After more than 6 inspiring years, in which she has helped to turn an idea into reality and driven our development as an organisation, Laura Miller, our Executive Director, is moving on.
“Laura has taken us from our infancy to where we are now – a vital, robust and dynamic organization with great ambition. We are immensely grateful to Laura for everything that she has done. Not only has she played an instrumental role in developing our approach, but she has cultivated and nurtured a terrific team.” – Jessica Sweidan
I talked to Laura about her time at Synchronicity Earth and her plans for the future.
Q: What was the original vision for Synchronicity Earth? In what way was it different, in your view, and what was it a response to?
The original vision for Synchronicity Earth was recognition of our interdependence with and shared responsibility for the living world.
It was a response to society’s disconnection from and exploitation of the living world – reducing it to expendable ‘natural’ or ‘social’ capital; and it was a rallying cry, effectively asking that we take our environmental responsibility seriously…
Building on the idea of synchronicity, our approach was to find ways of working collaboratively across sectors – bringing in people from all walks of life from around the world – to empower effective, networked, collective and coordinated action around some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.
It was an all-encompassing, creative vision – not just about the world we wanted to see but about the way we wanted to work with others. We aimed to support or create meaningful alliances, underpinned by an understanding – developed over time – about how these might best manifest. We gave ourselves permission to experiment and take risks – all as a means of learning how to support meaningful progress.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background and how Jessica and Adam (Sweidan) first got you involved.
I had worked in social justice for a long time, and saw strong links between problems experienced by marginalised groups in society and those affecting species and ecosystems; they were often indivisible and evidently had the same causes.
I was part of a growing consciousness within the social justice and human rights movements that everything is connected and that we need to stop working on a ‘single issue’ basis. When Jessica and Adam explained their holistic vision, it felt very compelling.
Q: In the just over 6 years since you joined Synchronicity Earth, how far do you think the original vision – what you set out to do – has been realised, or is being realised?
We have enacted our vision by funding the work of amazing people around the world who are leading the way in environmental protection, and bringing their work to light.
What excites me the most is the fact that we have supported people who work holistically – we have developed relationships with people who are the embodiment of our vision. So even a project that seems at first glance to be purely about species conservation – work to protect the Critically Endangered Madagascar pochard for example – involves lake restoration and reforestation as well as captive breeding; and our partners, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), engage local communities to figure out how ecological models of livelihoods are going to work for them; so people become part of the solution to environmental decline and have better lives as a result. It’s just really lovely to see.
Q: What have you learnt along the way in terms of the challenges for effective conservation?
I think the challenge is to create a functional way of adapting to what you’re learning as you begin to work in each context rather than say: here’s a plan, let’s implement it.
Every situation is different – there is no silver bullet. Most problems are entrenched and require long-term and holistic solutions which take time to develop; they require many partners – each playing their part; ‘patient capital’ (a long-term source of funding) is needed; so is coordination; we need to respond accordingly.
Q: If you had to sum up Synchronicity Earth’s impact so far, what do you think it has been?
I was once told that we have ‘rehabilitated’ biodiversity conservation which had previously been associated with ‘fortress’ type models of species and ecosystem protection.
We have been able to do this because our partners embody a more enlightened approach to working with and on behalf of communities, enabling them to protect the natural world and to support better alignment between themselves, their rights, their needs and their local ecosystems and species.
So for me, our biggest achievement is to find and showcase approaches to conservation that are very much intertwined with social justice and more egalitarian and respectful approaches to social and economic development. There’s a long way to go … but we are helping to pave the way.
We have also helped to bring into being two initiatives that I hope have reached young people, inspiring them to be a voice for their generation.
The first – This is Now – was ostensibly an experiment in using public art to wake people up to the fact that we are nature; it is us. The second – Your Century – was definitely the most crazy fun I have ever had at a conference: I still get goose-bumps thinking about it.
In all cases, our achievements have been down to the incredible people we have worked with – within and beyond Synchronicity Earth – and I feel hugely fortunate to know them.
Q: Could you tell us about some of the partners that we have supported that you feel most proud of?
I’ve probably felt more inspired than proud when it comes to our partners. So the work of WWT – who I mentioned before – inspires me; I’m delighted to have got to know it.
But, you know, many of our partners are vulnerable. This is particularly true of activists at the frontline of environmental defence, for example in West and Central Africa and Papua New Guinea. Some have faced death threats, yet they stay on and I’m in awe of their passion and strength. I have so much to learn from them…
Many of our partners achieve a huge amount with very little. For example, BLOOM has worked consistently and imaginatively to ensure that governments begin to regulate harmful fishing activities in the Deep Sea – alongside and as part of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. It has exposed poor public policy or poor implementation and it’s had to do that amidst tremendous pressure from the fishing industry. That takes extraordinary dedication, courage and focus.
All of our partners work with insufficient support, yet with such good grace and determination – with tremendous impact. They’re doing some of the best work on Earth!
Q: In your opinion, what are the major challenges to successful conservation?
The onward march of our current form of economic development and the mind-set that accompanies it. The conservation sector as a whole is swimming against the tide. Less than 5% of charitable giving goes to the environment, a similarly small percentage of government money is being spent on conservation, but then you look at what is actually being spent on activities that are going to destroy nature, communities and cultures and the lack of transparency around it…
Q: You are leaving Synchronicity Earth in a far stronger position than it was when you joined. What future would you like to see for the organisation?
I would obviously like it to be hugely successful at fulfilling the needs of the sector – for more funding and stronger networks – coalitions working together towards shared goals each person playing to their strengths… And the strategy part of that I think is key as well, that we don’t lose sight of the fact that we need to be attending to the whole system – really thinking about how we influence and change the conditions that have created these problems in the first place.
So ultimately, I suppose, my dream for Synchronicity Earth is the creation of stronger strategies and networks of action, by identifying people that are doing good work – as we always have done – but to have stronger understandings of how to achieve lasting change.
Q: What gives you hope for the natural world?
Apart from our amazing partners and co-conspirators?
Without being trite – I know it’s going to sound a bit ‘dark and light’ – but everything we’ve seen in terms of political shocks in the world over the last year suggests we’re reaching an apex of a particular model of development.
People are transitioning to less destructive social models when they recognise that the system is failing them. There’s a wealth of good ideas around the world, and now we have the means to talk to each other so much more easily, we can spread knowledge so much more easily… It’s time to look at this and see what can be done…
Q: So do you see an enhanced sort of understanding or relationship with the natural world as almost a kind of inevitable counterpoint to the decline of our current exploitative model?
Yes, I think that’s what’s happening. So you’re seeing the upswelling of much more integrated cohesive communities working collectively…. I mean you’re seeing lots of other things that are extremely worrying, which is why I don’t want to be trite about it, but what gives me hope is that actually people are switching on to a more connected way of being.
Q: What next for you?
I’m offering free time to some of our existing project partners at the moment. And I am getting involved in some community projects. I am hatching some plans for other things – you will need to watch this space!