Radical thinking, Collaboration and Optimism: Hope for a Sustainable Earth

Written by Charles Emogor  @cemogor

Biodiversity conservation is not just a career or a discipline – it is passion, it is an attitude, and to an extent, philanthropism. Ever wondered how conservationists manage to find happiness while stuck in a large but critical sphere with a relatively low incentive, a large scale of problems to tackle and lots of discouraging stories in publications and the media? For me, happiness stems from the motivation and concerted effort of the small percentage of people who have dedicated their lives to Earth stability. However, for our actions to match up to the extent of contemporary biodiversity crises, we need more than motivation. We need a change of traction, we need to embrace radical thinking, assume a hub role and express optimism.

The Einstein Challenge

The 1921 Nobel Prize winner for Physics was no doubt a genius. Perhaps because the inferior parietal lobe of Albert Einstein’s brain was 15 percent wider than in people with normal intelligence, or simply because he understood that science is not a status quo but an evolution.  

Science is dynamic. It is all about data, facts and guidelines. It commands a change of position from norm, opinion and even religion as soon as the numbers support it. Knowledge modification and evolution have been constant since the development of the field but, unfortunately, biodiversity conservationists have long been basking in the Shangri la of science.

The issue of baseline data in relation to species invasion, the Anthropocene and rewilding, which is the subject of much debate in Europe, is one of such concerns. And to many, fostering hybridisation of species and the use of analogue species to shape ecosystems and geo-engineer landscape change, as in Siberia’s Pleistocene Park, is utter madness!

Playing it safe may seem like the best strategy, but there are greater payoffs associated with radical thinking. Radical thinking has positioned Tesla (founded in 2013) as the future of the automobile industry, which has forced other decade-old companies, including Volvo, Ford and Mercedes to embrace electrification. The 2016 Indianapolis Prize winner, Carl Jones, thought outside the normative box of conservation when spearheading the introduction of the Aldabra tortoise in the Galapagos which today has revamped the island and is a success story.

Perhaps the spread of ash dieback in Wytham Woods can be curbed by cutting down a section of the ash trees. Moreover, taxing the public for biodiversity services could provide more money for the conservation of the public good and E. O. Wilson’s half-Earth proposition said to be barbaric and a product of some kind of unnatural high could be the big break we need.

A gene-pool for a trinket?

Conservation goes beyond saving species from extinction; it involves working with people, technology, politics and business. It involves raising awareness, both interdisciplinary and translational research and a mix-and-mingle attitude. But for years, conservationists have been oblivious to other disciplines and worse, the public.

Natural capital and biodiversity valuation have been successful in making Economics an integral part of conservation. This does not merely exemplify the concept of critical thinking but is a contemporary example of the active involvement of a different discipline in conserving biodiversity. The long-term survival of our planet should be the goal of everyone, irrespective of discipline. Environmentalists are, however, privileged to play a central role in coordinating the involvement of all technologies, sectors and geographies.

The scale of problems we try to solve(and are solving) is a chief feature of Conservation as a charity, with the glory we get for saving species as the only incentive. There is thus atemptation to win the battle in isolation, but it is worth remembering that agene pool is worth more than a trinket.   

A grin for your struggles

Headlines about the endangerment of species/habitat loss and the consequential future catastrophe have taken over the media so much that we forget there are stories of conservation success. There is less traction on such heart-warming stories as micro-fragmenting, a breakthrough discovery which could save corals. We have succeeded in highlighting that conservation is all doom and gloom and this has ingrained despair in the minds of the public.

Teaching conservation optimism as a university module and promoting the concept in the media, has the potential to give the discipline a positive outlook. 

Critical thinking, collaboration and optimism are not 21-century concepts.  Natural science has its roots in them. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution may not have been published if Alfred Wallace (whose tomb I have been fortunate to visit) did not step into the picture. All Wallace needed was a little fever that triggered some critical thought on the concept of natural selection, and Darwin, on the other side of the globe, required the validation of his ideas and a collaboration.

Optimism is not lacking in this episode. It was alleged that Darwin took full credit for the theory after it was published in the Journal of Proceedings of the Linnaean Society – he constantly referred to it as ‘my theory’, and was the lead author in the publication.

Wallace, however, cared less. He held an entirely positive outlook. His prerogative was the bigger picture: sharing knowledge in order to understand and save the natural world, which he loved. This should be a legacy for us.

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