Subject expert or process expert?

I would love to be “an expert” that gets invited to high level expert meetings to give my advice on how to deal with the latest problems on coral reefs. But I am not sure I am cut out to develop that kind of expertise, and my natural abilities tend to lean towards working with people, managing processes, having ideas and finding ways to make them work – generally helping make things happen. I feel like I am more of a process person and I wonder how I could develop that.
It is interesting that I have been told by conservation experts that the world doesn’t need more scientists, it needs more people who can bridge the gap between science and action and science and communication. And yet calling scientists experts and not giving all the others involved in conservation an impressive label doesn’t really help encourage that, does it? And if you need  PhD (and ongoing publications) to be an expert, can you realistically develop your skills to effectively make things happen?


What’s got me buzzing

I’m buzzing. It’s a new term I just invented for myself to describe the semi hyperactive state I get into when I have too many ideas in my head and I’m just excited about them and about life. I literally feel twitchy and have a hard time concentrating when this happens. In a social psychology class today I learned that there our neocortex has an Optimal Arousal Level and I think mine has been surpassed!
So here is what’s got me buzzing right now:

  • lots of ideas on how to structure my protected areas essay
  • business ideas I might want to develop
  • thinking about my future role towards environment from a business perspective
  • a possible connection to being coached
  • to be a mentor that would help social entrepreneurs
  • personal development ideas about networking
  • I want to bounce ideas around about environmental entrepreneurship
  • What aspects of NGO-led conservation could be turned into a business?
  • Business can still work even if it is a “non-loss” business – how intriguing!
  • a compliment I received today
  • maybe the best way to distribute a solution to a problem is not to give it away but to sell it
  • How can our class have a virtual bulletin board where we can share links and documents?
  • How can we make time to share ideas and help each other develop them?
  • How can we work together to learn more about ourselves as agents of change? (either as facilitators, leaders, managers, field-workers, or just conservationists in general)
  • Wondering if there is a way to educate conservation funders about how to encourage more honest evaluation from the people they give money to, to ensure that we get evidence of what works – and what doesn’t – every time we try a conservation project.

So what happened today to cause this? I worked on my protected areas essay, I had a lecture on evidence-based conservation, I went to ‘Enterprise Tuesday’ and heard about social entrepreneurship, I went to a social psychology class, I had a really good conversation with a classmate, I helped organize an event with my class and I received a compliment by email from a classmate.

A definition of conservation

This description of conservation made me think, and at this point in my life I appreciate its broadness:“choices about the relations between humans and nature, and actions to implement them”
Perhaps a little too broad but on the other hand many people don’t make these choices deliberately or even realize they have a choice.

Wildlife encounter, Redang, Malaysia

“passing on of significance from past to future”
And this matched what I was about to answer to the question What is conservation?  I was trying to formulate words for the idea of ensuring that what’s around us is still around for our children. And nature is significant.

Conservation ethics: one or many

Should there be a single unified conservation ethic?
Does one exist already?

Would it help conservation?

Robinson et al 2010 argue for pluralism, as does Sandbrook et al 2010, though Matt Child 2010 calls for a Thoreauvian ethic. But isn’t there something that unites all those who favor conservation and differentiates them from those who don’t? Something along the lines of regard for nature and reasonable treatment of it. Could something as basic as this recognition, appreciation and commitment to the maintenance of nature be considered a conservation ethic? With the right words and marketing could it help transmit the idea of conservation?

My name is J and my interests are…

Introductions in front of a group almost always leave me frustrated. It feels like I can never quite manage to express my background and my interests in the succinct, intelligible and impressive mini speeches that so many others seem to do. I’ve developed tricks that help, like jotting down a few notes and referring to them while I talk (not always easy). And still, every time my turn is over I remember what it was I had really meant to say. It makes me wonder if I don’t actually know what is important in my background and what it is that interests me.
So for my own sake, I’m going to re-introduce myself…to myself.

”Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about why you chose this course and what you’re interested in.”

Hello, my name is J and I’m here on this masters course because I thought it would offer insights into conservation that were grounded in pragmatism and supplemented by training in the practical tools needed to implement it. The explicit interdisciplinary focus also intrigued me because it is something I want to explore in terms of the trade-offs we make when trying to achieve both ecological and social goals.

I’m broadly interested in conservation and my background is in the assessment side of species conservation but I don’t have specific subject-area expertise. My aims for this year are to:

  • take time to reflect on my values and passions within conservation
  • think and discuss critically the merits of different conservation approaches so I can better understand what works
  • find inspiration and motivation for a new direction in my conservation career, possibly a subject-area focus, but more likely a focus on an approach that can be applied across different ecosystems
  • meet and learn from as many new people as possible
  • explore my own management and leadership values, styles and potential (!)
  • learn how peoples’ values affect their interest in wildlife and nature conservation
  • discuss what are the determining factors in sparking a commitment to conservation and how these can be fostered
  • build my own picture of what characterizes interventions that are sustainable over the long-term
  • examine the different schemes for determining priority areas and how the people and criteria involved in the priority-setting affect the success of conservation of those areas
  • improve my understanding of and ability to pitch/sell a conservation idea convincingly (not only to donors, but to stakeholders in a project)
  • consider the ways that environmental education can be effective
  • gather a wider perspective on the role of MEAs in the big toolbox for conservation and analyse it as a governance tool
  • etc?

Which ethics work best

Having just read Robinson’s paper Ethical pluralism, pragmatism, and sustainability in conservation practice I’m now thinking about some issues raised in the paper:
Three values/ideologies:

  • intrinsic value and holistic approaches, including the argument for existence value which can still be anthropocentric, IUCN Red Listing is given as an example
  • Traditional values and indigenous people
  • Pro-poor conservation – emphasizing the utilitarian value and sustainable livelihoods
  • Economism – relating to the value of BD to our well-being

Conservation approaches:

  • protected areas
  • giving authority to the local level (Social Ecology model – follow up by reading Sarkar and Montoya, same issue)
  • mainstreaming conservation – aiming for greatest economic and social returns (requires some level of valuation), can include sustainable use

Some take-home messages:

  • The relationship between the three ideologies and the three approaches listed is not rigid.
  • The specific context of a conservation project determines the approach to choose, and a plurality of values and approaches can (and should) be embraced.

Some questions:

  • Which conservation approaches have seen the biggest successes?
  • Which approaches appear to have the longest-lasting impacts?
  • What impact does an organization’s statements on values have on perceptions of it? (e.g. IUCN quoted re: sustainable use, values of BD, etc)

Key ideas: integrated conservation and development (ICD), ethics, values, approaches, what works, social/ecological trade-offs,

Follow up reading:

  • Berkes, 2007 – re: role of partnership of local authorities and international NGOs
  • McShane et al 2010 – re: values of stakeholders and trade-offs
  • Wells  and Brandon, 1992, Robinson and Redford, 2004 – re: ICD
  • Holling 1978 – re: adaptive management
  • Robinson, JG 1993 – The limits to caring: sustainable living and the loss of bidoviersity

Is the shop window filled with the wrong images?

Tonight I spoke to a geography professor over an informal dinner for geography students and professors. He said that he is interested in conservation outside of protected areas and away from ‘pristine landscapes’ because by the time we might manage to figure out how to preserve those they’ll be gone. He went on to express the idea that the imagery of wilderness that is often used by those in conservation to advertise itself is for many an unattainable ideal – perhaps it is even an irrelevant one for most. While some are busy conserving their notions (real or imagined) of paradise, others are trashing it, and possibly the great majority of the rest of the world is using nature/biodiversity/natural resources and does not really care about it as an ideal, but as a means to get by.
Can the wilderness ideal pull people in to the conservation movement, train them up to the less glamourous reality of environmental issues, and convert them into useful conservationists? This professor thought not. I am still thinking about it but do see that it is probably an unlikely path for most. What I wonder more, then, is what does motivate people who are in conservation? What personal driving factors give way to the most passionate conservationists? What motivations or incentives lead to successful conservation? Does it matter at all, as long as the goal is to ensure the ongoing survival of biodiversity?

MF Child recently wrote a paper about the Thoreau ideal as a conservation ethic. I feel like a collector of conservation ethics, soaking in their ideals and eventually layering them up in my consciousness. But on a global scale, who has time for these kinds of ethics? I think a great number of stakeholders of nature who need to treat/use it more sustainably don’t have that luxury.

So if saving nature is good for people (because it provides them food or income or some other service) what makes us think that is a good enough reason for them to do it? Smokers know that “Smoking kills.” but do it anyway and face very personal consequences. Reasons for conserving biodiversity vary – I would like to know which ones lead to positive outcomes, for if we know this we’d be one step closer to being able to plant this seed in young (or older) minds.

Cynicism vs. tough questions

glass-of-waterWhere is the line between asking tough questions and being cynical? If I ask whether the outcome of a particular conservation action is likely to work, aren’t I just asking for accountability and trying to ensure that we are carefully considering whether the intervention will work? Or does questioning such things actually reveal an unacceptable level of underlying cynicism?
Where is the line between holding conservation interventions to a high standard of accountability and over the top cynicism and pessimism?

Where is the line between optimism and burying your head in the sand?

And most importantly do the optimists or the slightly cynical realists get more done in terms of conservation success?