Why we need conservation realism

The rationale behind my new Conservation Realist series

Welcome to the Conservation Realist publication! I am a conservation researcher who specializes in studying the interactions between conservation and communities. I’ve worked as an academic and as a conservation practitioner, and currently am a consultant for various conservation projects, including as a monitoring and evaluation specialist to understand the processes and impacts of conservation activities. I am deeply motivated to work for more effective, ethical, and equitable conservation, driven by practical lessons learned from extensive on-the-ground work.

And that is precisely why I have very little patience for unproductive and even unethical narratives, assumptions, and approaches in conservation. Unfortunately, these are found in great abundance.

In the conservation world, there are often starry-eyed calls for optimism. “Hope spots” and “bright spots.” A common rallying cry: “We have to show that it’s not all doom and gloom!”

What’s often ignored is that there is a vast and rich middle ground between optimism and doom. It’s realism. And we need more of it to be incorporated in mainstream conservation conversations and actions.

Candidly, conservation is not doing so well. That’s a kind understatement. There are, thankfully, wonderful successes that should absolutely be celebrated and learned from (though I internally roll my eyes each time I hear someone breathlessly speak the words “hope spots” in a way that brings to mind “live, laugh, love!”). There are, sadly, many more failures. And instead of being swept under the rug, they must also be learned from. They must be examined through a pragmatic lens to learn what went wrong, how, and why, and to inform future efforts. This is how we can still gain something productive from the tens to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars spent on each of the multitude of failed conservation efforts.

With any challenge, we are neither served by brightly plastered optimism nor defeatist pessimism. Neither approach brings about healthy, necessary change. Focusing on the successes while ignoring the failures skews our understanding of what’s actually happening. It leaves us unprepared to deal with reality. It’s like how I sometimes (often) (almost always) delay looking at my credit card statement until the day the payment is due. Ignorance is bliss, and I definitely need to purchase (“invest in”) a new pair of good quality and ethically produced shoes for my post-pandemic work trips to Southeast Asia right now despite having no actual travel plans yet. But the balance needs to be paid off, or else there will be interest and late fees to pay. And if I simply monitor my spending throughout the month, I am much better able to curb my spending and avoid that awful pit-in-stomach “I spent how much?!?!” moment at the end of each month.

Closely linked to this ostrich-head-in-sand perspective (though I have learned that ostriches don’t actually do this, which is a credit to their mental and emotional strength and we should all learn from them) is the widespread, unquestioning acceptance of how conservation as a field goes about achieving its goals. It seems to be generally assumed that, because our mission is positive — saving nature! — our mindsets and actions are inherently good and beyond reproach. This is nonsense. Conservation is conceived of and implemented by humans, and is tightly linked to control over resources and people’s activities. This means that conservation is steeped in all of the human follies, foibles, and flaws that infiltrate other human endeavors, especially where power and control are involved.

I know that I and others who hold similar views are at times viewed as killjoys. If you’re not an optimist, you must be a pessimist — and you’re definitely not a team player. Maybe, if you’re a venerable, grey-bearded elder (male), you can get away with it. But if — like me — you’re a youngish (decreasingly so…), petite woman with a soft voice, then perhaps you’re just unpleasant.

So, I will often qualify my pragmatic comments with, “This might just be me being a grumpy lady” to soften the awkwardness of questioning or contradicting problematic conservation norms. And I was going to call this publication “Grumpy Lady Conservationist,” until a kindred spirit in pragmatic conservation womanhood thoughtfully cautioned that such a label would allow for the perspectives shared here to be more easily dismissed as peevish rantings, as with a curmudgeony older relative (“oh, that’s just her way, don’t mind her!”).

The aforementioned sister in pragmatism also inadvertently came up with a fantastic tagline for the original title: “I say ‘grumpy,’ but really, I’m incensed.” I love this. Our views on conservation are not a product of inherently grumpy characters; rather, we’re often driven to frustration by prevailing narratives in mainstream conservation.

So, here we have it. Conservation Realist. Topics will include: conservation’s colonial roots and ongoing neocolonial attitudes; the urgent need for meaningful monitoring and evaluation (and not just because I want job security as a conservation M&E specialist); different facets of inequity in the conservation field; and, on the positive side, the exciting diversity of experiences, forms of knowledge, and efforts that exist out of the mainstream conservation spotlight.

I hope you enjoy, learn, discuss, share!

Two intrepid researchers walking through a small fishing village, with thatch huts and wooden fencing, in a torrential downpour.
Accepting the soggy reality of southeastern Myanmar’s rainy season, equipping ourselves appropriately with raingear, and forging on with what we need to do. Is this a forced analogy to conservation realism? Perhaps. (photo: Wint Hte)