On the role of cynicism in conservation

“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” 

                                          Terry PratchettGuards! Guards!

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.


12 thoughts on “On the role of cynicism in conservation

  1. Great blog Chris! How then could the academic work be communicated to the practitioners sustainably? I agree that most of the publications are rather sophisticated and their readership is heavily limited – some stashed behind unaffordable subscriptions! (sorry for the double posting – thought I would get some responses from either end)

    • Academics serve to break down systems into small parts by way of analysis.
      Practitioners do their thing through a series of habits.
      It takes an intermediary to build the small parts into new useful habits – a job usually done by the entrepreneur. It is this entrepreneurial function which has become compromised in our society obsessed with economy of scale and it is in this area that your answer lies.

  2. Chris, this is a very interesting topic; I am glad you started with cultural reference hook:) I am not sure I actually read that one.
    I found scepticism with bits of cynicism valuable in any type of human endeavour. Conservation being only one of them. Nevertheless, conservation practitioners tend to see pink elefants while carried away with their enthusiasm for the actions they propose. Ultimately, action is what matters and it is often seen as justification for donors and peers. Instead, if those who practice conservation actually take conservation as practice and acknowledge interventions only as part of possible solutions, not ultimate ones, level of self-criticism through acceptance/rejection and modification would suffice.
    As a student, I do expect from academics to be sceptical and I must say I would feel dissapointed if they would not be enough sceptical. The ideal, neat and cuddled world of accademia is a shelter against the real, big world outside. It is up to everyone who leaves accademia to measure her/his enthusiasm against the real world complexities. No doubt that reading helps keeping the conservationist’s mind busy and sceptical, but opportunity to experience processes in details and intimacy might increase likelihood of daring and acting in which frustration and cynicism have less chances to persist.
    I guess would be naive to say it is a matter of personal choice someone makes, because it seems that ‘brokerage’ at the edge or outside social network clique, does not necessarily result in outstanding academic or professional achievement ( I sadly learnt today) so social pressures will always constraint the level of acceptance, but I still would like to belive it is worth trying.

  3. To make judgements about the effectiveness or otherwise of a conservation intervention, the critic is presumably comparing the results they see, with their own set of underlying assumptions and beliefs.
    What assumptions and beliefs about the purposes, motivations and responsibilities of conservation and/or development do the various actors in this field use to make critical assessments? Do they air and share these, looking to mutually understand the way of seeing the world on which either the cynicism, or the optimism, of others are based?

  4. I think that speaking truth to power is always useful but not always possible for those in the conservation and development trenches because of the risk of retaliatory action by those in power. All the ICDPs that I have been involved in have suffered from power imbalances where those who have the power to influence and decide either do not know what they are doing or do not appreciate the likely consequences of what they are doing, or are manipulating the system to their own power enhancing ends. Some of my attempts at speaking truth to power in these situations has led to unpleasant consequences like threat of black-listing by a development agency and threat of imprisonment by one nation’s security service. At the other extreme, those who have a direct relationship with natural resources and use their agency to thwart decision makers, do not have the power to change the system sufficiently so that they can climb out of their poverty trap. Its zero sum thinking and gamesmanship that preserves the status quo: increased resource extraction by the elite and deepening rural poverty for the poor. Academics being somewhat removed from the front line can play a critically important role here.
    Knowing what “the truth” is is another matter but I think that healthy skepticism keeps the door open to learning. Many of the problems with ICDPs that I have been involved in stem from a narrow “expert view” of the problem and solution. Simplistic cause-effect thinking that is inappropriate and as likely to make a bad situation worse as lead to either development or to conservation. One of the worst is the idea that eco-tourism will turn whatever the resource is into a money pump that will fuel the local economy … As with the application of “trickle down” theory, far too little reaches the poor and far too much sticks to the fingers of those with the power to capture the bulk of the benefits. These are partial solutions based on partial knowledge and require a paradigm shift in conservation and development that seeks a deeper understanding of complexity and (r)evolutionary change.
    Like most “isms” I think that cynicism is going a step too far, although looking around at much of what goes on in the world today, it is not difficult to understand how people get that way. Pratchett’s character quoted in the blog reveals the essentially depressed state of the deep cynic, a symptom of an unhealthy frame of mind.

    • I share you frustration Mike and I have come to a temporary conclusion that there is a massive communication gap between scientists and practitioners. After a bit of research I have found that it is Geographers who are the only academics showing the promise to bridge that gap, which is why I have found my way to this blog. Until science learns to communicate with the people, poverty will reign.

  5. I think with any complex system like ICDPs success often stems from trial and error; natural selection. The problem we have is the funding bodies or project personel on the ground are not set up to *select*. A person running a project is not rewarded (getting more funding) for recognising failure and typically the project is not long enough to learn and select a better strategy. At the natural stopping points such as the end of projects, the important learning points rarely impact the funding strategy of organisations. It also rarely finds it way back to other projects that might benefit from the lessons. What it means is a failed adopted strategy at the top will pervade longer that it should making academics without real influence even more cynical.

    • I think you are right Craig, ICDPs involve a huge amount of trial, error, failure and time. Scientific conservationists are looking to control nature and I think this is their fundamental mistake. We must learn to work with nature and that is much more of an art than a science. I gave up on funding because it is a joke and in the process I discovered that funding is not needed because nature does the job for you as long as you have enough patience.

  6. Pingback: Synthetic Biology and Conservation: Brave New World? | Thinking like a human

  7. What a fabulous article. As someone who was brought up by a Polemicist and now living an ICDP I could talk all day about this subject so I simply don’t know where to start. I think it is important for students to engage in critical thinking but the problem is that there are very few people comfortable taking part in critical discussion. Cynics and sceptics are cousins of critical thinkers but tend to have lost hope. I think that in conservation terms they do have a place because inaction is often the answer to many problems. Nature keeps going when we stop. I run my farm in partnership with nature. Every now and then I make a statement to nature and then I have to wait for it to answer.

  8. A thoughtful post on a topic I’ve also recently reflected upon, here: “Its Not All About Us: Reflections on the State of American Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100: 140-144, June 2013. My own reflections were part of a special issue forum title ‘The World With Us: The State of American Environmental History’. For anyone interested, I have put links to my article and the entire forum (which as an editor’s choice feature is available to all) at my website, which is http://www.brontaylor.com (then see publications, 2013).

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