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.
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.
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?