Optimism. It’s an odd word. It’s often used to describe people who are unfailingly cheery even in the direst of straits; those people to whom the glass is always half-full, almost to the point of denial. The optimist is the person who, at the approach of a threatening storm cloud, grins manically and says “it’ll pass” …as the sky as far as the eye can see turns a permanent shade of steel grey.
I must admit, I am one of those people. Give me a dark cloud, and I can guarantee I’ll find a silver lining; a warm, fuzzy kind of denial that protects me from unwanted storms, flat tyres and the inevitable stress of a PhD. In short, I know a thing or two about optimism. But conservation optimism? This relatively alien concept was only revealed to me a couple of months ago, at the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) where the amazing EJ Milner Gulland was a plenary speaker.
I was incredibly lucky to attend and speak at this conference, which was in the rather exotic location of Colombia in South America (a real ‘pinch me’ moment in my career…most definitely perks of the job). It was a phenomenal experience, with tonnes of fascinating, inspiring talks from conservationists all over the world, battling all means of environmental problems with novel methodology and innovative thinking. But it was EJ’s talk that really stood out for me. She talked of a new campaign she was part of – Conservation Optimism – but it was not what I expected it to mean. It doesn’t mean grinning manically as species crash all around us and the environment is decimated, saying “it’ll pass!”.
In fact, the concept is made up of multiple different elements that challenge how we act as conservationists today. It carries some important messages to anyone working in the conservation field, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share them with you. EJ’s talk really spoke to me, as I hope it will speak to you – the new conservation movement.
How to be a conservation optimist
- Keep going. Okay, so there is a slight element of the eternal optimist in this one. But it doesn’t mean pretending all is fine and dandy in the world. Acknowledge the problems we have; learn about them, and educate yourself. Don’t shy away from them – tackle them head on. And if at first, you fail? Well, the most important message here is: don’t give up. If you fail twice or two hundred times, it doesn’t matter. We have to keep trying. Use failure as the fuel to your fire. Learn from it, and come back stronger and smarter.
This lesson applies to everything, from research to changing parliament. Nothing worth it is ever easy…and nature is probably the worthiest thing we’re fighting for.
- Work with everyone – and up your skill set. One of my favourite quotes from EJ’s talk was: “Conservationists need to be like the bowerbird – picking up all the gems from other fields to make conservation more beautiful”. There is a tendency in science to stick to your own discipline, and there can even be a slight air of snobbery about other subjects (when I first started my PhD, I was laughed at by an immunologist who called it “green science”). But if you think about it, most of the problems faced by conservation are caused by people; human-induced climate change, conflicts over species management, illegal hunting. As conservationists, we have to work with and understand humans, and that means utilising expertise in the social and political sciences, even economics. We need a varied bag of tools; a sparkling array of jewels in our skill sets. This includes ecology, biology, immunology, humanities…and people you wouldn’t necessarily think of, like stakeholders and politicians. My whole career is based on working alongside “non-scientists”, to understand species management from their perspective so we can use it to move forwards. Local or experiential knowledge can be invaluable – we can use it to strengthen science, in some instances.
In short: be a team, not an individual.
- There’s no better time like the present. Procrastination can be a great thing (I am a supreme advocate, being a professional student) but in terms of the natural world, we can’t afford to dally around. Wildlife isn’t going to wait for us to sort out issues over who’s to blame for what or who tweeted which insult first. It’s depleting, and fast. We need to be innovative, be brave, and be active. That letter to your MP you’ve been putting off? Write it now. The hedgehog hotel you were working on, or that neglected wildlife garden? Get out there and do it. Conservation isn’t a task for tomorrow, or next week, or next year when we finally know what will come of Brexit. It’s a priority for right now.
- (And finally) Get others on board. You don’t have to study science to be a conservationist!! Anyone can do it. Be it that farmer who allows wildlife corridors on his land, or the avid gardener who grows bee-friendly plants. We should be championing them too, and encouraging others to do the same. The Conservation Optimism initiative also carries the hashtag #iamaconservationist. People post a picture with a tag, alongside a caption of why they are proud to be doing their bit. Do one yourself, share it on social media, and persuade others to do the same. Spread the message!
Hopefully, these messages mean as much to you as they did to me. We really need to think about how we act as conservationists, and this is the place to start. I am already a conservation optimist – I’m constantly inspired by the blogs I see, the campaigns I follow, the passion of the AFON community. So keep going, act now, and work together…and hopefully we’ll grow a world full of #conservationoptimism.
Check out the initative and share your story via the website https://conservationoptimism.com/ or follow it on twitter @ConservOptimism. Remember to use the hashtags #ConservationOptimism and #iamaconservationist.