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Sea anemone. Credit: Rachel Austin/FFI.

“Fragile planet” – getting the right messages across

Posted on: 17.01.13 (Last edited) 17 January 2013

Conservationists often talk about “fragile ecosystems”, but just how fragile are they? Fauna & Flora International’s Mark Infield investigates, and asks whether “doom and gloom” messages are actually counter-productive…

Last year I wrote a blog about IUCN’s ‘Love. Not Loss’ message for conservation communicators. Shortly after, I was sent a link to a video lecture given by Peter Kareiva, the Nature Conservancy’s Chief Scientist.


Peter Kareiva’s lecture – courtesy of PopTech.

Like IUCN, Dr Kareiva picked up on the problems caused by conservation’s focus on “doom and gloom” scenarios. As well as pointing out that they don’t work, in a refreshingly open and honest presentation, he suggests that the conservation community, including his own organisation, has created discord by allowing this kind of thinking to dominate our work and how we explain it.

Preaching to the converted

The lecture was part of a series of talks on the PopTech site linked to the publication of a book called Resilience: Why things bounce back written by Andrew Zolli, Executive Director of PopTech. Similar to TED – Ideas worth spreading, PopTech shares ideas and information and tries to break down the “silo mentality” of experts.

Conservationists spend most of our time talking to other conservationists. When I talk about cultural values approaches to conservation, it is generally in seminars designed by and for like-minded colleagues rather than those interested other aspects of conservation, such as protected area design or endangered species.

But organisations like PopTech and TED are extending the audience for discussions about conservation.

Although short lectures aimed at mixed audiences may over-simplify complex issues, the advantages outweigh the dangers; these sites are cornucopias of stimulating lectures on a host of subjects. One of my favourites is about educating children for creativity – a master-class in engaging, entertaining and informing by Ken Robinson that has been viewed over 14 million times.

Still missing the point

During the presidential elections in the US, President Obama promised to “slow the rise of the ocean and heal the planet.” His rival, Mitt Romney, promised instead to “help you and your family.” How can politicians, including our very own George Osborne, continue to fail to see that “healing the planet” will also help us and our families?

Dr Kareiva suggests that it is because the conservation community has created a dissonance between environmental issues and human welfare that fuels conflict between conservation and development goals. We have done this by creating a false picture of the fragility of nature – a story that mother earth is so delicate that it must be protected from human disturbances to survive.

Creating an apocalyptic vision of the planet crashing and burning closes down discussion by making conservation an absolute imperative. Kareiva believes that nature is more robust than we give it credit for and that we hide evidence of its ability to change and evolve because this seems to weaken our arguments for conservation.

Nature’s baubles

There are a number of points to make about this: if we are basing arguments for conservation on lies or partial truths, we will soon be found out; if the truth weakens our arguments, then our arguments must be wrong.

On the other hand, though nature as a whole may be resilient, and its ability to evolve around damage perpetrated against it by humankind may protect us from our own folly, the plethora of fascinating, wonderful species that David Bellwood in his lecture on lessons from coral reefs calls “baubles on the tree of life” – in other words those that are beautiful but not essential for ecosystems to function – will not be protected.

Nudibranchs. Credit: Rachel Austin/FFI.

Nudibranchs - beautiful, but would an entire ecosystem collapse without them? Credit: Rachel Austin/FFI.

If we cannot build arguments for conserving geckos based on economics, and we cannot build arguments for protecting the myriad of reef fish species based on ecosystem function, we have to recognise and emphasise other arguments for their conservation.

These can be based on the intrinsic value of nature, but also on the contributions that nature’s baubles make to human well-being, simply by existing.

Written by
Mark Infield

After graduating with a degree in zoology in 1980, Mark took off for Kenya, thus beginning a 30 year career in conservation. Mark has worked for NGOs, governments, universities and private companies to develop his interest in the connections between protected areas and the communities who effect or are effected by them. Picking up an MSc and a PhD along the way, he's worked to promote innovations in the way conservation managers interact with local communities. In 2002, following ten years as advisor to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Mark joined FFI’s Asia-Pacific programme, returning to the UK in 2011 to design and develop the Cultural Values & Conservation Programme, a further extension of his ongoing commitment to improving conservation delivery through meaningful engagement with communities and their values.

Other posts by Mark Infield
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