The recent Conservation Optimism Summit in London was one of a series of #EarthOptimism events (e.g. in Cambridge, UK and Washington, D.C) taking place to coincide with Earth day (April 22nd). In the face of an endless stream of negative, doom-laden stories about conservation and the environment, hope and optimism are needed more than ever. Conservation does make a difference, successes are real and need to be celebrated and with the right resources, approaches and determination, species can be brought back from the brink of extinction and vital habitats conserved and restored.
We spoke to Synchronicity Earth’s Director of Strategic Conservation , Simon Stuart, to get his thoughts on the Summit in London and how the positive momentum it generated can be sustained and built upon over the next months and years.
Q: What were the highlights of the summit for you?
A: It’s hard to know where to start. I think it’s great to see how many people were there, there was a great buzz of interest throughout. I wasn’t able to go to one of the plenaries but those I did go to were very good.
It was good to see that people generally were in no doubt as to the intrinsic value of nature but were also very open to working with communities and embracing economic values as well, where they help, but also challenging them when they’re destructive. I didn’t feel it was at all narrow-minded in that sense, and nor did there seem to be any blind optimism without evidence.
There was a really broad range of approaches and topics – very varied. I guess if there are any regrets, it’s that you come away wishing you could have gone to more of the sessions, but that’s just the nature of these things.
One thing that worked well with the conference was that it was very original, almost a bit quirky in some senses – it was driven by an Oxford professor, E.J. Milner-Gulland, that’s not normally how practical conservation conferences happen. It was very informal, but that made it all the better, I think. It was a great opportunity to come together to recharge our batteries.
Q: Why does this summit make you hopeful for the future of conservation?
A: To me, the summit showed not just the number of different initiatives going on, but also the number of young people engaged and looking for ways forward – I think many others found that as well. The age demographic in the meeting was very different from what we often see in conservation meetings. That could be because it came to a certain extent out of a university, and so it might have been easier to bring in those younger people. I guess the summit also showed the strength and depth of innovation in some of the smaller organisations. That is not to say innovation does not exist in the bigger organisations, but it was mainly the smaller organisations that rallied to this meeting.
Q: What do you think could come out of this type of event and how could the momentum be maintained in the follow-up?
A: I guess my initial thinking on that is that it would be good to see all those younger people who attended the summit design what they want to come out of it, rather than for it be done top down, because I think it risks losing its dynamism if it’s done top down. But on the other hand, this meeting is being held as part of a family of events around the world, so there’s a bit of a movement going on with #earthoptimism – I hear the Cambridge event was very good as well – so there’s certainly a bit of a movement here. But I think it would be a shame if it got too institutionalised and formal, I think it would be best if it kept its cutting edge.
It was certainly clear to me from the number of people that came and the positive feedback on all the meetings and sessions, that if we held another one it would probably attract more people. The buzz around this one, and the number of parallel events, many of which were oversubscribed, means that even if you ran the exact same programme, you could probably run the whole summit again and have a completely different experience.
Q: A recurring theme at the conference seemed to be that while promoting a narrative of hope and optimism, we should not lose sight of the gravity of the challenges facing all those involved in conservation. How do we strike the right balance?
A: Well that’s where the Andrew Balmford talk was very good, because he was promoting optimism and hope against the backdrop of what is happening. But because there are such great success stories and so much conservation impact out there – or even those cases where we are just slowing down the loss – even though the pressures on nature are even stronger, it does mean that it’s possible to be hopeful.
If you look at the total budgets that are available for conservation, they are so tiny… which suggests that if you started spending realistic sums of money, you really could have a huge impact. Obviously there are particular conservation issues that it is going to be really hard to get our heads around, especially on coral reefs and emerging wildlife diseases; we might need some technological fixes to address these. Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount that has been achieved and we’d have a massively worse planet if we hadn’t been doing all this conservation. The summit gave us loads of case studies and examples of success, so the proof is out there.
Q: What advice would you give to somebody just starting out in conservation?
A: Actually, I just tweeted something from EJ Milner-Gulland:
“Do what you love, rather than compromising on doing research that you feel you ought to do because it’s fashionable or where the money is.”
I thought that was great, so that’s one piece of good advice.
I think we’ve got to take the enthusiasm and optimism of youth and empower it and allow it to grow.
I also think it’s really important, for young people especially, to get involved in the political process. In this country, and probably in many others, more people should join political parties, even if you have doubts about them. I’m a member of a political party and of course I have some doubts about it. Whichever way you are inclined politically, you need to get involved because if you’re a biodiversity fanatic, we want to get biodiversity into the policies of all the parties. For the most part you don’t do that by writing to your MP or having a meeting with them; you have to join the policy-making processes in the party which are for members only. Because biodiversity is so low on the agenda of just about every political party, it might not be so hard to have influence on it. So that’s what people should be doing, they should be getting biodiversity up the agenda for all the political parties. If you get into the system – yes you’ll find lots you don’t like – but at least you can start changing it from within.