The global decline in biodiversity paints a bleak picture for conservation. The recent assessment by the Inter-governmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that natural ecosystems have been reduced by about half their area and one million species are now at risk of extinction, all as a result of human actions.
As nature erodes, pressures escalate, and the responses of governments and society to the biodiversity crisis remain inadequate, it can be easy to lose hope for conservation.
However, a rapidly growing global community, #ConservationOptimism, is providing a refreshing counter narrative to the doom and gloom. As the Conservation Optimism website states:
“… if you zoom in from the big picture, a mosaic appears; in amongst the stories of loss there are inspiring stories of regeneration and positive change, with nature making a difference in people’s lives, and people valuing and nurturing their natural environment.”
In early September, over 230 Conservation Optimists gathered at the University of Oxford in England. This was the second summit of its kind, aiming to promote positive stories, share lessons learned, and inspire change. Conservation Optimism’s vision is to build a world in which nature and people can coexist.
The varied and interactive event was far from a typical conservation conference. The refreshingly inter-disciplinary agenda included storytelling, film screenings, panels, workshops, speed talks, a ‘not a poster’ session, and even games and wildlife tours.
The varied agenda was matched by an equally diverse audience. More than 30 countries were represented, and conservationists were joined by psychologists, artists, photographers, filmmakers and tech industrialists. The panels were also notably diverse, with international voices, female leaders, and speakers of all ages, from 15 to 50.
Several staff from the Wildlife Conservation Society attended the summit to share their own stories of optimism.
Senior Conservation Ecologist Eric Sanderson and Senior Vice President Joe Walston conducted a workshop on “Bottlenecks to Breakthrough,” their recent study on how, within 100 years Earth, could be inhabited by between six and eight billion people, with very few remaining in extreme poverty. Such a world would likely provide the necessary conditions for a renaissance of nature, assuming we can conserve existing strongholds in the meantime (i.e. within the current bottleneck). The interactive workshop provided space for participants to explore demographic data, and develop their own optimistic bottleneck-to-breakthrough narratives for the countries where they live and work.
With support from EJ Milner-Gulland’s Pew Marine Fellow grant, I (the WCS Sharks and Rays Advisor for the SE Asia Archipelago, and a current PhD student at the University of Oxford) and Benaya Simeon (Shark Officer for WCS Indonesia) co-led a workshop on “Innovative Approaches for Saving Marine Megafauna in an Ocean Dependent World.” The workshop was female-led, bringing in diverse voices from the frontlines of marine conservation in India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Participants explored creative solutions for reducing by-catch of marine megafauna in small-scale fisheries, and were encouraged to think creatively and inter-disciplinarily about novel approaches. Stories of successful engagement with fisher communities and expansion of markets for sustainable seafood through ecolabels like the Marine Stewardship Council provide reasons for optimism.
Other sessions covered a range of novel and inspiring topics. A Failure Opportunity workshop explored how to communicate and learn from failure (which I co-organized with PhD student Allison Catalano). Molly Grace discussed the IUCN Green List of Species: a high-profile assessment of conservation successes. Hacking Conservation and Development by Alex Dehgan explored how ConservationXLabs is driving tech innovation for conservation. While a heart-warming plenary by Robin Moore, featuring the surprising love story of Romeo the Frog, told of the power of photography, trojan horses, and “not taking yourself too seriously.”
The closing panel discussion brought Future Voices together from around the world to explore the past, present and future of Conservation Optimism. When asked for what career advice they would give to young people who want to make a difference in conservation, Caleb Ofori-Boateng (the first person in Ghana to complete a PhD on frogs) stated the importance of diverse skill sets, and the need for environmentally-minded business leaders and politicians.
“Do what you can and be very good at it… If I have a child I hope that they share my passion for nature, but can go on to become the President of Ghana.”
With that optimistic vision for the future, the summit attendees were urged by the Conservation Optimism founder, EJ Milner-Gulland, to “reach out beyond the conservation community so that everybody has a stake in our common future… no one should feel powerless to act.”