I have, on many occasions, been faced with a difficult question after giving a public lecture. The question is philosophical in nature (and I was never very good at philosophy – just ask my IB philosophy teacher), hence its unusually complicated implications. The question goes something like this:
Given what you know about the state of the world – the decline in biodiversity, ecosystem services and our own health and welfare – how do you manage to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?
Yes, I can be a little, shall we say, ‘gloomy’ when I give a public lecture; I don’t tend to hold back much when it comes to just how much we’ve f%$ked over our only home, or why we continue to shit in our own (or in many cases, someone else’s) kitchen. It’s not that I get some sick-and-twisted pleasure out of seeing people in the front row shake their heads and ‘tsk-tsk’ their way through my presentation, but I do feel that as an ‘expert’ (ascribe whatever meaning to that descriptor you choose), I have a certain duty to inform non-experts about what the data say.
And if you’ve read even a handful of the posts on this site, you’ll understand that picture I paint isn’t full of roses and children’s smiling faces. A quick list of recent posts might remind you:
- inevitable extinctions
- climate change much worse than appreciated
- protected areas failing
- over-fished seas
- boreal forest decline
- threats to Cameroon’s forests
- Australia’s deforestation history
- world’s worst mammal extinction rate
And so on. I agree – pretty depressing.
So how do I answer that question? I suppose it might be obvious to many that part of my response involves something along the lines of hoping that my work slows down the loss of our life support system (which is, admittedly, a slightly arrogant and gratuitous response, especially given we know that most conservation research leads to very little real conservation outcomes1). I also usually add a little about hoping to save a little slice of the planet for my daughter once she grows up (this is slightly less arrogant, closer to truth, but ultimately, self-serving). Of course, I usually avoid mentioning that it’s my job and given that I do few other things well, it’s the only way I know to put food on the table.
But none of these is a terribly good response to the question. I do not possess an above-average level of happiness (in fact, I probably have above-average anger, if anything), and am not by nature optimistic, nor do I have a particular high opinion of most members of my own species.
On the contrary, I do thoroughly enjoy the scientific part of the process. The part about collecting and analysing data that cannot lie; data and results that are not subject to belief, opinion, fashion or personal agendas2. I become a grinning, back-slapping, high-fiving fanatic when a good experiment, statistical model or validation works out. Yes, I am a self-confessed, proud, out-of-the-closet geek.
Now back to that most difficult-to-scratch itch of a question. Being positive about conservation ‘successes’ has become all the rage in conservation lately. Evidence that springs to mind includes Garnett’s and Lindenmayer‘s comment ‘Conservation science must engender hope to succeed‘, the IUCN’s latest announcement of the Green List of Protected Areas (a list of protected areas that have been ‘successful’), and Bill Sutherland‘s journal Conservation Evidence. That these entail some valid comments, or are good examples we should all aspire to promulgate is not really worth debating, but I can’t help but think that these endeavours are probably the most indicting attestation of how we have failed. Indeed, telling people how bad things really are clearly hasn’t worked – across the board, not one, single, broad biodiversity metric around the globe shows improvement (continued deterioration is the theme of the day). So we’re now turning that frown upside-down and attempting to give people a different message.
Fine, but we have to be very, very careful. We cannot go too far the other way. If the message is simplified (as it is always) to “well, it’s not all that bad then”, then we risk severely duping the public and engendering even more apathy. As I’ve mentioned before, people tend not to value the invaluable until it’s no longer there (or at least, on the way out), which is why selling ecosystem services is a mind-bogglingly difficult ask. I’m afraid it IS that bad, and probably worse than most (conservation scientists included) suspect.
Another important aspect is what we call ‘successes’. In no way, shape, or form have we halted or arguably slowed the Anthropocene extinction rate with our interventions – it’s a case of a ½-step forward and about 20 back. Just because we’ve planted a few trees, removed some rats from a few islands, and increased an ‘on-the-edge’ species from 20-200, doesn’t necessarily mean that those particular cases are successes. Improvement is one thing (it’s hard to go anywhere but up when you’re already at the bottom), but ‘success’ is an entirely different matter, and incredibly difficult to demonstrate.
So yes, we can all do with a healthy (operative word) dose of positivity when educating the uninformed, but do not hide the most important message behind the smiles and congratulatory back-slaps. It’s our duty to tell the world how it really works (or in our case, doesn’t). You would be disingenuous to do otherwise.
1There I go again, being depressing.
2I’m not for a moment suggesting that science is entirely objective – science is instead the pursuit of subjectivity reduction and is the ONLY human endeavour that can claim to do so.