paper the total number of respondents has risen to almost 15,000 from over 160 countries.

The results paint a somewhat nuanced picture. On the one hand, there are very high levels of agreement on many statements, and no distinct clusters of responses that would suggest the conservation community is divided into ‘camps’. On the other hand, there are some statements with low levels of agreement, and there are clear associations between responses and demographic characteristics (gender, age, nationality, etc.).

Conservationists generally favour the approaches we call ‘people-centred conservation’ and ‘science-led ecocentrism’, but find ‘conservation through capitalism’ more controversial. Women and those from Africa and South America lean more toward people-centered conservation, whereas men and those from North America tend to favour the science-led approach. Conservation through capitalism found more favour among senior conservationists and those from Africa, but was less popular among older respondents.

It would be possible to spin the results one way (“hey, we mostly agree – inclusive conservation is possible!”) or the other (“wait a minute – there are big differences between different subgroups of conservationists – there is no such thing as the conservation movement!”). We have tried to find a middle ground between the two that reflects the complexity of the results.

An important conclusion of the paper is that debates about the future of conservation should include the widest possible representation of the diversity of conservationists. Put simply, if there are consistent differences in opinion between different demographic groups, it makes no sense to have debates dominated by a single subgroup (such as northern white men). In making this call for diversity I freely acknowledge that the researchers on this project are not a very diverse group ourselves – we are all white Europeans, four men and one woman. However, we hope that by conducting this research we have succeeded in bringing forward the perspectives of a much more diverse group than has previously been the case.

As an unexpected bonus, soon after the Future of Conservation Survey went live, we began to be contacted by academics and practitioners telling us that they had used the survey as a tool for exploring and debating the views held by those they worked with, such as their colleagues or students. This suggested an opportunity to use our survey for teaching and capacity development. We have now developed a free web-based tool called GO-FOX  that allows anyone to use the survey in this way – please do check it out if you might be interested.

Working on this project has been a real pleasure. I hope the results will make a useful contribution to the conservation community, and encourage further debate of what, why and how to conserve.


The global conservation movement is diverse but not divided

Author’s Accepted Manuscript. Full article available here.

Chris Sandbrook* 1,2

Janet A. Fisher 3

George Holmes 4

Rogelio Luque-Lora 1

Aidan Keane 3

  1. University of Cambridge, Department of Geography, Downing Place, Cambridge, CB2 3EN, UK
  2. UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 219 Huntingdon Road, Cambridge, CB3 0DL, UK
  3. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, EH9 3FF, UK
  4. School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2, 9JT, UK

* Indicates corresponding author



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 polarised, 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 characterise 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.


Main text

Conservation is at a crossroads. Biodiversity loss is widely recognised as having serious consequences, but despite decades of effort in policy and site specific interventions, extinction rates remain high1,2. The Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 goal to achieve “a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” was not achieved, and there is no indication that the CBD Aichi targets for 2020 will be met3. Against this backdrop, negotiations are underway for the post 2020 Biodiversity Framework of the CBD, which will set the global conservation agenda for at least a decade to come. There is widespread agreement that conservation needs to be more bold and ambitious, and to find more effective implementation measures4,5. However, setting the future direction of conservation is hampered by the existence of various competing proposals which diverge on fundamental questions about why, what and how to conserve4,6–9. Two positions in particular have been prominent in recent debates. Proponents of ‘new conservation’ argue for protecting biodiversity because of its importance to people, and emphasise partnerships with corporations, the natural capital approach, and the use of market-based tools such as payments for ecosystem services6,10,11. Meanwhile advocates of ‘traditional conservation’ reject these views, arguing instead for the protection of nature for its own sake and emphasising state-based protected areas and regulation7,12,13. This latter position is associated with calls for the radical expansion of protected area coverage targets in the post 2020 CBD framework to at least 50% of the terrestrial and marine realms5,8,9.

The ‘new conservation’ debate has dominated conservation thinking for several years, creating the impression of a stark choice to be made about the future of conservation. However, the debate has been critiqued in various ways. First, for recasting as ‘new’ what are in fact long-standing disagreements in conservation11,14,15 over underlying rationales (such as ecocentrism and anthropocentrism)16,17, the role of market based approaches and economic valuation18,19, and the relationship between conservation and development14,20. Second, for falsely suggesting there are only two perspectives, leaving out important alternative views on conservation, such as a ‘critical social science’ view which favours conservation for the benefit of people but disagrees with the use of market based approaches4,21,22. Third, for under-representing the diversity of voices in the wider conservation community, because the main protagonists of the ‘new conservation’ debate are from an unrepresentative demographic group of North Americans who hold senior positions23. Fourth, for being conducted in an excessively acrimonious and hostile tone24,25.

Addressing these critiques and moving the debate forwards requires empirical evidence on the views of the wider conservation community. However, at present these views remain unknown, beyond studies of specific issues such as coexistence with carnivores26. Here, we report the findings of an online survey of 9,264 conservation practitioners and academics from 149 countries (Supplementary Figure 1). This is the largest published survey of the professional conservation community, responding directly to calls for conservationists to carefully identify their views and values, and to express them explicitly14,27. Respondents indicated their level of agreement with 38 Likert items that were designed to assess their views on the issues raised within the new conservation debate, such as the underlying rationales for conservation, how goals should be set and the appropriateness of various tools to achieve those goals (Figure 1; see Methods for details). Respondents also provided information on their gender, age, educational background, career stage and continent of nationality (Supplementary Table 1). The survey was distributed via relevant listservs and through social media channels, targeted to encompass a range of ages and seniority (e.g. postgraduate and early career lists), disciplines (e.g. conservation social science, ecology specialist lists) and geographical locations (continent and country specific lists). The survey was then circulated organically amongst networks of conservation professionals and through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Areas of consensus and polarization

We found high levels of consensus among our respondents on multiple survey items, but also important areas with high levels of polarization (Figure 1; Supplementary Figure 2). As might be expected, the strongest consensus was in agreement that the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem processes should be goals of conservation. There was also strong consensus in agreement that humans are part of nature, not separate from it. This is perhaps surprising as nature is often spoken of by some conservationists as if it were distinct from people, for example, in the ‘nature needs half’ slogan28. The most polarising issues each have a long history of intensive debate within the conservation community. These included the acceptability of displacing people to establish protected areas29, the need for strict protected areas to achieve conservation goals30 and the question of whether pristine nature untouched by humans exists31.

Fig 1 - likert_summary

Figure 1: The views of conservationists on key issues relating to the future of conservation. The distribution of responses is shown for each survey item. The items are presented from top to bottom according to the arithmetic mean of the responses, assuming that categories are equally spaced. Items indicated by bold text loaded strongly onto one of the three dimensions and were therefore retained for subsequent confirmatory analyses carried out on an independent subset of the data. Items which were excluded from further consideration are indicated by grey text.


Dimensions of the conservation debate

To examine whether the observed patterns of responses to our Likert items were linked to a smaller number of underlying dimensions of thinking, we carried out an exploratory item factor analysis on our data. Having determined the appropriate number of dimensions to extract (see Methods) we fitted a multidimensional graded response model32 which correctly accounts for the ordinal nature of the responses. We then rotated the raw factor loadings to produce more interpretable results, using an oblimin rotation which allows for the possibility that the factors might be correlated. As a check on the robustness of our findings, we repeated this procedure on two randomly selected subsets of the data, each comprising one third of our total responses (Supplementary Figure 4).

Based on these analyses, we identified three latent variables which were theoretically coherent and consistent across the two replicates. Each variable represents a different dimension of conservation thinking, which together characterise views on important aspects of the aims and practice of conservation (Table 1). Dimension 1 (‘people-centred conservation’) relates to the role of people in conservation, as participants and stakeholders. Dimension 2 (‘science-led ecocentrism’) relates to the role of science in the conservation of species and ecosystems, consistent with fundamental elements of ecocentric thinking33,34. Dimension 3 (‘conservation through capitalism’) relates to the role of corporations, economic metaphors and market based approaches in conservation (Table 1).

Table 1 HQ

Table 1: Factor loadings from a confirmatory three dimensional item factor analysis. Dimension F1 is labelled as “People-centred conservation”, F2 as “Science-led ecocentrism”, and F3 as “Conservation through capitalism”. Within each dimension, items are presented in order from most strongly positive loading to most strongly negative loading.


All three dimensions reflect longstanding debates in conservation, although the third has become particularly contentious in recent years21. The three dimensions can be used to describe a wide range of conservation viewpoints. For example, based on its description in the literature6,7, the ‘new conservation’ position is people-centred, in favour of conservation through capitalism but generally critical of ‘science-led ecocentrism’, whereas the ‘traditional conservation’ position is the converse. If most respondents adhered to the ‘new’ or ‘traditional’ positions, we would expect them to cluster into two groups corresponding to these positions, where the positions of respondents on each dimension would be highly correlated within each cluster. In fact, we found that factor scores calculated from a confirmatory model fitted to a third, independent subset of the responses were not substantially correlated and respondents exhibited a wide range of positions on all three dimensions, with cluster analysis revealing no evidence of distinct sub-clusters (Figure 2; Supplementary Figures 5 and 6).

To understand better the underlying views of respondents on the Likert items associated with each dimension, we plotted their positions on each dimension relative to the point that would result from a neutral answer to all Likert items (Figure 2). This showed that the great majority of respondents were in favour of both ‘people-centred conservation’ and ‘science-led ecocentrism’, to a greater or lesser extent, despite the fact that these perspectives are often treated as mutually exclusive35–37. This might reflect a pragmatic recognition that different approaches are suitable for different contexts, combining to a more heterogeneous overall strategy. Opinions over conservation through capitalism’ were more polarised, with 28.1% of respondents against this approach, contrasting with only 5.4% opposing ‘people-centred conservation’ and 2.3% opposing ‘science-led ecocentrism’ (Figure 2). This relatively high level of concern about ‘conservation through capitalism’ is important given the prominent role of market-based approaches and corporate partnerships in contemporary conservation practice38.

Fig 2 - theta_distribution_third HQ

Figure 2: Conservationists’ views form one cluster, not many. Relationships between each pair of dimensions identified in a multidimensional graded response model. Axes display dimension scores. Dotted lines represent the score for each dimension that would be generated if ‘neutral’ were selected for every survey item (further details in Methods). Percentage figures in the corner of each panel show the proportion of respondents who fall into the relevant quadrant created by the dotted ‘neutral’ lines. The correlation between respondents’ scores (⍴) on each pair of axes is shown above the panels.


Conservationists’ characteristics predict their views

To find out whether respondents’ estimated positions on each dimension were related to demographic variables, we constructed explanatory models (Figure 3).  Demographic results for ‘people-centred conservation’ showed that women, those with non-natural science training and people from Africa, Asia and South and Central America were more in favour of this approach (Figure 3). The gender result could be linked to the on-average higher levels of empathy for the wellbeing of other humans among women than men39. The disciplinary result is likely due to social science and interdisciplinary training emphasising the role and importance of people14, although the direction of causality is not clear. The variation between regions of the world could be linked to geographical variation in the extent to which conservation actions impact the lives of local residents, or in worldviews on the relationship between people and their environments40. It is striking that within our sample the regions with stronger support for people-centred conservation contain the great majority of developing countries.

Results for ‘science-led ecocentrism’ showed that women were less in favour of this approach than men, suggesting a gender dimension to these ideas that merits further research. Biological scientists strongly support ‘science-led ecocentrism’ and social scientists strongly oppose it, with other disciplines in the middle. This is not surprising given the strongly contrasting disciplinary perspectives within biology and social science on the statements comprising this dimension. Very senior conservationists were less in favour of this approach than more junior colleagues, perhaps suggesting that those holding these views are less likely to become senior, or that these ideas lose their appeal as one gains professional experience. Finally, support for ‘science-led ecocentrism’ was strongly linked to region of origin, with those from North America and Oceania tending to favour this approach most strongly, in direct contrast to results for people-centred conservation. This could be due to the strong history of ideas relating to wilderness and strict protected area-based conservation in these regions41.

Conservation through capitalism was favoured by women, those without social-science training, younger respondents, more senior respondents, and those from Africa. The gender effect merits further investigation. The academic background effect may be caused by the dominance of social science disciplines in research critical of links between conservation and capitalism38, which influences teaching. The age effect perhaps reflects the emergence of a younger generation of conservationists for whom close links to capitalism have existed since before they entered the sector. The seniority effect raises interesting questions about causality, such as whether conservationists become senior because they already hold certain views, or develop them having moved into a senior position, perhaps as a pragmatic response to the funding landscape or prevailing societal views42,43. Finally, the regional result, which is consistent with earlier research11, is likely due to the importance of sport-hunting and photographic tourism as a funding model for conservation in various countries of Eastern and Southern Africa44, the regions from which most of our African respondents originated.

We found strong relationships between all the demographic variables we investigated and at least one of the three dimensions of the conservation debate. Indeed gender, disciplinary training and continent of nationality were strongly linked to all three dimensions. Further research could investigate these links in more detail. These results support claims that the lack of diversity of participants in recent public debates about the future of conservation has led to an under-representation of certain viewpoints held within the wider conservation community23. Given power imbalances between different demographic groups, this also raises questions about whether ideas unpopular with some conservationists are being imposed on them by more powerful supporters of those ideas, as has occurred in the past45. For example, respondents from Africa, Asia and South & Central America (where most biodiversity is located) tended to be more in favour of people-centred conservation and less in favour of science-led ecocentrism than respondents from Europe, North America and Oceania. Conservation in the former group of continents has, in many cases, been strongly influenced by individuals and organisations from the latter group of continents41.

Fig 3 - covariate_effects HQ

Figure 3: Links between personal characteristics and views. Unfilled circles represent the baseline level in each panel against which the effects of other levels are compared. Filled circles show the mean difference from baseline (logits) with error bars representing 95% confidence intervals. Figures in parentheses are the proportion of respondents belonging to each category under the relevant variable. Non-specific responses (e.g. “Not reported” and “Other”) are not displayed.


Sample and survey limitations

While our sample is the largest and most diverse of any study of the global conservation community, it is important to note that the sampling strategy was based on opportunistic sharing of an online survey and is therefore not representative of the full conservation community (although in the absence of data characterising global conservationists, it is impossible to design a truly representative sampling strategy). For example, our sample over-represents highly educated conservationists from English speaking and wealthy countries, and under-represents those from non-English linguistic or less internationalised conservation backgrounds (e.g. indigenous perspectives). For this reason we caution against over-interpreting our results, particularly for less well represented demographic groups. These imbalances in our sample matter, because (i) those over-represented have tended to dominate conservation debates, (ii) there are differences in the opinions held by conservationists from wealthier and less wealthy regions, and (iii) most biodiversity is located in less wealthy countries46.

A second limitation relates to the design of the survey itself. The Likert items were developed through a rigorous process (see Methods), and were deliberately focused on the issues at stake in the new conservation debate over recent years. While this debate incorporates elements of many long-standing debates in conservation, it does not capture the full range of possible issues pertinent to the future of conservation, including, for instance, those existing in languages other than English, or in indigenous worldviews. The survey results should not, therefore, be interpreted as based on an exhaustive review of all possible conservation futures. In addition, the Likert items were presented free of context, making it difficult for some respondents to judge their level of agreement, particularly where they felt they would agree in some circumstances and disagree in others. This last point may also help to explain why most respondents agreed with both people-centred conservation and science-led ecocentrism: in many contexts, conservation interventions have to consider trade-offs between maximising biodiversity and human development27, but the survey did not force respondents to reveal a position on such trade-offs. The limitations of this study create interesting openings for further research into broader ideas about the future of conservation and how perspectives vary with context.


At a time when the conservation movement is facing bitter internal disputes over its future, our results demonstrate empirically that at the aggregate, global scale, it is less divided than some have claimed7,47. The great majority of conservationists agree with each other on many important questions and their views do not fall into discrete clusters based on their positions on three key dimensions of debate. However, when disaggregating our results by demographic variables, important differences between social groups emerge. These are not sufficient to be considered distinct clusters or camps (Supplementary Figures 5 and 6), but they reinforce the importance of recognising dimensions of social difference in conservation, and how these factors influence views.

Our results have important implications for conservation. Shared views on key issues provide the bedrock for any social movement, and the identification of the specific areas where consensus exists within the conservation movement should provide the basis for productive and less hostile engagement. The finding that there are no distinct ‘camps’ within the conservation community also lends credibility to calls for a more inclusive and unified conservation movement23,25,48. Nonetheless, even moderate differences in the extent to which people agree with certain ideas may result in fundamentally different priorities for conservation practice, particularly where trade-offs need to be made. In addition, our results identify several contentious issues that polarize the conservation community, including protected area management and the appropriate relationship between conservation, corporations and capitalism. In some cases addressing a diversity of conservation challenges may be well served by the existence of diverse conservation ideas and strategies25,49. However, where differences are irreconcilable this should be made explicit and deliberated rather than suppressed in the name of inclusivity22,26.

The demographic results identify consistent differences in average viewpoints by gender, educational background, age group, seniority and continent. Given historical links between all of these dimensions of social difference and uneven power relations, these findings raise important questions about whose voices get heard in conservation debates, and who is able to influence conservation action. Conservation is a diverse movement, both in people and ideas, and our results support calls for initiatives to ensure improved representation of social diversity in ongoing debates over the future of conservation50.




Survey design and sampling

Likert items that form the basis of the Future of Conservation survey were used in a previous Q methodological study, which describes the process by which they were derived21. Within Q methodology, statements are selected to represent the greatest possible coverage of views that exist among the respondent community on an established debate/topic51, in this case, published contributions to the ‘new conservation’ debate. Some of the statements resemble what social psychologists have termed ‘attitudes’, which are specific and contextualised views on particular issues; an example of this is the item ‘It is acceptable for people to be displaced to make space for protected areas’. In contrast, other statements represent more fundamental, cross-situational values52; for instance, ‘Conserving nature for nature’s sake should be a goal of conservation’. Based on the experience of our earlier research21, and further piloting of the statements to test their practicality as Likert items with an additional 14 participants, we made minor adjustments to four items to improve clarity. One further item was also entirely replaced by a new one. The item “plural rationales for conservation weaken the conservation movement”, was replaced with “having multiple rationales for conservation weakens the conservation movement”. The item “nature often rebounds from even severe perturbations” was replaced with “nature often recovers from even severe perturbations”. The item “conservation communications are more effective when they use doom and gloom rather than positive messages”, was replaced with “conservation communications are more effective when they use negative ‘doom and gloom’ messages rather than positive messages”. The item “conservation messages promoting the benefits of nature to humans are less effective than those that emphasise the value of nature for nature’s sake”, was replaced with “conservation messages that emphasise the value of nature for nature’s own sake are more effective than those that promote the benefits of nature to humans”. We added one item “When communities manage their own resources, their efforts are more effective than top-down approaches” as we identified this as an element of the new conservation debate that was not included in the original set of statements. We removed one item: “There is a risk that highlighting human domination of the planet may be used to justify further environmental damage” because this was not interpreted consistently by respondents in our previous work21. This gave a total of 38 statements as Likert items in the Future of Conservation survey (see Figure 1). The finalised statements in the web survey format were then piloted with 55 respondents known to the authors, with feedback sought on the clarity of statements, the medium and usability. No substantial changes were made to the survey after this.

Online survey design and distribution

We developed a bespoke web-based survey built by the Informatics Team at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre and hosted at URL: This incorporated the 38 Likert items, with a corresponding 7-option Likert framework (strongly agree/disagree; agree/disagree; slightly agree/disagree; neutral). We also collected demographic information about respondents. This included information about: gender; age; level of education and educational specialism; professional experience in research/practice; career seniority; nationality; geographical location of work as a conservationist; professional experience beyond the conservation sector; extent of human modification of landscapes where professional experience took place; experience of market-based schemes in conservation; experiences that were perceived to shape conservation values. These demographic questions were tested using the pilot processes described above.

The survey was launched and first publicised in March 2017, using the distribution strategy described in the main text. The survey website remains open, but the last date of a response included in this study is 29th May 2018.

Data preparation

Data preparation and analysis was carried out in R version 3.5.053. Our initial data set contained 11,272 responses. Prior to analysis, we first removed responses that identified the respondent as having previously taken the survey. This included those that had been submitted from the same IP address and had either given identical responses to the thirty-eight Likert items or gave the same email address. We also removed responses where there were missing data for any of the Likert items or demographic questions, or where the same response was given to all of the Likert items (e.g. all “Strongly agree”). Finally, we excluded responses from those who answered “Not applicable” to the question “In which of the following sectors have you done conservation work in your career?”, indicating that they have no direct experience of working or conducting research in conservation, and respondents who reported themselves to be younger than 18. In total, we excluded 2,008 responses based on these criteria, leaving 9,264 responses for analysis.

Information about the respondents’ personal characteristics used in this study was coded as a series of categorical variables: gender (male / female / other or prefer not to say); educational specialism (biological sciences / non-biological natural sciences / interdisciplinary / humanities / social sciences); age (<29 / 30-39 / 40-49 / 50+); seniority (very junior position / fairly junior position / neither senior nor junior position / fairly senior position / very senior position); and continent of nationality (Africa / Asia / Europe / South & Central America; North America; Oceania).

Investigating polarization in the survey data

To examine the extent to which there was broad consensus of opinion amongst our respondents we calculated polarization scores based on the responses to each statement. Polarization is a statistic that ranges from 0 to 1, where a score of 0 corresponds to all respondents giving the same answer and a score of 1 corresponds to half of the responses falling in one category, and half falling in a second, non-adjacent category. A score of 0.5 corresponds to a situation where responses are uniformly distributed across all of the available response categories. 95% confidence intervals around the polarization score were calculated from a non-parametric bootstrap with 200 independent draws for each Likert item.

The level of polarization in the responses to each Likert item within our survey ranged from moderate – 0.418  (95%CI:  0.413, 0.427) for “It is acceptable for people to be displaced to make space for protected areas” – to very low polarization – 0.093 (95%CI: 0.090, 0.097) for “Maintaining biological diversity should be a goal of conservation” (Supplementary Figure 2).

Modelling strategy

Our analyses were carried out within the framework of multidimensional item response theory54 and focused on understanding the number and content of latent dimensions capable of explaining patterns of variation in responses to the survey’s Likert items, quantifying the level of these latent traits in individual respondents and understanding whether and how these latent traits might be related to respondents’ individual characteristics. Our modelling strategy involved three distinct phases: an exploratory phase in which we examined the structure and dimensionality of the data, a confirmatory phase in which we formally tested the adequacy of the structure we arrived at and an explanatory phase in which we modelled latent trait values as a function of individual demographic characteristics55. To allow this, we split the data into three randomly-sampled, equally-sized subsets, each containing 3,088 responses. The first two subsets were used during the exploratory phase, running identical exploratory analyses in parallel and comparing their results to assess the robustness and stability of the solution56. The third subset was then used for the confirmatory phase to minimise the problems associated with performing both exploratory and confirmatory analyses on the same data54. Having arrived at a satisfactory model structure, the three subsets were recombined in the final, explanatory phase to provide the greatest precision for our estimates of the effects of individual characteristics.

Exploratory modelling

To evaluate the dimensionality of the data, we calculated Velicier’s Minimum Average Partial (MAP) criterion57 and examined scree plots based on the matrices of polychoric correlations calculated for each of the first two subsets of the data (Supplementary Figure 3). These criteria suggested that up to five distinct factors might be present in the data so we carried out an item factor analysis based on the multidimensional graded response model32, comparing solutions for three, four and five dimensional models. All models were fitted using the mirt function from the mirt package version 1.2858, with parameters estimated via the Metropolis-Hastings Robbins-Monro algorithm59. To improve interpretation the initially-extracted factor loading matrix was extracted using oblimin rotation. Since we had no prior theoretical expectation about the correlation of the latent dimensions, an oblique rotation was chosen to allow the factors to be correlated with each other to the extent that was supported by the data. Our choice between the alternative models was guided by the theoretical coherence of the resulting factors, the loading patterns of the items onto each pattern (e.g. three or more items loading >|0.40| and either two or more items loading >|0.50| at least one item loading >|0.60| onto each factor, and few strongly cross-loading items between factors)60, and the consistency of the solution arrived at for each of the two subsets of the data (Supplementary Figure 4). Having identified items that did not load sufficiently strongly onto any factor or loaded strongly across multiple factors, we excluded them from the dataset and refitted the model as a further check for consistency.

Confirmatory modelling

Next, we fitted a confirmatory multidimensional graded response models to the third subset of our data, whose dimensionality and structure was informed by the outcomes of our exploratory modelling. Since not all of the initial set of Likert items were well captured by these dimensions, only items which were identified as loading substantially (>|0.4|) on one factor and having no strong cross-loading onto other factors (no other loadings >|0.3| and a difference of at least 0.2 between the loading on the main factors and strongest loading on any other factor) were retained in order to obtain simple structure. The model was fitted using the mirt function from the mirt package by supplying a user-specified structure including an unstructured covariance matrix58.

Assessing the goodness-of-fit of models is challenging for large datasets with complex, polytomous responses, where the full table of possible response combinations may be very sparse61. We therefore complemented assessments of the fit of the model via a χ2 statistic calculated based on the expected a posteriori summed-scores62 and M2*, a limited-information statistic63, the Confirmatory Fit Index and the Tucker-Lewis index64, with assessments of the adequacy of the approximation provided by the model based on the root mean squared error of approximation (RMSEA) and standardized root mean squared residuals (SRMSR)64. We also assessed possible violations of the assumption of local independence using the local dependence matrix calculated from the χ2 statistic and standardized residuals calculated from M2* for every pair of items65.

Once a satisfactory fit was obtained, the model was used to estimate the maximum likelihood values for the set of latent trait scores for each respondent represented in the data66. In order to provide an intuitive point of comparison, we also calculated the latent trait score that would be expected if a hypothetical respondent had answered “Neutral” to all of the value statement items within the survey. This allowed us to judge the extent to which respondents within our sample were broadly supportive or opposed to the ideas represented by each of the modelled dimensions.

Explanatory modelling

In the final phase of our modelling, we tested for (a) the presence of clustering within the views of our respondents and (b) evidence of consistent differences in views linked to respondents’ personal characteristics.

To test for clustering within the views of our respondents we fitted a series of Gaussian finite mixture models67 to the estimated latent trait scores for each person represented within our data using the mclustICL function from the R package, mclust68. We had no a priori expectation about the number or shape of clusters that might be present in the data so we fitted a candidate set of 126 models in total, representing all possible combinations of the number of mixture components (up to nine) and the geometric characteristics of the clusters (14 cluster types: spherical, equal volume; spherical, unequal volume; diagonal, equal volume and shape; diagonal, varying volume, equal shape; diagonal, equal volume, varying shape; diagonal, varying volume and shape; ellipsoidal, equal volume, shape, and orientation; ellipsoidal, equal volume and orientation; ellipsoidal, equal shape and orientation; ellipsoidal, equal orientation; ellipsoidal, equal volume and equal shape; ellipsoidal, equal shape; ellipsoidal, equal volume; ellipsoidal, varying volume, shape, and orientation). The fit of these models was compared using the integrated-complete data likelihood criterion (ICL), an information criterion that has been demonstrated to perform well in identifying the correct number of clusters, with the best-fitting model taken to be the one highest ICL value69.

To test for differences in views linked to respondent characteristics we constructed a person-explanatory version of the graded-response model55 by incorporating five variables representing characteristics of our respondents – gender, age, professional seniority, continent of nationality and educational specialism – as fixed effects in a latent regression. The coefficients for these fixed effects, and their associated standard errors, were inspected to explore whether predictable, systematic differences exist in the positions of respondents along each latent dimension, linked to their personal characteristics.

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are not publicly available, to maintain respondent anonymity which was a condition of the ethical approval of the study (University of Leeds Research Ethics Committee reference LTSEE-054). All data gathered are stored securely and anonymously by UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Please see for full details of the Future of Conservation project’s ethics and data security protocols.

Project Ethics

The project has a ‘project ethics’ entry on the following page (, which is duplicated below:

“This project has been approved by the Research Ethics committee at the University of Leeds.

All data gathered will be stored securely and anonymously by UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and used solely for the purposes of this research project. It will not be seen by anyone outside the research project.

Your individual responses will not be identifiable either in this website or in subsequent publications. If you provide us with your email address, we will not share it with other parties, and will only use this to send you summarised results and to invite you to participate in the survey again in future.”


Supplementary Information is linked to the online version of the paper at


Materials and correspondence

Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to C.S. (



We thank all those who assisted with the piloting of the survey instrument, all respondents to the main survey, the Informatics team at UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre for building the survey website, and Bill Adams, Aiora Zabala and Diego Juffe Bignoli for comments on the draft manuscript.


Author contributions

C.S., J.F and G.H. conceived the project and designed the survey. C.S., J.F., G.H. and R.L. wrote text for the survey website and promoted its uptake. A.K. analysed the data. All authors wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.



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