Inspiring Optimism: Notes from the Conservation Optimism Summit

We can’t all be as happy as this little guy when thinking of the planet, but as Ben Cretois writes, the Conservation Optimism Summit is a good place to start (Image Credit: Sachin Sandhu, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Guest post by Benjamin Cretois

At the beginning of last month, I attended the 2nd edition of the Conservation Optimism Summit. In times where bad news for biodiversity seem to come from everywhere, it was somehow refreshing. We need initiatives such as Conservation Optimism to help us not only keep a positive outlook on conservation in general, but also to open our eyes to new ecological solutions that are being found.

The Conservation Optimism movement was started in 2016 by EJ Milner Gulland, Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford, after several talks given by Nancy Knowlton (one of the founders of the Ocean Optimism movement, see a previous interview with her here). Conservation Optimism defines itself as a global community whose aim is to ‘inspire and empower people around the world to make a positive difference for nature’. ‘To empower’ underlines the need for education while ‘to inspire’ highlights the fact that we need to keep everyone hoping for better. Conservation optimism does both, on the one hand offering free online courses on biodiversity conservation on their webpage (available to everyone at this link), and on the other hand making us realize that we can do something to protect nature. This was the message that the summit aimed to deliver.

The conference lasted for 3 full days and was relatively interactive with its numerous workshops and panels. Most of the talks and workshops centered around ‘conservation success stories’. We heard about the Romeo, the loneliest frogs for which scientists created a tinder profile to raise funding for its conservation (full story at this link), about businesses that rewards citizens for finding solutions to current environmental challenges (https://conservationxlabs.com) or about how photography can be used to engage people interested in conservation. Art was also present, with one evening was also dedicated to a conservation film festival. The spirit of the summit was generally optimistic with passionate people coming up with pragmatic answers to current challenges.

For me, this summit was set apart from others in that it wasn’t targeting scientists. There were of course a few of us, but most of the crowd was composed of NGOs, media and fundraisers. It was a stark (and hopeful) reminder that scientists are not the only ones who care about biodiversity. In fact, going to this summit made me see that most of the effort to save biodiversity or find ways to combine ecology and human development is not done by scientists but by motivated and engaged citizens.

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Legendary conservationist Jane Goodall gave the Welcome Address for the Summit, which you can view at this link (Image Credit: Mark Schierbecker, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The summit also made me understood that communication is fundamental if we want to engage citizens in biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. One of the main messages is that it is extremely counter-productive to hammer people with dramatic and depressing news about biodiversity. This renders everyone fatalist, this giving the feeling that nothing can be done, and even if something is done, it is ultimately useless. Showing the successes, without hiding the failures, is key to communicating efficiently and inspiring action. As we saw during the summit, communication can be done through different many different media. Not everyone is receptive to numbers and curves shown in a scientific paper. There is a need for diversity in communication. Art in particular is an amazing communication channel, as it triggers an emotional response. The short movies shown during the film festivals were engaging examples.

If I’m honest, I still don’t see myself as an ‘optimist’ (I find the word a little naïve), but the summit proved to me that ‘Conservation Optimism’ summits aren’t just dreamers, but committed groups of people who are actively looking for solutions.

Benjamin Cretois is a PhD Candidate at the Norwegian university of Science and Technology, who works on improving co-existence between humans and ‘dangerous’ animals. You can read more about his research here.

You can read more about the importance of Earth Optimism at the following links.

The Case for Environmental Optimism

Nancy Knowlton: The Importance of Earth Optimism

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