Image 3 Anna and Nessie

GEN at the Conservation Optimism Summit: A New Generation of Environmental Leaders

Christina Ashford, Global Diversity Foundation UK Programme Manager

Although most of our Global Environments Network members are very concerned about the state of the planet, many might also agree that globalised pessimism is hardly a solution. The news is dominated by stories of irreversible climate change, rising sea levels, mass species extinction, deforestation, polluted cities – the list goes on. Yet, whilst the human impact on the environment, and the challenge facing conservationists cannot be underestimated, it is unlikely that relentless doom and gloom will inspire the change or social action required to transform our world.

This is why on 20 – 22 April 2017, the University of Oxford and Zoological Society of London (ZSL) held the Conservation Optimism Summit: to shine a light on stories of conservation success and to highlight that there is a need, as well as a cause, for optimism. As Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity in Oxford’s Department of Zoology, Director of Oxford’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS), and one of the figures spearheading the event, explains:

“There’s lots of bad news out there, and it can give the impression that the field is full of despair. But it’s not like that, and what we need to do is change that mindset so that we can continue to attract talented young people into conservation, as well as inspiring the public with hope about the future, and ensuring we can influence policy makers to help address the most urgent problems facing the planet (Source: Conservation Optimism Summit Press Release).”

The three-day Summit brought together an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural group of people from conservation, art, NGOs, psychology, journalism, sustainable business and others to celebrate successes, focus on solutions, and encourage and inspire society to take positive action. Some 250 delegates from around the world attended the Summit, held at Dulwich College in London. Sessions were varied, covering themes such as conservation success, community empowerment, effective communications, and training the next generation of conservationists.

A New Generation of Environmental Leaders…

On the first day of the conference, the Global Environments Network hosted the session A New Generation of Environmental Leaders Embrace Whole Earth Conservation. The idea for this session emerged from a current debate ongoing in conservation circles surrounding the ‘Nature Needs Half’ concept propounded by a number of leading conservationists. According to this idea, half of the planet should be protected in its ‘wild and intact’ state in order to ensure our collective future. Many scholars and practitioners refute the idea as potentially disastrous both for nature and humans, arguing instead that a radically new ‘Whole Earth’ approach, that heals the rift between people and their environment rather than artificially separating them further, is the only way to ensure a sustainable future.

GEN members from around the world joined the session to share their stories of contribution to the Whole Earth approach and showcase the diverse countries, disciplines and sectors that GEN represents. The session celebrated solutions, highlighted the central role that people play in conserving biodiversity, ecosystems and cultural landscapes, and provided examples of exciting, avant-garde Whole Earth thinking.

Ugo D’Ambrosio (GESA 2015, Spain), right, whose post-doctoral work revolves around Mediterranean ethnobotany and cultural practices of conservation both in rural and urban environments, explained how urban areas have huge potential for conservation of biodiversity. Taking Barcelona as an example, he explained how the city has experienced a rise in initiatives – including organic food cooperatives, slow food chains, food fairs, and urban gardens – actively reintroducing and sustaining wild and underutilized food crops in urban contexts, resulting in the maintenance of biodiversity across the urban-rural continuum.

Anna Varga (GESA 2011, Hungary), below, ecologist and ethnobiologist researcher at the Centre for Ecological Research of the Hungarian Science Academy in Hungary, looked at how the growing gastronomy and ‘food-ism’ culture in Hungary contributes to the maintenance and conservation of wood pastures (one of the most threatened biocultural hotspots of Europe).

“How do we feed ourselves, and our burgeoning population, without it costing the earth?” asked Political Ecologist and Performance Artist Nessie Reid (GESA 2013, U.K.), above right. By sharing her own experiences, as well as citing examples throughout history, she explored the role that art can play in engaging and informing civil society in issues around climate change, and more specifically one of the most pressing dilemmas facing our human species today: agriculture. Reflecting on the Summit, Nessie explains:

‘The word ‘crisis’ means great turning point, or moment of change. We are facing very scary times in terms of our current political and ecological landscape, but we are equally faced with a great opportunity for transformation…if we choose it. The Conservation Optimism Summit was, as Rebecca Solnit describes, a ‘hope in the dark’ as it spotlighted individuals, civil society and other groups championing awe-inspiring conservation case studies from around the world’.

Aili Pyhälä (GESA 2015, Finland), Senior Lecturer in Development and International Relations at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) spoke of how indigenous peoples and local communities have, throughout history and the planet, succeeded in maintaining and enriching biodiversity in their territories, and how these customary modes of conservation are finally being recognised as Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Territories and Areas and put on the international policy agenda.

Finally, Kerstin Forsberg (GESA 2012, Peru), founder and director of the Peruvian non-profit Planeta Océano, shared her journey as a young biologist and social entrepreneur whose work focuses on empowering communities to lead marine conservation efforts. Since 2007, Kerstin’s organisation has reached over 400,000 people and major achievements include the development of Peru’s ‘Marine Education Curriculum’ and the legal protection of giant Manta rays in Peru. Speaking with Ruth Krause, Kerstin explains how optimism has played a part in her conservation success story:

If you start at an early age, definitely not everything is perfect; there are a lot of challenges to overcome, so optimism helps you to have that perseverance to overcome these challenges. At the end of the day, there will be failures, there will be barriers, but if you don’t have optimism, you can’t overcome them”.

Panelist Yuki Yoshida is beamed in live from Japan to join the Panel, attended by over 40 optimistic Summit delegates.

The presentations were followed by discussions led by a GEN Expert Panel: Yuki Yoshida (GESA 2013 Japan), Karlis Rokpelnis (GESA 2015, Latvia) and Angela Easby (GESA 2015, Anishinaabe, Ouendat, and Haudenosaunee shared traditional territories) who were beamed in from Japan, China and Canada respectively to provide additional insights and reflection on the presentations. The session was concluded by a lively town hall debate to engage the audience that was co-moderated by Ruth Krause (journalist and GESA resource person) and Trevor Rees (Managing Director of Leadership & Sustainability consultancy EnSo Impact).

GEN team huddle in the grounds of Dulwich College.

Beyond our enthusiasm in contributing to this much-needed positive discourse and the shared joy at seeing our GEN friends again, this event cemented the sense, among all those present, that organising these cross-cohort get-togethers outside of the ‘formal’ GEN events is essential to the dynamic of the Network and provides an incredible source of inspiration for all present. Turning it over to our Network members: if you know of another upcoming or future event at which we can organise a concrete and productive GEN presence, please let us know and we will explore how to make it happen!  

In a short video, Gary Martin, Founder and Director of the Global Environments Network, reflects on the event.

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