EJ Milner-Gulland is the Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the interaction between social, ecological and behavioural factors in conservation. Synchronicity Earth is delighted and honoured to have EJ as one of our scientific advisers.
We caught up with EJ to ask her about her current research and find out more about the Conservation Optimism movement which she is spearheading.
Can you tell us about your research and the kind of conservation you do?
The kind of conservation that we do is mostly about changing people’s behaviour, so a lot of it is about the ways in which people use wildlife, for example, hunting it and eating it. Often, when conservationists get involved, they are concerned about the sustainability of these practices and want to change the way that people think and behave.
It is important to consider this at a range of different levels. You need to consider how individuals think about their wildlife and how they might be persuaded to change their practices, what kind of costs they might incur by making any changes and then design conservation interventions that are acceptable to the people whose behaviour you’re trying to change.
But you also have to think about the system in which they are embedded: how socially acceptable is the behaviour change you are asking them to adopt? Are there constraints that mean they cannot change their behaviour because otherwise they won’t have food or their lives will be adversely affected in other ways?
Then you have to think more broadly, about the wider institutions that are involved. For example, how do you help firms to reduce their impact on biodiversity, or how do you help conservation organisations to design things more effectively? That’s what we do, working at all these different levels.
In your experience, when conservationists plan interventions to try to bring about behaviour change, what are some of the barriers they face?
Depending on the area in which they are working, I think conservationists often fail to consider what might be stopping people from changing their behaviour and the things that mean that it’s actually quite difficult. Even in this country, for example, maybe you want to recycle but you can’t because something is not recyclable. If you’re thinking about wild meat, bush meat for example, it is fine to say that you will provide an alternative livelihood, but people have still got to eat proteins. If they’re living in a very remote place where there’s no access to domestic protein, what are they supposed to do?
Also, conservationists tend not to think forwards enough about the potential unintended consequences of what they’re doing. For example, a conservationist might think that by offering an alternative livelihood there will be a shift away from consuming bushmeat without considering that if you’re also increasing people’s income then they’ll probably want to eat more meat (people tend to want to eat more meat when they have more income). Or if there are new economic opportunities in an area because of ecotourism, for example, even if people are generally eating less meat per person, if more people are coming in, overall consumption may rise.
Conservationists often don’t think enough about themselves as part of the system. They think they’re external to the system and are coming in to try to change it, but in fact by their presence they are part of that system and their activities can often have unintended consequences.
You’re passionate about the conservation ecology of the Saiga antelope in Central Asia. Where did this particular passion come from?
Well, I think for most conservationists it’s a bit contingent, isn’t it? In my case, my dad was a Professor of Russian Art and Literature, so I was always interested in Russia and the Soviet Union. As a PhD student, I was working on ivory and rhino horn, and I found out that Saiga antelope was a substitute for rhino horn. I’d always wanted a reason to go to Russia and to the Soviet Union, and there it was. When I got there, I just thought what an amazing place and what an amazing species and stuck with it!
In terms of conservation, what do you consider as a high point in your career and, conversely, what do you consider as a low point?
Ha ha! Well, I can give you two examples related to saiga conservation.
A high point was when we got the Convention on Migratory Species MOU and Work Programme agreed. I’d always been a little sceptical about the role of international organisations and conventions in conservation. I thought they were basically just talking shops that didn’t have much to do with what happens on the ground. But in fact, I’m the Technical Adviser to the CMS on the saiga, and I realised how important it was to have this convening place where governments, NGOs and academics could all get together and really agree on what the problems were and what needed to be done and prioritise them.
A UN convention really does mean something, particularly to governments, and building that community where we’re all on the same page about what needs to be done was really important. I guess I was proud to be the person who’s been helping to develop that action plan over the years – it’s been going for 10 years or more now, and it really has helped people to come together and agree a joint plan and then get behind it.
And a low point for you?
Well, our low point was in 2015. We were just starting to see Saigas recovering when they were hit by a huge outbreak of disease which killed more than 60% of the world’s population of the species in just two weeks. It was awful and tragic, but even then, the benefit of having a community to mobilise allowed us to all get together and try to work out what had happened. The paper that came out last week (January, 2018) was a great example of people from all over the world working together to try to understand things and collaborate – from government, NGOs and academics to funders coming in with emergency funds. That was a real positive amongst all the gloom.
What do you see as the greatest current challenges for conservation?
I think the greatest challenge for conservation is that conservationists are not seen as fundamental to the survival of the human race! And we should be, because we are.
I don’t think conservation and the environment is mainstream in international, national and regional discourse, or even in personal discourse. People don’t realise that as a species we need to change fundamentally and do it soon. That’s not just about climate change, or pollution, or energy and waste – though all of those are important of course. It is about saving our wild spaces, our nature, our wildlife. That needs to be done urgently, and we’re running out of time to do it.
I don’t think we have very long to start changing things, so the challenge for conservationists is to stay positive and focused and to avoid the temptation to run around like headless chickens in a blind panic! At the same time, we have to communicate that this is something that everyone has to be involved with, and that we all have to make changes. So for me that’s the big challenge that we really haven’t grasped over the last 30 or 40 years. There are lots of little things that have gone better, but we’re not changing the fundamentals of the system.
Climate change receives far more coverage than biodiversity in the media. Why do you think biodiversity gets so little attention?
I think people see wildlife and biodiversity as something nice to have, a luxury rather than an essential part of the functioning of their planet. People see climate change as something that is a true existential threat, albeit one that’s far off on the horizon, but they don’t see the loss of nature in the same way. And in some senses that’s because it isn’t an existential threat. There are a lot of technological fixes that could be done to make our lives easier, I suppose. You could have artificial flood defences, you can have an alternative to wild pollination, people can survive living in a city with no green spaces and so on. But you lose so much of what makes life worthwhile.
But do you think that belief in these kind of ‘techno-fixes’ may be part of the problem as well, as people think that technology will save the day and grand solutions are just round the corner and everything will be OK so there’s no need to do anything about it now?
Yes, and I think that while people are aware that extinction is forever, they don’t see extinction. It’s hard to see extinction because it tends to be just a fizzling out… People in this country would probably be sad and nostalgic if some small creature died out in Papua New Guinea or something, but it wouldn’t impact their lives.
Conservationists do feel that losing wildlife is a threat to human wellbeing and to the health of the planet and that it’s a moral obligation to make sure that we don’t send things extinct, but it’s much harder to sell the rather complex issues around why we shouldn’t destroy our wild places, than to sell the idea that the planet’s warming and that we need to keep below 1.5 degrees.
It’s complicated and in the end it’s about what kind of world we want to be in. Even so, I do believe that among the general public around the world there is a strong love of nature and a strong desire to live in a world that does have wild places and that does have interactions between humans and nature. It’s something which is embedded in our psyche as a species, the need for wildness, but I think there’s a real disconnection at the moment, which makes it very hard for us to treat it as anything other than a nice to have luxury.
What is your view on the debate within conservation between the intrinsic value of nature versus nature’s value to humanity – the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides? As conservationists, how should we communicate the value of nature?
Of course nature has all those values, and you have to be clear about all the different ways in which humans benefit from nature, but you do also have to make the moral case for nature as well.
For me, one of the things that we’ve gone too far with as conservationists is not being true to ourselves. I think a lot of conservationists are not being sincere when they make those utilitarian arguments: they’re making those arguments because they think that’s what people want to hear. I don’t think that plays well for us. Economists can make the utilitarian arguments, which they do.
Also, we all go into conservation because we feel passionately about wildlife and the need to protect it, so if we then start justifying our role as conservationists because we’re worried about losing millions of pounds worth of assets then I think there’s a lack of authenticity there. I think we’ve spent too long not acknowledging our own position on this, and not being honest about it, and I think that loses us credibility. I don’t think it’s a very sensible approach to simply say what we think people want to hear.
Are conservationists generally aware of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and do you think that these goals can be a useful tool or framework for people working to conserve biodiversity?
I think conservationists are aware of the SDGs: there are an awful lot of position papers linking the SDGs to the Aichi Biodiversity targets, and to steps that businesses could take for biodiversity. Everyone seems to be trying to frame their work in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals, and making the case that healthy ecosystems underlie all of them. I think this is an enormous opportunity for conservationists to ensure we are seen as relevant.
Having said that, you don’t want it to be just another fad: you don’t want to abandon basic conservation in order to make things fit to the SDGs. It behoves us to show how relevant our work is, and the SDGs are a very good framework for showing the relevance of conservation.
One of the things that I like to ask my students is, as conservationists, what do we actually want? I don’t think we’ve effectively articulated what our goals are. Climate change scientists have it comparatively easy – for example they can say that they want no more than 1.5 degrees warming. But what do we conservationists want? Maybe there’s a multiplicity of answers, but in that case, how are people at policy level supposed to help us achieve our conservation goals, if we don’t know ourselves? I think that’s where the SDGs are useful because they outline what we as humanity might want for our future. For me that is their strength. So if we get behind the SDGs as something that humanity might want, then we can think about how conservation can help us to get there.
How did you come to the conclusion that a ‘Conservation Optimism’ movement was needed – what problems is the movement addressing – and what do you think it can achieve?
Well, I think we have to be optimistic and we have to share positive stories and learn from them. We have to be critical, to understand what works and what doesn’t, but in a forward looking way, and that’s the idea of conservation optimism, to be forward looking, positive, self-critical and reach out to other sectors and the wider community. There’s a great air of panic in conservation at the moment – a kind of crisis narrative – and this is partly what the conservation optimism movement is a response to.
It also comes back to what I was saying before about conservation being seen as a nice to have, something that is somehow peripheral to the fundamental needs of humanity. The conservation optimism ethos is trying to change that by helping everybody who feels that nature needs to be conserved to do their bit, to say that they care about conservation and can think of something positive to change in their lives. It’s about mobilising a broader range of people – well, all of society ideally – in a forward-looking way, because if we feel like we’re going to fail, then why bother starting?
I think the idea of anyone and everyone potentially being a conservationist is a very powerful one, rather than conservation just being the exclusive domain of the scientific community, of conservation biologists, or people working in the field.
Everyone can be, and everyone must be. Everyone must see that what they do makes a difference. I also think there is a real problem of potential burnout amongst conservationists. We need more of a community for conservationists, so that people who are working in different parts of the world are joining up the dots, recognising that while they’ve got what might seem like small, local successes, and that things are changing slowly where they are, this is also happening in hundreds of other places as well. We’re trying to build a community that will allow people to join forces across the world.
And it’s really important to engage young people, and people who are thinking in different ways in a range of different sectors, societies and cultures. We’re trying to find a way in which people can connect across those boundaries and create a platform through which conservation can become the force it needs to be globally. There are top down ways – the United Nations, policy and frameworks like the SDGs and other kinds of government-agreed, presidential stuff, but then there’s also the ground-up way and the two need to meet.
There’s a graph that I share about social trends in America where, in terms of the legislative frameworks for major societal changes (like legalising abortion, mixed marriages), you see nothing changing for decades, then suddenly everything changes, and almost all states suddenly put the socially liberal legislation in place. I think perhaps we’re getting to that point in this country, for example with the current focus on plastic pollution in our oceans. People might think that it’s all down to David Attenborough and Blue Planet 2, but of course it wasn’t just that. We had all the pushing and pushing for years and years by conservationists leading up to that, and suddenly the time was right, Blue Planet 2 came along, and the government and businesses felt able to make big changes with the backing of wider society.
That’s another reason for the Conservation Optimism community – it can feel like we’re pushing against a dead weight and that dead weight might be moving but we’re not aware of it: you need a community to keep you going while you push against that dead weight. In a sense, this seems to be replicating the kind of thing we see with the civil rights movement and other kinds of movement. Suddenly things switch and become completely normal. Gay marriage for example – if you talk to kids in secondary school now they see absolutely no issues, while a generation ago there would have been huge issues, so social change can seem very quick, but it isn’t.
If we agree that conservation is about more than just rigorous science, what role do you think an organisation like Synchronicity Earth can have in promoting effective conservation and trying to get that momentum going?
Well, there are several things. One is that Synchronicity Earth has this really creative and innovative way of crossing sectors. I really like that there’s a strong emphasis on the arts, but there’s also a strong emphasis on financial instruments, and trying to take ideas and constituencies from other places into conservation, which is something that we really need at the moment. I think that’s really positive.
The other thing is the direct linkage to programmes on the ground, and trying to be a facilitating organisation, rather than trying to be another great big conservation organisation with its own agenda. Some of the big conservation organisations can become means to an end in themselves, they just become great, big machines, so trying to be a bit nimble and facilitating rather than trying to solve all the problems yourself is another strength. Not having an ego as an organisation is really important and is another great thing about Synchronicity Earth.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.