Optimism for Science and Conservation

By Ashik Rahaman and Yu Shiu. June 2, 2017
Earth Optimism Summit, Photo by Bobbi J. Estabrook.
With our collective will, we can charter a brighter future.

“We must celebrate successes: species brought back from the brink of extinction, landscapes and seascapes protected or newly restored, and the integration of sustainability into corporate boardroom decisions. Even when these success stories are shared, we often undermine them with caveats and bury the story of how they were accomplished. Yet talking about these successes is how we will learn to expand them.”

– Nancy Knowlton, Smithsonian Institution, Earth Optimism Summit.

With the emerging knowledge of long-term trends in natural systems from all around the world, “optimism” is not a word that is often echoed in the discussions over ecological and conservation sciences. However dire the situation might be, a singular focus on doom and gloom will not solve the impending problems that threaten our natural world.

Public engagement – a key to science communication.

Using science to inform and inspire people, governments, and industries to change their behavior can create a pathway to realize positive conservation outcomes. Rethinking science as a collaborative platform, where a diverse range of ideas can come together and encourage action, is the way of the future.

Last April, the Earth Optimism Summit brought together inspirational success stories from all around the world. Paraphrasing Jane Lubchenco, former NOAA secretary, there are success stories that are taking place in many parts of the world; the challenge is how we bring these ideas and efforts to scale. Sharing ideas, building partnership, and harnessing innovations are some of the ways we can address this challenge.

One common theme that permeated throughout Summit was the urgency for action at all levels. The Summit highlighted how we can focus our actions towards making a difference as individuals and as a part of the collective. Below are some of the inspiring common themes that I observed at the Summit:

Yu Shiu talking science!

INNOVATION: Innovation in science, technology, and conservation is happening at a very rapid pace and adaptation of such innovations to support conservation is happening at a much faster rate than ever before. The Summit hosted a session on apps for the planet that highlighted several case studies of how new technology is contributing to positive outcome in science and conservation. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program was a featured part of this discussion. Similarly, technology development in citizen science and public engagement highlighted a hopeful vision for the future of conservation science. Green energy development is also evolving very rapidly. India, the second most populated country in the world, is investing in solar energy to power approximately 60 million homes. This plan will reduce India’s carbon emission by 35% within next two decades.

PARTNERSHIP: Partnerships between public and private entities are a key ingredient to create successful conservation outcomes. Such partnerships help keep the balance between positive conservation outcome and the economic vitality of a community. Economic opportunity is central to the community stewardship of natural resources where ecological stakes are high. Sustainability is unattainable without the economic stability of the people who interact with nature for their own livelihood. Discussions of green farming and blue fishing highlighted positive partnerships between many commercial and conservation entities working together to bring about positive changes. The story presented by Sarah Redmond, a seaweed farmer, is a great example of a successful partnership that has created a winning formula by integrating conservation and commercial interests.

Our research is important. Time to spread the word.

COLLABORATION: It is going to take all of us to find solutions to the conservation challenges of our time. The first step to building meaningful partnerships is to remove the human-made boundaries that exist today between nations and individuals. The Summit showcased collaborations between diverse entities including farmers and ornithologists, artists and engineers, fishermen and researchers, and businesses and activists. A shared common goal – thriving ecosystems and global biodiversity – can provide common ground for people with differing viewpoints. The example shared about how collaborations between farmers and landowners are creating sustainable change by protecting grasslands biodiversity is not only inspirational, but also road maps for broad scale replications.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP: Funding for scientific conservation is becoming more challenging. This can be addressed with a dynamic entrepreneurial spirit that is unleashed throughout the world. Communities are finding innovative ways to protect their environment and boost local economic growth. Entrepreneurial incentives can also break down the political and philosophical difference among stakeholder groups. The pragmatism of entrepreneurial development can be good for the financial bottom line, and when done properly, it can also be good for the planet. The entrepreneurial model around Bird Friendly Coffee is one example of how commercial interests can co-exist with sustainable conservation practices.

Science with a smile!

ENGAGEMENT: “So what?” – A question that we ask ourselves as researchers all the time. While this all-important question is introspective, it should not be paralyzing. If we view ourselves, the scientific community, as a catalyst for bringing objective reasoning to light; then we must also admit that the final conclusions are not ours to make. Communities, people, and the organisms that we study make science and conservation possible – they are the ultimate stakeholders deciding how to address the “so what” question. The Earth Optimism Summit encouraged us to engage all citizens and inform them about our work. It will require us to come out of our comfort zone of academia and work with a diverse population without judgement or bias. We must meet them where they are. It is our responsibility to clarify the work that we do, make them part of that work, and we can all learn from each other.

The Earth Optimism Summit was an important platform to showcase BRP’s work and mission. It was exciting to see how many people were interested in what we do. Over the course of three days, we talked to several hundred people ranging from enthusiastic schoolchildren to the former president of Iceland. One theme echoed loud and clear, what we do is important and people want to know more about it. We believe that the best way to amplify our story is to do our work with the utmost sincerity, objectivity, and enthusiasm. This way we all contribute to the collective.

The Summit encouraged us to be  “doers” – doers for BRP, for the natural world, and for the future. Will you join us?

Watch videos from the summit