Exploring Conservation: An interview with Jonathan Baillie

By |2018-07-25T11:22:45+00:00April 26th, 2018|Conservation Optimism, Education, In-Depth, Interviews, People and Wildlife|Comments Off on Exploring Conservation: An interview with Jonathan Baillie

Jonathan Baillie is Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President Science & Exploration at the National Geographic Society. Before that, he was at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), where he founded the EDGE of Existence Programme focusing on Evolutionarily Extinct and Globally Endangered species, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. It was in his capacity as Conservation Programmes Director at ZSL that Jonathan met Jessica and Adam Sweidan, the founders of Synchronicity Earth. He has been a friend and important adviser to Synchronicity Earth ever since. We spoke to Jonathan to get his views on conservation, communication and our relationship with the natural world.

What does your role as Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President Science & Exploration at the National Geographic Society involve?

I oversee our impact-related work, all our grants and programmes. This includes our Explorer programmes where we work to enable leaders around the world who are trying to drive knowledge and innovation to push towards a more sustainable planet. It also includes our International programmes working with National Geographic partners in different regions to amplify our message and collaborate with exciting conservation leaders all over the world.

I also oversee our three ‘Labs’:

Our Exploration Technology Lab is trying to scale up our response for technology used in exploration and conservation as well as helping us to visualise the natural world and culture in ways that have never been done before, to help us see the world in a different way. It provides tools to our large network of explorers, helping them to be much more effective in their work.

The second is the Geographic Visualization Lab, which takes complex data and helps the public to understand the status of the natural world and its people. With this Lab we’re trying to really identify the vital signs of the planet, to provide indices so the world understands where we actually are, and also to create projections into the future to understand what the implications are if we don’t take certain actions now.

The third Lab focuses on citizen exploration or citizen science, and is essentially about engaging an entirely new community of people in science and exploration and not only engaging them but having them produce and get involved in providing data that helps us understand the world and identify solutions.

Challenges in conservation

What do you consider to be some of the greatest challenges the conservation community is currently facing?

Well, there are numerous challenges. If you try to pare it all down to its basics, a lot of these challenges started when we developed the ability to access energy that was locked up in the form of coal and oil – and now gas. This has allowed us to do many wonderful things, but it’s also allowed us to expand in terms of agriculture and to colonise the planet in ways that have never been seen before, and that’s brought many challenges. We’re looking at a planet in 2050 with 10 billion people, so the issue is how we feed that population and how we maintain an environment that allows all other forms of life to exist and to produce the benefits that they do and keep the planet going. So, I would say our greatest challenge going forward is how to provide for humanity while also providing for other forms of life. To do that we really need to focus on creating a protein source – a food source – that isn’t going to require dominating and harvesting the entire planet, and we also need to find a clean form of energy so that we don’t heat up the planet to the point where it’s an uncomfortable and unliveable place for much of life that exists today. Energy and agriculture are what we really need to focus on.

What obstacles do you see standing in the way of effective conservation?

There are various obstacles. One is our current economic system:  it is based on indeterminate growth – which any ecologist will tell you is not possible. It is difficult to imagine effective conservation if the global economy continues to be dependent on growing consumption and the associated overexploitation of natural resources. If the current economic system is not revised, future generations will inherit a depauperate planet and a very large debt.

The conservation movement, I feel, needs to think more about how it communicates its message, and how it encourages people to understand the importance of other forms of life. For me, that narrative and that knowledge is an area that we need to work a lot harder to both identify and articulate in a way that’s relevant to different cultures all over the world. We’ve obviously not been telling the most relevant story, so one of our greatest barriers is our ability to effectively communicate.

In an address you gave to the National Geographic Explorers Festival last year, you said: “We have to figure out how to maintain the heart and the lungs and the arteries of the planet so that it can continue to generate the resources that we all need.” In the face of so many threats to biodiversity, is it possible to identify particular regions to prioritise?

Well, right now, we need to make some pretty bold decisions as a society: it’s not a matter of conserving a small chunk of the planet here and a small chunk there. We’ve basically converted over half the planet and we have an impact on an even larger proportion of the Earth’s landscape and seascape, but if we want it to function in the future we are likely to need to retain a very large part of the planet intact.

For example, we know that the ocean is providing every other breath we take, or that the Amazon rainforest has an extremely important role in driving weather patterns, but we still don’t fully understand how all the pieces fit together, and that’s a very dangerous situation to be in. We’re taking apart the pieces when we don’t fully understand how they all function together.

When I was talking about ‘heart, lungs and arteries’, I was highlighting the need to better understand how the world works, and that we need to articulate that a little more clearly. We’re not talking about isolated pieces here and there but entire systems that we have to keep in place. I’m talking about the Amazon rainforest, about the Congo Basin, about ensuring that we have half the world’s oceans under some form of protection. We need to make some significant changes if we want to maintain the critical ecosystems that allow a broad diversity of life to survive and ensure this world can be sustainable into the future. Right now, we’re dismantling those critical ecosystems without any understanding of the implications.

Do you think there is generally a need for a more collaborative and strategic approach to conservation?

I think we need greater leadership in the conservation space and greater collaboration and we also need to look at things on a landscape scale and bring together the relevant players, understanding who is able to and who is going to do what, instead of having competition among organisations. We also need to create a new paradigm where we understand that there are these last wild places that are essentially the engines of life and the next generations should just know what they are and we shouldn’t have to explain why they’re important to keep going – it would be like trying to explain why you would need your liver! It’s part of the fabric of the planet that we live on. We don’t have that narrative clearly articulated, but we need to.

Our relationship with the natural world

In your address to the