Has hope become the most endangered species in conservation?

As wildlife continues to decline around the world, conservation has become a bleak calling. Can a new Optimism Summit help reframe the mission to save life on Earth?
Jeremy Hance The Guardian 5 Oct 16;

Want to hear a sad story? You could read this article of mine about the first mammal lost to climate change. Or this one about how there are only 60 vaquita left on the planet. Or here’s my piece on how forest elephants are being decimated even as scientists debate if they are worthy of being called a distinct species. As an environmental journalist, I sometimes feel it’s my job to simply document the decline of life on planet Earth. The word ‘depressing’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.

For many of us – myself included some days – the desperate state of our environment leaves us numb with sadness and, frankly, lost in hopelessness. We don’t act, because we don’t know what to do; we don’t act, because there’s only so much negativity we can swallow before we throw up our hands and go back to playing Pokemon Go. Without any dose of hope, we feel ourselves succumbing to despair.

Optimism summit

There may be a cure coming, however. As I write this, there is a small but growing movement within conservation to bring back a little optimism, a little hope, a little wonder into what has become a decidedly bleak calling. This week, the Zoological Society of London and Oxford University announced a Conservation Optimism Summit for 2017 in Oxford, culminating in a big Earth Day public celebration focused on the world’s youth.

For the first time, the summit will see conservationists from around the world gather to discuss how to change the culture of despair in conservation and share upbeat stories about what’s working from the Philippines to Belize to the hedgeros of the UK.

The concern that conservation, and environmentalism for that matter, has become drowned in a culture of negativity has been simmering for awhile now. A paper in 2010 identified a “culture of hopelessness” in conservation biology, which the authors feared would make it harder for conservation to succeed. They argued eloquently that a glass-half-empty outlook would make it difficult to attract young peopleto conservation careers. They also warned that the constant drip-drip-drip of despair would only succeed in bringing in people who already have a negative view of the world, creating a feedback loop of despairism.

The call for more optimism in conservation is underpinned by psychology: it turns out if something sounds hopeless, or too big to turn around, most people will just shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives. Apathy is often the result of gloomy messaging. This has been extensively studied in regards to climate change, but next year’s summit will be the first time it’s addressed for conservation in such a formal and public setting. If conservationists aren’t able to turn around the narrative, they fear they will continue to lose public interest, support, and, in the long run, the battle to preserve life on Earth.

Understandable gloom-and-doom

But it will be a delicate dance to inject optimism without undercutting the fact that biodiversity and bioabundance around the world are in deep trouble.

It’s not an exaggeration to say we’ve mucked up our world. The climate is rapidly warming while our oceans are being emptied and acidified. We are still cutting down forests as if they have no value beyond chopsticks and office paper, while many of the world’s habitats have simply been silenced by over-hunting, indiscriminate trapping, and relentless killing. Meanwhile, there are 7-plus billion Homo sapiens – and we all require food, clothing and shelter, not to mention cars, air conditioners and smart phones. All this means we are facing the prospect of a mass extinction not seen since the comet that took out the dinosaurs.

But there are other stories in conservation. Without the passion of generations of conservationists, we would very likely live in a world today without bison, rhinos, big cats or whales. There would be few, if any, bald eagles left. There would be zero California condors. Elephants might only be in zoos. There would never have been any Prezwalski’s horses or Kihansi spray toads to re-release back into the wild.

Without hard-working conservationists, we would live in a world lacking national parks and other protected areas. Imagine that: how many more species would be extinct? How many more wildernesses would have been razed? The fact that around 15% of our land has been set aside as protected or indigenous areas is something worthy of unbridled celebration.

The long game

Part of what makes optimism in conservation so challenging is the global trend of decline in wildlife, but it’s also that success stories are often decades, if not generations, in the making.

The people who first started caring for the last dozen European Bison could only have faith that their efforts could one day lead to a population of some 3,000 free-roaming individuals in nine countries. The Greenpeace activists who passionately fought for the end of whaling could only dream of humpback whales rebounding to a population 80,000-strong.

Species can bounce back, even sometimes from stunningly small populations. But it has to be given a chance and it takes time. Lots of time. Something human beings, so focused on the short-term, have a hard time grasping.

We already know that conservation works. In fact it works really well. We just need a lot more of it – and we need faith in the long term instead of listening only to naysayers who say ‘we’re all screwed.’

And what about my role in this?
Journalists like myself are hardly blameless for the largely negative portrayal of conservation today. On the one hand, we know that bad news often gets more attention – i.e., eyeballs – than happy stories. And journalism today is measured by clicks.

But even more so, journalists are trained to point out what’s wrong in world. That’s our job: to uncover things that aren’t working and put them in front of the public. Journalists are not trained to fix problems – believe me – but to communicate them to those who could do something about them.

But covering environmental stories, especially those with global impact, only exacerbates our journalistic penchant for focusing on the dire. The stakes of issues like climate change and ocean acidification are so high that it’s almost impossible to write about them without sounding apocalyptic. Moreover, let’s be honest, environmental issues rarely show up on your Facebook or Twitter trending feeds, which means environmental journalists struggle to find ways to get people to notice. If I could drop celebrity names into every headline, I would: Vaquita almost extinct, proclaim Beyonce, Brad Pitt and Darth Vader.

In lieu of such desperation, I have to constantly ask myself: okay how do I get the public to notice this issue? And believe me I’ve tried many strategies: from oh-my-god-this-is-bad, to look-how-cute-this-animal-is, to isn’t-nature-freaking-awesome?, to seriously-wake-up-people!

But here’s my pledge to you: over the next 12 months I promise to amp up my coverage of what’s working in conservation, to find some little-reported stories of comeback species. This doesn’t mean I’ll ignore the bad stories by any means, but I’ll try to achieve a better balance on this blog.

After all, conservation is ultimately an act of hope. It’s a belief that actions taken today will bear fruit long in the future and that people, one day, will grow a little wiser. It’s the faith that billions of humans could, one day, cohabitate a planet with multitudes of wild tigers, flocks of orange-bellied parrots and herds of forest elephants. But we won’t get there without hope.

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