As strongly focused as we are on biological diversity, conservationists have done a pretty poor job of focusing on diversity within our own ranks. Quick – think of a famous conservationist. Got one? Chances are good the person you just visualized is a white male, or at least white. If you want to explore this topic further, take a look at Wikipedia’s List of Prominent Conservationists.
This is an issue I have long been aware of, but a workshop I recently attended helped crystalize some things for me. As a straight, cisgender, white man in an affluent country, my perspective on this topic is clearly limited, but I’ve also been granted some advantages I feel obligated to take advantage of. At the end of this post, I’m sharing a few strategies I’m personally hoping to employ toward diversifying conservation. I’m hoping others will chime in with additional ideas and information.
Because the majority of conservation professionals in this country (and across much of the globe) fall within a fairly limited demographic range, we represent a limited range of perspectives and experiences. If only a narrow slice of humanity is designing conservation strategies, those strategies won’t apply equally well to everyone. That’s problematic, because it means only a fraction of the public sees conservation as relevant to them. To combat climate change, public apathy, habitat loss, and other major threats to the earth and its inhabitants, we need everyone pulling together, or we don’t stand a chance.
A 2016 National Public Radio story discussed the lack of ethnic diversity among National Park visitors. One example they shared was that less than 2% of annual visitors to Saguaro National Park self-identify as Hispanic. That’s particularly striking because roughly 44% of nearby Tucson, Arizona residents identify as either Hispanic or Latino. Do some people feel less welcome, or even less safe, in parks and other natural areas? The answer is yes, and it’s not limited to ethnicity. Gender, sex, age, wealth, geography, and other many factors play into whether people enjoy, or even visit nature sites.
There are numerous and well-documented problems that arise when people don’t have exposure to nature. People without positive experiences in the outdoors tend to think nature is boring, scary, and/or irrelevant. They certainly won’t be interested voting for, or otherwise supporting conservation initiatives, let alone pursuing a career in conservation. Finding ways to get more of our population, across all demographics, positive exposure to natural areas needs to be a high conservation priority.
Increasing visitation of natural areas is only part of the issue. Conservation should increase quality of life for people, regardless of where they are. Clean air and clean water should be universally available, for example. Knowing that there are pristine mountain tops where the air is clear and water is pure doesn’t help someone living in an urban food desert surrounded by lead pipes and smog. To touch down in people’s lives, conservation needs to happen where those people are – in addition to wilderness areas where people are scarce. Most importantly, to recognize and address the needs of a diverse population around the world, we need the field of conservation to be representative of that population.
Let me quickly address one related issue. Some in the conservation world get nervous about the proposal that conservation actions need to benefit people. I get that. There are certainly cases in which it is difficult to connect the survival of a particular snail or frog species to human welfare. That doesn’t mean we should ignore those conservation needs. We should absolutely be doing conservation for its own sake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also work to make conservation relevant and valuable to people. Most of the time, the two are connected anyway. It’s unlikely that the habitat loss, water quality, or climate change issues that are the ultimate drivers of snail or frog declines don’t also have an impact on humans.
Conservation affects everyone’s quality of life, but we need to make sure everyone understands that – especially in cities, where most of the population lives. As we make the argument, it would sure help if the demographic profile of conservationists was representative of that of the planet we’re working with. When it isn’t, it is much more difficult to make sure that conservation messages and strategies are designed to be relevant and helpful to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, race, sex, gender, age, or any other characteristic.
There are no downsides to including more voices and perspectives in conservation – only upsides. As conservationists, we had better successfully address our internal diversity problem so we can successfully address the world’s biological diversity problem.
Here is a list of things I’m personally going to work on, related to this issue. I hope it’s helpful to others. Please add your own suggestions in the comments section below.
1. Be actively aware of the lack of diversity within conservation. Pay attention to who attends, leads, and is vocal at meetings, conferences, volunteer work days, fundraising affairs, and any other conservation-related event. Share your observations with others.
2. Listen to understand. Talk to colleagues, partners, and others who are different from you, and learn about their stories, perspectives, and ideas. Make sure those are included in discussions, conservation-related or not.
3. Amplify voices of those less well represented within the conservation field. Make sure their perspectives are heard and considered. This can take a lot of forms. It can include calling attention to points made by colleagues in meetings, sharing social media posts, helping to train and enable people to get in front of media cameras and microphones, and much more. While I’m on this topic, here’s just one small specific step on the social media front: I would encourage you all to check out the social media posts of Laura Connelly, who is on Facebook as Laura Lux and on Instagram as @prairie_godmother. Laura is a brilliant and engaging voice for conservation and ecology, and someone whose perspectives and stories need more attention.
4. Examine job descriptions and career paths from the perspective of underrepresented groups. Are you asking for skills that are found predominantly within certain demographic groups? As an example, many land management career paths in the central U.S. start with seasonal positions, for which job requirements emphasize experience operating and maintaining tractors and chainsaws. Those skills tend to be much less prevalent among women than men, especially early in careers, and are less common in people who grew up in urban areas than in rural areas. By making those particular seasonal jobs the primary entry point for land management jobs, we’re cutting out a lot of people who have many other skills and perspectives. Why can’t we build more training into those positions or develop multiple entry points for land management careers – or both?
5. Look for ways to build up conservation interest and outdoor skills within communities you want to recruit from so candidates from those communities will be more competitive. That can mean volunteering to speak about nature and conservation in schools or other venues, but it can also go much deeper. It might mean reaching out to community leaders and advocates to learn more about those communities and their challenges, regardless of whether you see an immediate tie to your conservation work. The conversations that ensue might lead to some surprising potential partnerships.
6. At a broader scale, don’t exclude poverty and other social issues from conservation discussions – they are often tightly linked. Many global issues are strongly tied to poverty, for example. It’s hard to stop deforestation when local people are cutting down trees for basic cooking and heating needs, or to clear space for subsistence farming. It’s also pretty foolish to expect people and their leaders to support species and habitat restoration projects if their primary concerns revolve around basic healthcare and food/water/shelter needs. Of course, conservation can sometimes be relevant to those basic needs, but other times, addressing those primary concerns can be a necessary preamble to conservation discussions. See numbers 2 and 5 above…
I would love to hear what you think about this topic. Please include your responses, suggestions, and other thoughts in the comments section of this post. Thank you.