“If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life”
A few years ago while I was a PhD student I took part in a roundtable discussion between postgraduate students and academics on the impacts of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects. The general message from the academics was ‘they don’t work’. They were deeply critical, and it was all quite depressing for us idealistic postgrads. One masters student ended up asking whether there were any examples of a really good ICDP. After an awkward silence, a senior professor moved the conversation on as if the question had not been asked, leaving the student, and several of us around the room, feeling completely deflated.
Now I am an academic, and I spend a lot of my time encouraging my students to be critical in their analysis of conservation interventions and their impacts. I ask them to consider the bigger picture, and whether the latest trendy ideas (ICDP -> CBNRM -> REDD+) will actually deliver the win-wins they promise for conservation and development. I strongly believe that such critical thinking is essential, particularly for the future Conservation Leaders with whom I work. However, I am also aware that there is a point at which critical thinking becomes cynicism, leading to the kind of ‘nothing works’ perspective that I encountered in the ICDP discussion above. As a Barclays bank executive said recently on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, “cynics and sceptics never built anything”. Not building investment banks is fine with me, but cynicism in conservation creates a conundrum. On the one hand cynics can see all sorts of problems with the world as it is, but on the other hand they also see problems with just about every proposed solution. This becomes a recipe for inaction and frustration.
How might conservation practitioners and policy makers proceed in the face of this conundrum? One option is to tone down the scepticism and adopt a position somewhere closer to naiveté. This makes it possible to do things without being paralysed by fear of failure, but it is obvious that there needs to be at least some scepticism in conservation. The world is full of silver-bullet solutions that make everything seem just a little bit too easy. I can’t imagine how much money has been wasted on ecotourism projects that never attract any tourists, or on expensive park management plans that cannot be implemented. The ability to ask serious and critical questions about any proposed policy or intervention before taking it up is crucial, and that requires a measure of scepticism.
An alternative solution is to take cynicism to its extreme by simply ignoring the problems that proposed solutions might entail – a kind of ‘if you can’t beat them joint them’ approach. This is captured by McDonald and Corson’s concept of “cynical environmentalism – the transformation of what is conventionally thought of as environmentalism through intertwined processes of professionalism and neoliberalism that have deprived environmentalism of much of its oppositional potential, and aligned it with projects of capital accumulation.” (2012; P.161)
The rather obvious conclusion to this analysis is that conservation practitioners and policymakers should probably seek to find a reasonable balance somewhere in the middle of what might be called the ‘sceptrum’ that runs from naiveté to cynicism, and I suspect that most do. So why then are there so many poor conservation projects? This might partly be explained by factors that constrain the choices of individuals and organisations, pushing them into courses of action that they might not otherwise choose. Anyone who has applied for donor funding will be aware of the need to conform to the preferred approaches of the donor, and in a world of scarce resources there can be little choice but to play along. For example, the UK Darwin Initiative application guidelines state that: “It is expected that in all cases the applicant will be able to demonstrate that the project has direct benefits to both poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation – Darwin is looking for projects that can demonstrate a win-win for both poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation”. The non-existence of such win-wins is a major conclusion of a vast research literature over the last decade, but I and many other colleagues involved in such research carry on applying to Darwin nonetheless.
At the other extreme, university academics who don’t ever have to deliver any applied intervention on the ground can be as critical, or even cynical, as they like, without any negative consequences. In fact, there may be positive rewards for cynicism, as critical work gets published. This might seem at times completely unhelpful, leading to the kind of deflation described above. On the other hand, there is surely value in having a group of people who have the freedom to think deeply about problems without having to face the short-term constraints of project delivery. As Bill Adams commented on an earlier draft of this post: “What is the role of academics in conservation? Is it to be like medieval priests, sprinkling holy water on knights in armour, or WW2 chaplains in the Pacific saying ‘praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’? Are they basically free labour for NGOs? Or should they be like a court jester, or a prophet, speaking truth to power?”
Conservation practitioners should be encouraged to think critically about what they do, and to avoid jumping on bandwagons without due consideration to where they are going. However, many face constrained choices. Academics who study conservation have the opportunity to wallow in more sceptical waters and to be more deeply critical of conservation actions, although too often this criticism is communicated to other academics in the pages of journals rather than to practitioners themselves. Academic cynicism has its value and its place, but I hope that academics are not so cynical as to completely burst the idealistic bubble of the students they teach. After all, as Terry Pratchett pointed out in the quote that begins this post, the real world is well capable of that.