Over the summer, Defenders featured three blogs by guest author Taylor Parker discussing some ideas surrounding the big picture of conservation: biodiversity, optimism, social justice, intentional change, resource use and more.
A PhD candidate at Clemson University, Taylor has been working with Defenders’ Southeast Program Director, Ben Prater, on conservation projects in the Southeast. With these thought-provoking articles from Taylor, I thought we would coax out even more intriguing ideas by having a conversation about conservation across the globe and how these broad philosophies play into the work that Defenders does to conserve species. I also had Taylor and Ben answer a few questions from readers of the three original blogs and welcome you to add more questions in the comments!
Check out all three thought pieces if you haven’t read them yet:
- Megan Joyce, Digital Content Associate for Defenders of Wildlife
Megan: These are quite thought-provoking blogs about the intersection of some broad issues. What in your conservation career led to this project and these thought pieces?
Taylor: I was always species-focused and I was always land focused. But in a lot of that work, I realized that there were so many aspects of conservation that run up against the very firm barrier, the very firm wall of humans. And trying to understand why that is -is that just a communications thing, is that just a convincing thing, is that a negotiation thing- what is that human-nature interaction and relationship? And so I decided to go back to school and try to understand that a little bit better. And that's what led me here. And hopefully I've made some progress in that realm.
Ben: You know, as you embark on a career in the environment or normal science or ecology you quickly learn that humans are equally the problem and the most likely solution. And so it definitely bears repeating that you've got to break down those barriers and reach into those sociology and psychology types of arenas to communicate effectively and bring people around to see the world in new ways and deepen their appreciation for it. So, kudos to you for helping to march down that path to define real workable solutions.
Taylor: Pretty much on day one of my program here, my advisor summed up conservation work by saying “as conservationists, one of our jobs, one of our important jobs is to tell people what to do, tell people how to interact with nature…and the absolute last thing people want to hear is being told what to do. So, it’s our job to figure that out.” We have to try to understand what that means - if it’s developing good laws and regulations, communicating to people's needs or just listening to people and hearing what people have to say about their relationships with nature. And I think for me, that summarizes a lot of the human-nature relationship.
Ben: That gets me thinking about a similar sort of theory that I’ve encountered. It’s not my original idea, but the concept was essentially, to get change to happen, there's really three paths. The first is you force people to do it. Then there's the showing people how to do it or doing it for them, rather, which I think is where a lot of conservation work happens. And then the final one is the approach that I'm a huge fan of, and a little bit of a newer way of doing things. That's doing things with communities, with people and I think that speaks to what you talked about with listening. Meeting people where they are sharing the journey together.
Taylor: Now, I like that. I like that separation between forcing, showing, and doing with - that's a really helpful way to understand it. You don't really realize how these kinds of actions exhibit themselves until times of crisis or until our backs are against the wall and we have to make these decisions and it really does come together.
These big issues we’re dealing with, climate change, the COVID pandemic, biodiversity loss, they’re over large timescales and large geographical scales. They’re abstract and difficult and then pieces of evidence kind of build up slowly. You see an ice shelf melting or a glacier retreat or a species goes extinct. But there’s still some doubt in people’s minds. With biodiversity loss or a virus spread like this, organizations like Defenders of Wildlife have been raising the alarm for a very long time saying, “biodiversity loss affects us as humans.” You guys have done a great job for a very long time of listing out all the different reasons of why biodiversity loss affects us. And now we're experiencing that - it's affected everybody, and people are saying “okay, with this loss of resiliency and a habitat, this loss of buffer system and habitat, we begin to lose our ability to absorb these kinds of changes.” We’re dealing with the consequences of that loss now.
Ben: One of the things about these current crises – the connection between climate change and COVID - is they're affecting people, day in and day out. But for a lot of people they’re easy to ignore until it’s literally in your home or on your front doorstep. One thing I struggle with, particularly as someone who is a scientist and has spent a career trying to work to translate science, is the current rejection of science.
Taylor: Science is saying “this is our best hypothesis” and we need to keep that in mind in messaging. This is our best hypothesis, because this is the best information that we have and this is the best way that we can go forward with this, but it is fallible and we need to, for the sake of creating good knowledge, challenge that hypothesis. But it doesn't mean that we shouldn't go forward with the best knowledge possible or that science should be ignored.
Ben: Looking at the unique failure, at least in the U.S., related to COVID, it got me thinking about some of our failures and how we address environmental issues and how individualism is really embraced in our culture here. Because I've often thought, if you put greed aside, put profit motive aside, what drives us as human beings to follow the golden rule, is ensuring that we're looking after one another. It's troubling to have a situation like COVID that puts our lack of respect and empathy for our own species on full display and it makes it hard for me, as someone who's working to help develop empathy for different species, to have hope. How are we going to come to respect our feathered and scaled and slimy neighbors?
Taylor: Right, it's very hard to have empathy for a thing that you see is not you and I think that is one of the big challenges of our contemporaneous society - seven and a half billion people on the planet. How do you have empathy for other people, let alone all the other species, let alone all the things that we don't identify as individuals, be they mountains or rivers or air?
Ben: But this this idea of empathy, it's fascinating. I remember one of our previous conversations you had mentioned when it comes to Defenders, it's pretty obvious that a lot of the work we do does focus on those species that are more charismatic. Those species we literally can make eye contact with. And I find that fascinating because in some ways it does tap into that, that empathetic self - that recognition of an “other”. When we talk about wolves with kids and others, we talk about how they're like us. They have families, they care for their young, they look out for each other. So that gets me thinking, is empathy just a gateway to biodiversity conservation?
Taylor: Somebody that has the role and the responsibility that you have as director of the Southeast program for Defenders of Wildlife, these are daily concerns I’m sure. You're seeing these challenges and trying to grapple with the idea of how do we do this, how do we how do we make the Everglades important to people? How do we make manatees important to people? For me in grad school, it's been a qualitatively different experience because it's the flip side of the coin. My job is to create new knowledge.
Megan: A common theme throughout all of the pieces, Taylor, that you wrote is optimism and hope. So, a couple of the questions that we've gotten are just how do you reconcile the work of conservation organizations which are often reactive to holding the line or making sure that this destruction doesn't happen with this design of where we want to go and being hopeful. Can we really be optimistic?
Taylor: I love what I do. I love being a conservationist. I feel like everybody that claims to be a conservationist or are personally interested or even just an environmentally-minded person, they deal with the lowest of lows and they deal with the some of the most depressing stuff possible. Just looking at the headlines this week, the Mauritian oil spill is devastating, let alone anytime a species goes extinct. But one of the coolest parts about my job is I get to see some of the highest highs. At Greenville Zoo, they just had two Amur leopard cubs. One of the most endangered species on the planet with only about 100 left in the world and they just added two more to the population. What is also mind boggling, is every day at least one species is found, new to science. Literally new animals - new monkeys, new chameleons, new charismatic megafauna - are discovered every single day.
Ben: I think there's a certain grit and determination. I think that comes with the territory of being a conservationist. I certainly see it and admire and respect it in not only my colleagues, but all those that I've learned from and continue to learn with. One of the benefits of being affiliated with Defenders of Wildlife is I'm now part of a 70 plus year legacy of conservation success and the fact that I get to hopefully make my mark and add a few pages to that tome of success is an experience that I highly value. I get to work with dedicated people who give me optimism. You have to be naturally resistant to pessimism, because it's so easy to get caught up and swept away by the negativity. You brought up extinction - I can't imagine a more devastating cosmic blow to the fabric of our own reality than to actually lose a fundamental piece of it like a species.
When I'm feeling most down, when I'm finding myself caught in that drift of constant negativity or bad news, it may sound trite, but I do take a walk into the woods. I think anyone who's a student of nature can look at it and just marvel at all the pieces and parts and mechanisms that work together and just incredible ways to produce this vibrant, bountiful planet we call home. We're just so lucky to be on this Spaceship Earth, as you called it in your blogs.
Taylor: I got to interview somebody last week who is working to restore a frog species in California, and she said something off-hand and it stuck with me so heavily. She said, “everyone I know is trying to save the world.” It's one of my favorite parts about this job - every single day I get to talk to people that, for whatever reason, have decided to care about something that is beyond them.
Ben: One of the things we really are focused on is how do we make our movement, the conservation movement, more inclusive, more diverse, more equitable, how do we bring more people into the fold, who may not look like us, think like us, have had the same experiences as us. And that's really challenging. You're working on it and even your last piece spoke to it. How do we embrace our checkered past and move ahead? What do you think is going to get everybody on board, for us in a more inclusive world, to embrace conservation?
Taylor: We need to listen more. We need to have those dialogues more. But I think a really important part is the differences between equity, equality and justice. Equity and equality are the different components of giving resources or sharing resources and listening and having those dialogues, and the idea of justice is removing barriers. It's that idea of justice - removing barriers and not speaking for or just not listening and then interpreting. It's those barriers, the explicit and the implicit barriers to empowering and encouraging agency from those underserved or marginalized populations, whatever they are.
Where I have seen that most clearly is in my good friend and colleague Cris Sarabia, a Latino or Chicano –I don’t know how he would self-identify- who is the current president of the California Native Plant Society. He's told me that the nature that he grew up with was the LA River. I don't know if you guys know about the LA River, but it’s a concrete channel. Cris has all the skills and abilities and intelligence and academic degrees and he has that tenacity and that ambition too. But because the organization decided to take away that barrier and raise him to that leadership role, they are now making decisions as an organization that are empowering Latinx and LGBTQ folks. They are enhancing Black Lives Matters voices, because they took that boundary away as a group and they encouraged him. He is now in a position to make decisions for a statewide organization and it's paying dividends now.
Ben: We’re working to develop a curriculum that teachers can use now in this remote learning environment that uses our endangered species as a platform to do biology, ecology, other types of lessons. We were discussing how can we make sure that we're being cognizant and promoting diversity, inclusion and equity, not just in the curriculum but in terms of its accessibility too. And having it make an impact, particularly on young people who we know we want to motivate to be a part of this movement. And one of the educators on the phone said, “I’ll never forget. I was in a classroom and the majority of the students were Black and I asked ‘how many of you want to be a scientist or be in conservation when you grow up?’” And almost no one raised their hand and he was taken aback by that and he picked a young girl and asked why and she said “well, I mean, you don’t look like me. I don’t see myself doing that kind of work.” It was an “aha” moment for him. When I grew up, I saw me - the folks we held up as heroes and inspirations, they looked like me. That’s not the case for the growing majority of Americans these days. And so, I think I took that to heart and we're going to work to make sure that we have people as a part of this curriculum in this educational capacity, who are representative and help to give people for students to identify with.
Megan: One last question - is all of this is about making connections? Between different ideas, but also connections between people and having conversations. Ben and Taylor, you’re both in different worlds at the moment, but how do you work together on these issues? How do you take these big, broad topics and make those connections so that Defenders can apply them to the specific on the ground work that we're doing? Or, take it the other way and how can Taylor apply some of the stuff that we're doing on the ground to the broad thinking? How do those connections all play out?
Ben: I'll jump in here first. I think for me, just thinking about how this came together between Taylor and I, it’s the idea of relationship building. For any movement, you want to gain mass and inertia and that takes strong and different relationships. I don't only reach out to other conservation biologists, I reach out to lawyers, I reach out to policy experts, to politicians, to the other types of decision makers, agency personnel. Part of my job is seeking to grow the movement and doing so by forming bonds with other people. And similarly, there are things that Taylor has liberty to pursue in his academic career that I don't have time for so I depend on people like Taylor to help bring that new knowledge to me. One of my favorite things is working with our interns every summer, mainly because I'm hungry to learn from them. I'm hungry to know what the latest tools and models and approaches and debates are, because it keeps things fresh, it keeps things relevant and growing. So, I'm always glad to have new friendships in conservation and very pleased to have Taylor in that category.
Taylor: It's actually funny that you asked that question because a big part of my research is understanding what that looks like. You have to speak in the language that is relevant, the currency that is relevant, to the person that you're talking to. When I was building wetlands in Southern California, it was around the time of the Deepwater Horizon spill. I found myself in a position where I had to work with oil industry execs and that wasn’t something this environmentalist wanted to do. So, I had to have these conversations and I started to realize these aren't these mythical orcs, these terrible evil enemies of mine, they're not villains. They are, for whatever reason, humans that are trying to make ends meet and they're trying to make a life within their value structure. I learned if I can relate to them and learn about them on a very human level, I can have those conversations. And the other thing that was very surprising to me, because I had all my preconceived notions, was that they hated all those treehuggers. But I found that they actually didn't and they were extraordinarily reasonable people…
Ben: How dare them.
Taylor: Yeah, exactly. And we could come up to these non-zero-sum solutions together and they were very willing to have those conversations. In my academic work I have to work with foresters, and I have to work with people that cut trees for a living. Just being upfront and honest saying, “hey, we're just humans working on this, we might have different opinions, but I think that we can come up with some sort of understanding” was important to starting the conversation.
Ben: Yes, that's awesome. One of the things I learned early on my career is in conservation we’re really good at pitting people against each other. But I learned, kind of the same way you did, we're all just human beings and we have to move past this attacking the person versus focusing on the idea. Working on the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest Plan, a 10-year slog, it came down to understanding values and then building a collaboration. When I first started that process, if you had told me that one of my closest allies helping to bring this whole thing in for a landing was going to be a representative of the largest timber and fiber sourcing manufacturer in the region, I would have laughed at you. But the fact is that myself and a representative from that very industry ended up helping to chart a progressive path forward that brought all these disparate ideas along, mainly because we were able to find common ground, we were able to respect each other as people and break down those barriers. So that's a critical piece for conservation success as well.
I know that we could continue this back and forth for hours, and honestly, Taylor, I'm hoping that we do it again. You really energized the conversation and sharing these ideas with our team and with our members and supporters is very valuable. And like I said, I know we'll do it again. So, with that, I'll just say thank you!
Taylor: Yeah right back to you, man. This has been really wonderful - not just this conversation, but the ability to play through different ideas and those articles has been really wonderful.