Why we need optimism in conservation

27th January 2020

When someone describes me as an optimistic person, I never know whether to take that as a compliment or a patronising judgement. As always, it comes down to how the term optimistic is defined. In the podcast ‘Outrage and Optimism’ they categorised optimism into two broad meanings – one which is associated with naïve, unrealistic thinking, coined in phrases such as ‘blind optimism’; or two, which is associated with a drive for action and change that does not exclude harsh realities.

In conservation I have heard optimism being shunned into the first category – where to be optimistic is taken as being unrealistic, ignoring any difficulties. I hear a lot of people declare that they are not optimistic, calling conservation a “crisis discipline”, and get the sense of someone kindly pitying me when I say that I am. A case in point was when I was given a book called “The little book of Bad Moods” as a secret Santa gift with the message inside saying “An antidote to conservation optimism. Enjoy!”.

When we look at the state of the world around us and the injustices happening in all beings, I understand that it is hard to imagine how to make things better (whatever that may be) in the face of the challenges – political to individual will to name but a few – around us. However I do not see people giving up. Quite the opposite. The launch of the global Earthshot prize, school youth strikes, communities linking together around the world are but a few examples of what Jane Goodall calls our “determined spirit” driving for, and enacting, change. And 2020 has been marked as the year to take this change even further.

To me, that is optimism – creating change in the face of adversity. I would argue that anyone who is enacting change, be it in their personal life to the work that they do, is an optimist with the underlying belief that they can make a positive impact somewhere, however big or small. In the words of Roy Bennet, instead of worrying about what one cannot control, people are shifting their energy into what they can create. I see this day to day with the people I work with in conservation and am constantly inspired to do more, despite some saying that they are cynical about the world.

So why do we need optimism in conservation? I believe that without optimism conservation would not exist. As David Attenborough said “The only way to operate is to believe we can do something about it, and I truly believe we can”. Regardless of the mountains to climb, people are still believing in, and driving for, change. So next time when I say that I am optimistic about conservation I will hold my head high and smile, knowing that despite any patronising looks, that person is most likely an optimist too.

Fleur Nash

Fleur is a PhD researcher in conservation, based in the University of Cambridge and Kenya, who loves hiking, yoga and wild swimming. Her PhD explores how INGOs work within local political economies with a research focus in Laikipia, Kenya.

She is an experienced consultant and researcher with a demonstrated history of working in conservation, development and aid, gender equality, health, energy, and, social care within Europe, Africa and Asia.