Last week I gave an introductory undergraduate lecture about conservation, which forced me to spend some time thinking about how to define what it is. This is more difficult than it perhaps should be – ‘conservation’ is a word that seems to make sense on an intuitive level (I feel that I know it when I see it), but stubbornly resists attempts to be wrestled into a clear definition. In the end I came up with a new definition, but was left wondering whether the scope of ideas and activities that fit within this definition have moved on beyond the usefulness of the term ‘conservation’ itself. This post is an attempt to explain why. Continue reading
In southern England, January 2014 was the wettest since records began (the 1760s in the case of the Oxford Radcliffe Observatory). Thousands of homes have been flooded, and large parts of the Somerset Levels have sat under water for weeks. In a week of storms (‘stormageddon’, announced the Daily Mirror), a stretch of the sea wall at Dawlish in Devon was destroyed, cutting the only rail route to Plymouth and Cornwall. The Environment Agency was accused of ‘putting birds before humans‘. In the Daily Mail, the Environment Agency was likewise accused of favouring conservation by failing to dredge Somerset rivers ‘and then spending £20m on bird sanctuaries’.
These headlines are perhaps no worse than we have come to expect from public debate about the environment in the UK, driven, as they are, by a combination of ignorance and outrage. Indeed, by some standards they are quite sensible. A councillor for Henley–on-Thames (from the UK Independence Party), blamed the storms and floods on an act of God because of legislation to legalise gay marriage. Meanwhile, The destruction caused by floods and storms have triggered that favourite British sport of pass-the-blame: victims blame the government for not doing more, the Local Government Minister blames the Environment Agency, whose Chairman replies by accusing politicians of ‘playing politics’ with the crisis, and for cutting his organisation’s staff. Continue reading
Citizen Science – research conducted in whole or in part by non-professional scientists – seems to be everywhere at the moment; from our back gardens to remote tropical forests, on our TVs and in our academic journals. It offers something for everyone: scientists like its potential to generate lots of data at low cost; sociologists like the way it changes the relationship between science and the public; the media like its ability to connect with individuals and their personal stories. There are concerns about the quality of data collected by amateur citizen scientists, but there is increasing evidence that they can be of comparable quality to professionals, if those collecting them receive the right training. Citizen Science has been used to look for climate patterns in historical weather records, to unlock the secrets of faraway galaxies, and to map the sacred sites of Congolese forest people. Conservation has been quick to jump on the bandwagon, with a whole range of applications, from detecting bats to identifying new species.
Citizen Science is not one thing, and typologies have been developed that recognise the different roles of citizens in the process (e.g. as passive participants or as active owners of the research) and the varied nature of the tasks performed by citizen scientists (e.g. as ‘sensors’ making observations or as problem solvers). Perhaps the most profound distinction is between individuals who participate in citizen science for pleasure as a hobby, and those for whom the findings have direct implications for their underlying wellbeing. The former category typically involves relatively wealthy people in developing countries (such as expert amateur birdwatchers) whereas the latter category is particularly relevant to conservation in developing countries, where many people depend on natural resources for their livelihoods.
Conservation citizen science in developing countries – often called ‘community-based monitoring’ – is growing in popularity. It has the potential, in theory, to create a fantastic win-win-win. Local people collect data on wildlife and resource use that are highly valuable to conservation and conservation science: win one. These data can then be fed into management of the same natural resources, creating improved long-term conservation outcomes: win two. At the same time, the process of involving local people in study design, data collection and (sometimes) management is empowering, which can create meaningful improvements in wellbeing for local people: win three. There is a real buzz at the moment about the potential of local citizen science to deliver this triple-win, but how robust is it in the face of changing conditions? In particular, to what extent is it dependent on the limitations of current technology? Continue reading
Conservationists and their organisations are often accused of treating symptoms and not causes – as Bill Adams said on this blog a few weeks ago, “mopping nature’s wounds not addressing the cause of injury”. Bill was talking about the big global challenges of conservation, but this problem applies equally at the day-to-day level. The park staff have no equipment? Buy them some from a grant, and don’t worry about where the replacements will come from. The government counterpart is corrupt? Work with him or her anyway, because they can get things done in the next few months. And so it goes on.
Conservation researchers in general, and political ecologists in particular, like to look deeper, unravelling the chains of explanation that get to the processes that underpin emergent threats. They (we) often argue that by applying short-term sticking plasters, conservation isn’t really making much difference for the long term, and that more conservation effort should go to addressing deeper underlying problems. In other words, (and mixing metaphors) conservation should make more effort to peel back the layers of the onion, to see what lies beneath. Continue reading
It is hugely reassuring to suggest that decisions should be evidence-based. It sounds safe, sane, sensible. It seems self-evidently right. What else could they be based on? Guesswork? Hope? Prejudice? As a result the concept of evidence-based policy is on the ascendancy everywhere. Politicians love it, because it sounds so reasonable. Policy makers love it because it implies that decisions can be rational, free of bias, proofed against sectional interest. Scientists love it because it offers the opportunity to feed ‘sound science’ into the ears of policy-makers. So it seems an obvious fact that evidence-based policy is a good thing: yet as Sherlock Holmes comments in The Boscombe Valley Mystery ‘there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact’. Some caution may be warranted, for there are deceptive layers hidden by the term that are easily overlooked. Continue reading
Is biodiversity conservation part of the environmental movement? To what extent is the protection of species like tigers an integral part of wider concerns about transition to more sustainable lives on earth? These questions came up at a recent meeting Conservation and Sustainability: Do We Practise What We Preach?, organised by the Cambridge Conservation Forum. The questions are simple enough. The answers turn out to be a bit more complicated.
Historically, it’s a no-brainer. The birth of the modern conservation movement in the late Nineteenth Century was strongly environmentalist, in that it was a broad-spectrum reaction to the depredations of capitalism and industrialism. In colonised territories like North America or Africa, the extinction of species (blaubok, quagga or passenger pigeon) and the settlement of frontiers drove a wave of sentiment for wilderness. Yet in countries like the UK, conservation had broader roots: the founders of organisations like the National Trust and the RSPB and the Open Spaces Society were people who opposed the impacts of industrial pollution, urban sprawl, hunting and collecting, even if they enjoyed certain of its fruits.
I recently attended a conference at the University of Toronto entitled “Grabbing ‘Green’: Questioning the Green Economy”. This was part of a series of linked conferences held over the past few years that bring together scholars who critically analyse the relations between biodiversity conservation and neoliberal processes such as commodification, marketisation and privatisation. Academics working in this field have identified various problems with so-called ‘neoliberal conservation’, as reviewed by Buscher et al 2012. Over the last few years I have enjoyed getting to know this literature, and more recently I have enjoyed getting to know personally some of its leading authors. I think that they have identified deep and serious problems with the neoliberal turn in conservation. At the same time, I have often been frustrated by the dense and difficult style in which much of this literature is written, and by the way it sometimes paints a picture of conservationists that doesn’t fit well with my own experience (a point made by Kent Redford here).
Given my interest in the work of this academic community, it was with a sense of real anticipation that I set off for Toronto. So how did it go? On the one hand, I heard some really excellent papers and discussions, and I enjoyed presenting my own work and receiving constructive feedback on it. I have high hopes that this will lead to some fruitful new research and collaborations. On the other hand, I found some aspects of the conference quite depressing and frustrating, for reasons I will try to explain. Continue reading