Updated: May 3, 2019
January 2019: A study finds microplastics in every marine mammal surveyed. 
February 2019: The only mammal endemic to the Great Barrier Reef, the Bramble Cay melomys, is declared extinct, due to human-caused climate change.
March 2019: Reports start coming in of hedgerow and trees being netting around the UK to prevent birds from nesting. 
April 2019: The only known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle dies, putting the species closer to extinction.
Working in conservation can feel like fighting a losing battle. Are the adversaries too powerful? Are our efforts too little, too late?
The opposing forces we are battling against – profit-focussed business, the oil industry, climate crisis, intensive agriculture – are often faceless, global opponents that don’t want to budge. Working on your small piece of the puzzle (whether that’s managing a reserve, campaigning to change a damaging law, or teaching kids about nature) can feel like trying to stem the incoming tide – oh, and the tide is rising.
On top of that, the financial situation of the conservation industry is far from cushy. Until the value of nature is properly accounted for as natural capital, conservation largely lives off small pots and charitable donations. Much time is taken writing grant applications and trying to raise funds before the restorative action can even get off the ground.
We no longer have the luxury of leaving it to the next generation to sort out. The urgency felt by increasing numbers of the population is growing stronger, and we’re now more aware than ever before of the consequences. The action by Extinction Rebellion is not shying away from the harsh realities of the state of the environment, our impact upon it and the radical change required to prevent ecological disaster. They use strong emotive language to get their messages across – a message of crisis . It’s far from fluffy, but does stem from facts – their website is full of statistics and links to articles so you can fact-check for yourself.
The term eco-anxiety is now creeping into our lexicon to describe the environmental angst, and associated feelings of helplessness and fear. Conservation positivity efforts are certainly needed to prevent eco-anxiety – not just for the wellbeing of those affected, but so that we are able to continue to engage with
these large-scale environmental issues in the face of a terrifying future. Conservation Optimismis a “global community dedicated to sharing optimistic stories about conservation to inspire, educate, entertain and empower”. The organisation acknowledges the need for being realistic and that some negativity is necessary to trigger action – but they also appreciate that “expectation of a positive outcome is a key motivator for people to commit to a cause”. People aren’t going to change the way they commute, donate or vote unless they have hope that it’ll make a difference. No one wants to join a movement that isn’t going anywhere. The consideration of human psychology within conservation is necessary as the stakes get higher. The conservation optimism movement brings a breath of fresh air into a stretched and stressed industry (in which we must include volunteers, activists, campaigners, and nature lovers, as much as paid professionals).
And there are good news stories, of course. The news stories at the start of the article were knowingly cherry-picked. There hugely successful, incredible, inspiring conservation projects, big and small, across the world. And this gives us hope that we can turn the tide.
The output of nature media often focusses on these good news stories as they’re more enticing. Understandably, people like to read about positive news, rather than another story about despair and disaster. This is reflected in the focus of some popular nature documentaries in which conservation perspective is an afterthought, if considered at all. Does this cherry-picking of the good news prevent some people from understanding the truth about the state of the environment, and therefore inhibit their action? Or does it keep us motivated by reminding us of why we are in this?
Like many things in life, balance is probably the answer: we need the negativity to prod us into action and we need the positivity to keep going. Some people are more likely to get involved through civil disobedience and are motivated by impending disaster. But some people need the hopefulness and delight brought by celebrating the successes. In the battle against the ecological crisis, we need everyone on board and utilising both strategies may be the way to achieve this.
By: Emily Seccombe