Conservation:  the Good the Bad and the Ugly

Conservation problems are an everyday concern for many people and organizations. The concerns about environmental degradation are growing in a daily basis and so are the efforts to defend nature and the environment. Unfortunately, the general trend is, in my opinion, somewhat misguided. Scientists often do lots of effort trying to learn from nature and we are obtaining increasingly more knowledge about the environmental problems. However, due to the huge gap between scientists and the general people, those researches often are lost in the pages of a scientific journal that few people read or in a drawer of governmental building not producing the results we expected.   This is partially why I think that true conservation requires that the scientist get involve in intricacies of policies and politics

Conservation problems are many and diverse but they all have one thing in common: they always have human origins. Nature, plants, animals and ecosystems in general were doing great without us. The bottom line is that whatever the conservation problem is, nature is not the problem, people are. However, most conservation researches are oriented to manage nature. Wildlife management, forest management, conservation of fisheries, and so on, always deal primarily with managing the natural part of the system, the part that did not have a problem!!

When one on has a problem one can go to the root of it and eliminate the cause or one can do half-as solutions and ameliorate the problem without ever solving it. Imagine somebody that suffers of chronic headaches. There is probably a very good reason for the headaches, they might be do to stress-related back tension, sinus problems, dental issues such as grinding and clenching, lateral rotation of some cervical vertebrates, as well as many other reasons not excluding a brain tumor. One can try to seek the solution of the problem and try to solve it or one can have a painkiller. This painkiller will not solve the problem but will let us get by. On time, the painkiller will not be enough to take care of the problem and we will have to take higher douses of painkiller or use a more powerful drug that can numb the pain. In the mean time the problem can only be getting worse. If it is a dental problem it will not improve, stress related pain will also get worse since the pain on itself becomes a reason for stress, and, of course, if it a brain tumor this delay in seeking a solution can mean a big difference.

This is what I perceive as the problems of our Tylenol approach to conservation. While we have spent lots of efforts and resources in sophisticated research related to management of habitats and nature, we have given very little attention to the original cause of the problem.

I am not objecting that we should learn about nature, genetic flow, habitats as well as resource management. What I am trying to say is that, just like with Tylenol, we should not expect to solve the problem by managing nature if we do not also do substantial effort managing people.

Unfortunately, managing people is not what we (biologists) were trained to do and most scientist are reluctant in getting involved in this kind of activities and often chose to stop short of doing what needs to be done. Now, what do managing people involves? There are three basic ways to manage people. One of them is religion, another one is education, and the last one is politics. Religion is well known to be a powerful tool to manage people and modify behavior of masses.

Throughout history, religion has proven to produce great result managing people; often times with unfortunate consequences however. That is why I am reluctant to recommend that religion be used as a conservation tool. I feel that it is similar to the Ring of great power of The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s story It has so much power that no body dared to wield it, even the best meaning, and best prepared character, Gandalf, did not dare to wield the power of the ring because he himself could be lured by its power away from his original goals. This is the way I feel about including religion as a tool for conservation, it has way too much power and a fear it what it might lead to.


The other tool for managing people that most scientists feel comfortable is education. Most scientists either by choosing or obligation are involved in teaching in academic institutions however that is not really producing the result it should. At the university level academicians might teach graduate students or undergraduate students.   At the graduate level, the universities, even conservation programs, do not select students based on their potential to do effective conservation but based on their potential to do basic research, just like the people that do the selection, without really looking at what the real needs for conservation are (Click here for a discussion about it). 
There is still much to learn in that field.

At the undergraduate level, I also feel that academicians are missing the main target for education. College students are pretty much people that already believe in the conservation causes, a bit like preaching to the converted. The real need of education is toward masses of people that are not aware of conservation problems and needs. Some universities and colleges require that all students take some conservation or environmentally related class in order to teach all the students the basic for conservation. While this is better than nothing it falls to address the real problems. However, college students have already developed their personalities and their priorities on life and are very much established.

On top of this they have the left over of a stubborn adolescence plus the demands of the newly found adulthood (finding jobs, spouses, etc) that occupies their mind and takes priority on their lives. I am not saying that we should not teach them about conservation in college but the efforts that we do in education are a lot better invested if we target the early ages, grade school children that are avid to learn about life and their personalities are developing. I contend that we must address the early ages when we can try to instill love for nature.

Conservation needs some sacrifices and people will not do them if they do not love nature. Teaching kids to love nature is the only way we can really address the global conservation crisis (click here for more about this).

Unfortunately, although some academics may agree with this, teaching children does not give tenure to university professors and they do not see themselves bound to do this activity. They believe that this is the job of grade school teachers. Poorly prepared, worse paid, and overworked grade school teachers that is. I believe that academician should work in coordination grade school teachers and organize the work of their graduate students in that direction.

Policy vs Politics

 The last tool to manage people is politics. Most academicians are willing to get involved in conservation policies but they will run for their lives if you mention the word politics. In many places we have done superb conservation research and recommended great policies for conservation that never got implemented. In many case, it is like Whitten and Mackinnon pointed out (2001, Conservation Biology.15:1-3) a bit of displacement behavior, we feel we are doing something good by coming up with the way to preserve biodiversity but it is not really producing any results.

Basically because our findings do not produce definitive actions that lead to conservation measures being taken. I really believe that we need to go the extra mile if we want conservation to be effective. We cannot hope that somebody will pick our policies and technical suggestions and make them into actions. The people that has the knowledge on conservation does not have the interest in politics and the people that are politically savvy does not know or care about conservation. Who is going to do it? I contend that it is us, by virtue of having the knowledge, that are called for to bring conservation to the political arena.

The 2000 presidential election in the US was a glaring example of this problem in which the whole academic crowd fails shamefully in guiding environmentally oriented voters to vote for the environment (click here for a discussion).

This addresses the difference between policies and politics. It us understandable that scientist are reluctant to get involved in politics not only because of all the bad reputation that politicians have but also it is not something that we are trained to do and most of us do not know anything about politics. However, What good is it that we figure out how to save biodiversity if we do not get the elected officials to implement our suggestion? Can we really protect nature without having political back up to our policies? The current trends and experiences show that we cannot.

There is something very important missing worldwide and I believe that it is it. In totalitarian systems it is all too easy to get conservation policies in place once you convince the power holder but in democratic systems that is not the case. If we believe in democracies, how can we expect conservation to have some results without using democracy’s greatest tools (click here for a discussion)?

I know what you are thinking: "we do not want to get into politics because politicians are lying scum bags that only care about votes". I will not argue against it. But this is the good news: politicians do care about votes!! Why is this important? If there is a political force asking them to take green policies and implement environmentally sound policies they will do it. We will not get conservation policies in place until we get the politics to turn towards conservation. In other words we need to work to produce a tide o environmentally oriented voters in order to make it happen. We do not have to side with one party or the other, but we have got to stand by our cause. To use politics as a tool for conservation is, therefore, a demand of our job description and we need to do it if we want to move forward in this struggle. Most of us do not want to learn something new that we not necessarily like and when we are never going to be good at, but it will mean the world of a difference if we do it or not.

We can publish in scientific journals were very few people will read them and nobody would implement our policies or we can go the extra mile and advocate for them in a more political arena. I am not saying that we should get so much into politics that we should run for office, just like I will not be signing up to any contest of English poetry any time soon. However, by going the extra mile we can make our contribution more effective taking the stands, political as some may be, that the situations call for. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important necessities in conservation in the present world.