Conservationists and environmentalists have been good at telling people what not to do. But what about focusing on bright spots and what people can do?
Prof. Bill Adams of the University of Cambridge says that conservation has to be about the good life. It’s not just about what people can’t do, but also about what people can do. He says that conservation has to go beyond just conservationists and environmentalists and be apart of the daily lives of everyone.
We asked Prof. Adams to elaborate and explain how the discussion around conservation can be changed. Below is a Q&A with him:
You have talked about how conservation should be about the good life. Can you elaborate on this?
Conservation is very often presented as being about stopping things. When I was thinking about a title for my book on the history of conservation in 2004, I had a bit of a tussle with my publisher, Earthscan. I chose Against Extinction, and they felt this was too negative, but I felt then and feel now that the history of conservation through the 20th century is one of opposition to the things that destroy habitats and kill off species: over-hunting, pesticides, rainforest loss, acidification of the oceans. But that sets up nature as threatened by the things people want – jobs, houses, pensions, mobility. And that keeps conservation on the margins of mainstream life, complaining about the way things are. If conservation is to work in the 21st century, it has to reposition its arguments so that people see diverse ecosystems as something integral to the lives they want to live. So we don’t try to derail modernity, but build nature into it.
There’s another side to this too. At present the main model conservationists offer the word is of nature sequestered in special places, wildernesses and national parks, far away from where the six billion people on earth spend their lives. This, too, makes nature something apart from ordinary decisions. But it is not. Climate change and consumption directly link the decisions people make every day (about soya or beef or air flights, or buying that SUV) to threatened habitat and species. Nature is not separate from the world of humanity, but tightly linked to it. At present the ‘good life’ people want drives the destruction of nature. Unless we can turn that around, there will not be much diversity left on earth by 2100.
Often when environmentalist talk about conservation, it’s about going without something. How can conservation help make life better?
We all tend to take nature for granted, and we don’t notice its slow decline. We assume the air will be clean and rubbish will rot away, that birds will come back to our towns and gardens in Summer, and that our kids will have trees to climb in. Some of us remember places where our kids could play in the stream. These things are an important part of what conservation is about: keeping and rebuilding the nature that sustains life. It is modern life that seems to mean going without: plastic wrapped industrial food on supermarket shelves, air conditioned buildings and virtual realities. All done with the best intentions, but not enough, and not acceptable as the only choice. I see conservation as about choice: what kind of ecosystems do we want to live in? What kind of nature will make our lives better? It’s not about switching off the lights, but opening the window and hearing birdsong.
Environmentalists often scold people about what they are doing wrong and how we are ruining the Earth. How can we move the conversation towards a more positive tone that highlights what people are doing right and get people to do more of that?
Conservation has become pretty good at protecting special nature in far off places. That’s great, but it suggests that conservation is something that can only be done by experts, somewhere over there. But the everyday lives of people in poor tropical countries alongside nature are not different from the lives lived by relatively rich people in rich industrialized countries. We need to stop thinking of conservation only in terms of ‘dispatches from the front line,’ and start celebrating the ordinary things people do every day. Every time someone cycles to work, or takes a holiday by train and not by plane, or decides to keep their old phone, it’s a defiant act of conservation. Conservation is what we do every day by our choices of lifestyle, as well as what some sweaty biologist gets up to in a rainforest clearing.
How has the mindset of the conservation movement changed over the years? Have conservationists become more effective at engaging people?
Yes, of course, as the growing conservation movement shows. But have we broken through into the mainstream? No. We still preach to the choir, even in countries like those in North America or Europe, where conservation organizations claim large memberships. And how big is the conservation movement in most high biodiversity tropical countries? Tiny. There are six billion people on earth, and most of them are uninformed about nature and uninterested, and many are outright hostile. Conservation’s end of semester report: ‘working hard but, needs to do better.’
Why is community engagement important in conservation?
Because conservation is what people do, and unless conservation actions reflect what people want, they will ultimately not be successful. There are communities everywhere: you are not going to tackle climate change successfully unless you can show your policy expresses the wishes of the community around the gas station. You are not going to address rainforest loss from soya barons unless you engage with the wishes of the community at the hamburger stand. You are not going to protect elephants outside parks unless the people who live with them want them there. You are not going to protect rainforests unless you work with the people who live there. Without community engagement, a lot of conservation is just words and wishful thinking.
At Rare, we have noticed that marine reserves are particularly effective when communities are involved in the management process. Why does involving people in conservation make them more likely to support it?
People everywhere tend to dislike being told what to do, whether by governments, scientists or non-governmental organizations. They are, by and large, perceptive and thoughtful, and they want to be listened to when they explain what’s going wrong, and what they think of ideas to fix it.