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

Earth Algebra

It is the time of year when newly arrived students gather around the university in uneasy groups, shuffling like swallows waiting to migrate. All have passed, quite recently, through the trial of school exams. Meeting them, I remember all too well the shock of exam papers whose questions bore little relation to anything I had learned. The key thing my teachers told me was not to panic: read the rubric on the paper, check you know how many questions to answer, and finish each question off as best you can.

I had a particular dislike of maths tests at school: complex questions constructed around unlikely scenarios such as a baths with running taps and the plug out, or a weightless block sliding down an inclined plane with strange frictional qualities. Who could arrange such a thing, and why would they do it? That was not, as successive maths teachers explained, a relevant way to think. It was the units, the numbers and the equations that mattered.

The New Scientist Feedback column has had a lot of fun over the years with the odd units people use – lengths expressed in double decker buses, or weights in whales (clearly a highly variable unit), or areas as multiples of Wales. Their correspondents rejoice in the bizarre, but the underlying message is always the clarity that sensible SI units and a bit of careful thought would bring.

Environmentalists love to cite statistics of all kinds, and they too like striking metrics. They too have fallen in love with a new mega-unit: Earths. Ever since the moon shots of the 1960s, the idea of Only One Earth has been at the heart of environmentalist argument about the shape of human economy and society (a ‘one world environmental ontology’ as Chris Sandbrook calls it).   But the current fashion for the earth as unit is a little more specific. Two framings have become particularly dominant.

The first is the idea of ‘Half Earth’. Nature, we are told, needs 0.5 Earths. The 20% of land in protected areas that comprises the CBD 2020 target is too little: conservationists are urged to place 50% of the earth in protected areas. As Chris Sandbrook has pointed out, and as the wider literature has discussed, this wonderfully disguises a lot of tricky politics (since people already own and live on most of the land conservationists want, so ‘saving’ those areas is likely to be expensive and unpopular as well as being unfair and unjust).

The second is the idea of measuring human consumption in Earths. Humans, we are told, are using 1.7 Earths a year: the Global Footprint Network calculates that ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ was 1 August in 2018. The idea of Global Footprint provides a metric of the ecological resources and services consumed by the economy through pollution, overfishing, unsustainable agriculture, overharvesting of forests, and emission of carbon dioxide.

The metrics behind Half Earth or Earth Overshoot Day are complicated, and you probably have to be a bit of a science geek to dig in to the algebra.   But in a sense the detail does not matter greatly. Neither is really intended to be scientific. They are both metaphors, framing devices in environmentalist arguments about future actions.

The problem is the mathematics pushes in two very different directions – the two ‘Earth’ metaphors reflect very different ideas about the future direction of human society and economy.

Half Earth proposes a separation of nature and human society, half an Earth of dense human settlement and efficient production, and half of biodiverse ecosystems and little human presence (an essentially ecomodernist vision). The Global Footprint proposes a reduction of the energy and material basis of production and consumption with a redistribution towards poor countries (a kind of degrowth vision).

The tricky thing is that both these equations need to be solved at the same time. It is no good trying to pretend that one is more important than the other. Conservationists running the numbers and supporting the idea of Half Earth are doing the arithmetic right. But so are other environmentalists calculating the Global Footprint.

There is only one Earth to play with. Nature needs space, but it also needs a significant reduction in human consumption. Space where non-human lives can flourish needs to be doubled. But net consumption (in all its forms) also needs to be halved.

The calculations we need to navigate forwards are much more complicated than either crude ‘Earth Unit’ headline might suggest. Earth mathematics is going to be complicated: tessellating economic production and countryside, trading off reductions in energy and material use and the restoration of ecosystems, the integration of human society with non-human nature at every scale from the biotechnology vat to the productive ocean, the garden to the biosphere.

The Twenty First century offers a tricky exam paper for humanity, and we need to get the answers right if we are to make it through with any space for human and non-human flourishing.

The alert student would be well advised to tackle more than one question.

 

Conservation and the final frontier

A few weeks ago I settled down to watch a BBC TV programme called The 21st Century Race for Space, hosted by celebrity physicist and one-time pop star Brian Cox. I had spent all day thinking about conservation at work, and was looking for a bit of escapism. In the programme Cox spent a lot of time ogling large shiny spacecraft in even larger hangars in the Nevada desert, putting on space suits and visiting simulated mars colonies. It was like a Top Gear special all about space rockets.

One of the striking things about the programme was the people that Cox was able to talk to. He had 1:1 interviews with Dennis Tito (the first space tourist), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon and owner of Blue Origin, a ‘spaceflight services company’), and Richard Branson (founder of Virgin and owner of Virgin Galactic). He tried to get Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and owner of SpaceX) but had to settle for some guy who had once met him at a party.

These billionaires are revolutionising space innovation by moving it from being the exclusive preserve of state organisations (such as NASA) to the hands of private enterprise. They have extraordinary ambition – not just to advance our civilisation into space, but to make money while doing so. Bezos in particular spoke with fanatical zeal about the opportunity to provide a whole new canvas for human innovation and economic growth off our planet. Scholars of capitalism would recognise this as the ultimate spatial fix – capital seeking new frontiers for expansion in space (outer and virtual) once the possibilities on Earth are exhausted.

I found all this very interesting, but what really got my attention was when the subject unexpectedly turned to conservation. Several of the interviewees described their plans as part of a conservation strategy – both for biodiversity on Earth in general and human survival in particular (their arguments are very usefully summarised in this article from which I sourced some of the quotes below). This idea of ‘conservation through space travel’ builds on some thinking put forward by Stephen Hawking recently when he said “the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive. With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious”. Continue reading

Conservation Over There

Recently, I was talking about Conservation International’s Nature is Speaking videos with some PhD students and postdocs. I recalled that long before Harrison Ford brought his gravel toned menace to voicing The Ocean, he did another video for CI, dear to the heart of fans of his knowing self-parody and sense of timing. In it, Harrison Ford has his chest waxed, while talking about tropical forest loss. Slap on the wax and cue the last line, straight to camera: ‘Every bit of rainforest that gets ripped out over there’ … rip of chest hair; wince … ‘really hurts us over here’… rueful smile.

In the past, I have often used this video with student groups. It lasts 31 seconds, and usually gets a laugh. It raises a serious issue in forest loss. More usefully, there is another perhaps more significant story behind that, in what it reveals about the view of the world that dominates western environmentalism.

The wax job narrative has obvious problems. One thing those who object to it (aside from those allergic to Han Solo or Indiana Jones) focus on the selfishness of its message. The reason it gives to stop tropical forest loss is not because of its significance to local people, or the wonder awakened by its coevolved diversity, but its role in locking up surplus carbon. The video buys into the mainstream international approach to anthropogenic climate change, which is built on the idea of a single global pool of carbon. This allows carbon burned to run chiller cabinets, warm poorly designed houses or allow commuters to queue in their cars to be directly compared with the carbon in a tree or a peatland or plankton.

From this seed grows the whole jungle of carbon offsetting. There is too much carbon in circulation: should we stop producing it? No, too difficult, too disruptive and too expensive. We need to find a convenient (and cheap) way to lock some up. Why not ignore our own carbon use and put our money into stopping forest loss instead?

Harrison Ford outlines the classic ‘carbon colonialism’ of global climate management: let us stop their forest being lost or it will hurt us over here (real people, such as spaceship pilots, archaeologists and actors, who would otherwise have to cut back on their own fossil fuel use).

But Conservation International’s core concern is not carbon as such, but biodiversity. Its website declares ‘CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of humanity’.

The same sleight of hand works for biodiversity loss as for carbon: the problem is constructed as global, and so too are the solutions Biodiversity is everywhere: we just need to find the fastest, cheapest and most convenient way to save as much as possible. Where do we get most bang for our buck? In the tropics, where biodiversity is highest, land is cheapest and people most need money. And where does CI work? In the tropics: it website shows offices in more than 30 countries, all of them less developed and almost all in the tropics.

Although the battered ecosystems of the developed world also have their passionate supporters, such as the Wildlife Trusts in the UK, all the world’s biggest conservation NGOs (and the scientists who advise them) share CI’s concern for tropical biodiversity. All of them aim to raise money ‘over here’ (from people in industrialised countries) to protect species and ecosystems ‘over there’ (in the tropical developing world).

Conservation is increasingly globalised. Its websites and magazines have come to look like travel brochures: rich colours, vibrant ecosystems, charismatic species (and sometimes quaint natives). Some conservation organisations even organise tours for their supporters, so they can see protected and threatened nature for themselves. A niche travel product has developed around ‘last chance tourism’. It is as if love of nature has become a love of the exotic: a documentary series, a holiday brochure, the immersive experience of 360o video.

Loss of natural diversity in the face of human consumption has become standardised, treated as a single problem, just like carbon. The problem with this is that conservation is not presented as depending on my actions (except in reaching for the ‘donate now’ button). More generally, the implied message of calls for tropical conservation is that global biodiversity loss has little connection with actions in the developed world, or the lifestyle and energy use patterns into which everyone is locked.

This is simply not true. The general links between global trade and biodiversity loss have been recognised for some time. Now a new paper in by Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto has mapped the links between consumption in specific countries (such as the USA or the EU) and hotspots of species under threat in the tropics. These connections are entrenched, destructive and near universal. The new Trase transparency platform (Transparency for Sustainable Economies) uses production, trade and customs data to show flows of globally traded commodities such as palm oil, soya, beef and timber through supply chains from source, through trading companies to consumption. Whether we like it or not, transparency about the connections between consumption here and impacts ‘over there’ are going to become much harder to ignore.

Conservationists feel the destruction of nature as a hurt – we live, as Aldo Leopold said of ecologists – in a world of wounds. But the globalisation of biodiversity loss offers dangerous solace. It means that we mourn, but we do not have to change. If the real problem is over there, it is not us but those people who must change. Our job as conservationists is therefore to persuade them, or sometimes indeed to force their hands, with our donations and our buying power, our ideas of nature and our friends among their elite.

The problem is that the actions that cause the hurt are not just over there, they are also much closer to home, in excessive consumption (beef, soya, diesel, plastics, air conditioning: the list is endless), and in our acceptance that global supply chains that meet our every want are normal and inevitable (indeed – because we love our consumption – that they are basically good).

When CI talks about climate change, it presents ‘nature’ as ‘humanity’s biggest ally in the fight against climate change’. The idea of a global pool of carbon links the survival of that forest to our carbon consumption. So, as Harrison Ford argues, if tropical forests can indeed deliver ‘30% of mitigation action needed to prevent catastrophic climate change’, protecting them makes sense.

After all, the only other alternative would mean tackling the systemic dependence on fossil fuels of the capitalist system of production and consumption. And that would strike at the heart of the way the people live in the world’s richest countries – which would be really scary for all conservation’s key supporters, not least space pilots and Hollywood stars.

Out of sight/site, out of mind: the challenge of studying what really matters in political ecology

According to Marx, a defining characteristic of capitalism is the way that the social relations involved in the production of commodities are obscured: he called this ‘commodity fetishism’, suggesting that we see commodities as ‘inanimate objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers’ (OED). So, for example, when we buy a cheap T-shirt or the latest gadget we can exist in a bubble of ignorance about the social and ecological consequences of their production. This allows us to carry on consuming, and capitalism to carry on churning out surplus value, without too many difficult questions being asked about things like labour rights or pollution.

Political ecology scholarship regularly, and rightly, calls attention to these hidden processes and seeks to shed light onto them. For example, a recent paper by Martin Arboleda argues that one cannot understand the dynamics of urban areas, with their towers of steel and glass and hyperconsuming citizens, without also understanding the connected dynamics that produce immense holes in the ground and gigantic livestock factories in distant rural locations, with all of their social and ecological consequences. The one could not exist without the other, and so to understand them, Alboreda argues that we must understand (and therefore conduct research in) both.

This is a compelling argument, but in practice it presents two important challenges. First, it isn’t always easy to know where to look for the concealed relations of fetishized commodities, precisely because they are so well hidden. Second, even where the concealed relations that go into the production of commodities can be uncovered, studying them in detail can be very difficult, requiring fieldwork in multiple locations and sometimes multiple languages. This work can also be fraught with potential danger, as the underbelly of capitalism can be reluctant to give up its secrets. Continue reading

Any Colour You Like, But Not Green

What are we to make of the news that the German car manufacturer Volkswagen has been cheating on emissions tests for diesel cars in the USA? The first cries of ‘disgraceful’ from the media were followed by announcement that 11 million cars had the ‘cheat software’. There were apologies, resignations and drastic impacts on share prices. Subsequent stories expanded the focus of concern from Volkswagen to the Porsche partner companies (Audi and Skoda), who announced that 3.3 million of their cars were fitted with the same software as Volkswagen to cheat US emissions tests.

Should this be a surprise? Not really.

First, it is not surprising to find regulators revealed as useless: dogs with neither bark nor bite – especially in bureau-Europe. It has been known since 2011 that diesel cars driven on the road discharged far more nitrogen oxide and particulate than official tests reported, and had significantly worse fuel consumption. The testing regimes have been criticized as ‘not fit for purpose’, especially the bureaucratic mess that holds in the EU. The BBC reported the UK Committee on Climate Change saying that between 2002 and 2014 the gap between official and real-world CO2 emissions for new passenger cars increased from about 10% to 35%.

Continue reading