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.