Why do conservation scientists get out of bed?

1 10 2012

1*Zd2mpLgOIbJuLg3CqH8BQwI 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:

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.

CJA Bradshaw

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.



12 responses

24 08 2021
It’s a tough time for young conservation scientists | ConservationBytes.com

[…] I once wrote that being a conservation scientist is a particularly depressing job, because in our case, knowledge is a source of despair. But as I’ve shifted my focus from ‘preventing disaster’ to trying to lessen the degree of future shittyness, I find it easier to get out of bed in the morning. […]


5 05 2020
Shifting from prevention to damage control | ConservationBytes.com

[…] I still get out of bed in the morning for the main reason that I hope my work does some good in the world, but I can no longer focus on […]


22 10 2019
The politics of environmental destruction | ConservationBytes.com

[…] You’d think I’d get tired of this, wouldn’t you? Alas, the fight does wear me down, but I must persist. […]


10 02 2016
Bad science | ConservationBytes.com

[…] ecology can be bloody depressing, so much so that one sometimes wonders if it’s worth it. It is, of course, but there’s something marvellously relieving about studying extinct systems for […]


15 09 2014
Evidence-based conservation advocacy can work | ConservationBytes.com

[…] before knock-off time last Friday, I received some inspiring news. It’s not often in conservation science that the news is good, so even small wins are deliciously […]


1 07 2014
Great biodiversity cartoonists | ConservationBytes.com

[…] who reads CB.com knows that I like to inject a bit of humour into my (often gloomy) messages. Sniggering, chortling, groaning and outright guffawing are useful ways to deal with the […]


19 05 2014
A convenient truth: global push for carbon-based conservation | ConservationBytes.com

[…] The operational side of the carbon economy is unfortunately much more muddled, with vested interests and political gaming weakening its implementation. Nonetheless, we persevere. […]


28 09 2013
Conservación sonriente | Cantabricus

[…] OK, al grano: a los conservacionistas se nos acusa a menudo de ser adictos a las malas noticias. Personalmente creo que hay algo de verdad en tal acusación; profesionalmente sé que las noticias son en general muy, muy malas (mirad este ejemplo calentito). Algo así trataba CJA Bradshaw en una de las entradas del fantástico ConservationBytes.com, con el apropiado título “¿Por qué se levantan de la cama los científicos conservacionistas?“. […]


12 07 2013
Alan Couch

Great article. Sadly people can look forward to more solostalgia.


12 07 2013

Thank you, Alan. I do indeed like the term ‘solostalgia’ that Glenn Albrecht invented (had the pleasure of publishing with him once – an intensely interesting bloke)


21 01 2013
Scaring our children with the future « ConservationBytes.com

[…] to be more of a pragmatic pessimist when it comes to the future. I’ve discussed before how this outlook makes getting on with my job even more important – if I can’t reduce the rate of destruction and give my family a slightly better future […]


3 10 2012
Simon Divecha (@simondivecha)

Thanks Corey – nice post! For a specific look at an aspect of hope I’ve always like Saffron O’Neill’s study Fear Won’t do It: http://scx.sagepub.com/content/30/3/355.abstract There’s loads on action of course but any readers wanting an overview – and not seen it – The APA’s Psychology and Global Climate Change is a good place to start http://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change.aspx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: