The Future Work of Conservationists?

What role might conservationists play in the future of humanity?

Conservation is a means to an end. Conservation cannot and is not disconnected from human activities. We conservationists do not ask questions and test assumptions for mere entertainment. There is a purpose for conservation. It is to conserve parts of the planet so that we humans might survive and thrive and all those things we need for our minds and bodies – including those “cogs and wheels” we may not appreciate at the moment.


Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Humans, and in particular, we Americans, are increasingly aware of what’s at risk from human development activities but we seem…understandably…unwilling to connect those pressures to our lives and choices we make each day. In other words, we refuse to own our piece of the mess. Where does conservation and conservationists come into the picture?

Perhaps the future of conservation is informing and inspiring the essential pursuit of sustainable human thriving? If so, we must do so skillfully. “Informing” others is risky. We could harm friendships or future budgets. Our communications would have to be grounded in science. We would use scientific evidence to guide not just our behaviors but our engagement too. Skillful engagement guided by social science is necessary to lead others through adaptations that are required.

What does this look like for conservation professionals? At a coarse level it likely means a shift of budget and effort that maximizes data interpretation and minimizes data collection and mitigation. In short, we’d gather or examine evidence of impacts on flagship fish and wildlife species and their environment. We’d create and share that story with the public. The obvious example is the plight of polar bears. Rather than talk population trends with a quiet mention of sea ice loss, we’d skillfully engage others in discussions not just about polar bears and loss of sea ice, but…most importantly…the cause of sea ice loss. We conservationists would also set an example in our work and life that acknowledges and reduces that cause. We’d seek to reduce the footprint of our work while owning the irony of burning fossil fuels to capture a polar bear.


Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Just like the resistance to loss we face when contemplating a change in our personal behaviors, conservationists leading this change must consider the resistance fellow conservationists will offer. Changing the traditional model of conservation from primarily scientific exploration to citizen engagement would surely be met with much resistance. History has shown when managers face budget reductions they consider biological capacity as primary and public engagement as optional while ironically the latter is cheaper and most essential for agents of the public.

Perhaps the adaptation required today and in the future mustn’t be viewed by conservationists as the loss of our identity but gaining relevance to our customers and our children. We’d merely let go of a bit of one type of cultural DNA no longer essential to make room for another. This adaptation wouldn’t require letting go of all biologists and data collection but shifting some of that capacity to the interpretation of scientific evidence and skillful engagement of the public.

What do you think?


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
This entry was posted in Adaptive Leadership, Anthropocene, Conservation, Leadership, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Future Work of Conservationists?

  1. keenan Adams says:

    The change you propose is spot on! I believe that people don’t resit change, but rather they resist loss (be it real or perceived). I think the question we have to wrestle with is what is the perceived loss by adjusting our current model?

    • cognizantfox says:

      Well, thank you very much. It’s nice to hear from you! As you probably know the resistance you mention even has a name: loss aversion bias. I encourage everyone to look into it because it can help us understand what to expect from ourselves in life and work. Your question points toward the first step of leading others through change – diagnosing the problem. Put simply we ask lots of frank, hard questions in a holding environment – a place people feel safe to speak their mind. Folks need to hear in frank, simple language why change is being suggested in the first place. They need to see data and projections just like the public would. Senior authority figures should convene these discussions and protect voices of dissent. At this point managing self becomes important. SAFs must resist the desire to go fast and declare victory. They may have to resist the urge to be the first regional SAF to “come up with a solution.” They will have to disappoint people at a rate they can tolerate. They must remember that people with the problem have to be part of the solution. And those folks will take responsibility for what they help create. In the end, it’s important to remember with cultural adaptation the correct mindset is to patiently move toward solution not solve the problem. What is the perceived loss? I suspect there are as many perceptions of loss as there are people in the organization with varying degrees of severity – all relevant, valid concerns. I learned to believe that we each have a distorted version of reality – collect all the versions add them together and you’ll have a valid version. I hope I get to work more closely on this adaptive challenge with you someday.

  2. Susan Todd says:

    This is wonderful Jimmy!! I copied it to my folder of things to mention on the first day of NRM 101. We talk a lot about cogs and wheels .

    Might see you at the Sign Party!

    Enjoy this gentle spring day.


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