I was contacted yesterday by a high schooler interested in prairies and a future career in conservation. (Definitely the highlight of my week!) They were looking for any advice I could offer, so I took some time to come up with a thoughtful response. I quickly realized I had a lot more to say than I’d expected. After finishing the email, I decided to share my thoughts here as well in case others might find them interesting or helpful. I also hope many of you will build upon my suggestions by adding your own to the comments section of this post. Thanks in advance for that help. Maybe we can craft something that will help and encourage lots of future conservation heroes!
Here are some of the tidbits of advice I offered to a young person interested in a potential conservation career:
- Conservation success relies on building ecological resilience, which relies on habitat size/connectivity and biological diversity. Biological diversity is formed mainly by small organisms like plants, invertebrates, and members of soil and other microbial communities. Don’t ignore those small organisms. Learn as much as you can. It’s rare to find people, especially these days, who can identify plant species, let alone insect species or soil microbes. Regardless of where you go with your career, learning as much as you can about these little organisms and their stories will serve you well. If you’re so inclined, helping others to learn about them is even more important.
- Be a story teller. Whether you decide to pursue science, land management, policy, or other aspects of conservation, the ability to tell compelling stories will be an important part of your skill set. There are lots of ways to do it, but all of us working in conservation have an obligation to help build support among the public. Without that support, nothing else we do will matter. Convincing the public that conservation is important and relevant isn’t going to succeed if we just focus on the utilitarian values of nature – carbon sequestration, water filtration, etc. Those are absolutely important, but our success will come through the sharing of stories that connect people to nature through emotion and empathy. Sharing your passion with others (as it sounds like you’re already doing) is incredibly important.
- Don’t lock yourself into a specific career path too early. Most people I know have changed their mind multiple times between starting college and settling into a career. Many have had several careers because they’ve found more than one way to find joy and fulfillment (if not wealth) in the conservation arena. If you go to college, you’ll have to make some decisions before picking a major, but even after that, there will be plenty of chances to learn about things you didn’t even think were career options and ways to shift your focus to those new interests. I was sure I was going to become a forest ranger when I started college and ended up as a prairie manager focused largely on fighting trees trying to invade my grasslands. Now I’m a scientist, photographer and story teller.
- Regardless of what role you aim for, I’d suggest trying to get some experience with land management, even if it’s just a summer job building trails or killing weeds. It’s important and gratifying work, and worth doing for that reason. However, I also think it’s really helpful for people to have that kind of experience in their background because it builds empathy and understanding that will help in whatever job you have afterward. It’s easy to establish common ground with a rancher, farmer or other land manager if you can swap stories about trying to start a grumpy chainsaw, for example. Even more importantly, understanding the kind of work that goes into land management will make you more effective at designing policy, raising money, or working on any other aspect of conservation.
- Conservation is really gratifying in some ways, but can also be depressing if you’re not careful. There are always more challenges than we can solve and new ones pop up all the time. There are few occasions when there is a defined end point to our work. It is more of a long process that will continue well beyond any individual person’s career or life. The way I deal with that is by reminding myself that my job isn’t to save the world, it’s to do what I can to make sure it’s still running when I hand it off to the next generation of conservationists. We are just one link in a very long line of people who have been stewarding the earth for thousands of years. All of us make mistakes and face new and daunting challenges and have to respond by finding creative and adaptive strategies. Do the best you can and then let those who come after you deal with the next set of challenges.
- Finally, and this is really important, don’t let anyone convince you that nature is better off in the absence of people. For the last 15-30,000 years or so, most ecosystems on earth have been strongly shaped by the actions of people. As a result much of our current biodiversity is adapted to the actions of humans, if not dependent upon us. The western (and recent) concept of pristine wilderness (meaning separate from people) as an ideal is mostly inaccurate and problematic. Not only does it disrespect the long and crucial history of stewardship by indigenous people, it also absolves all of us (indigenous and otherwise) from our stewardship responsibility both today and tomorrow. Sure, we often screw things up, and our actions and those of our predecessors have sometimes led to extinctions and other major negative impacts. That doesn’t mean we should just pull out and ‘let nature take its course’. Nature and people are interconnected and mutually reliant upon each other. Let’s focus on finding the best ways to bring ecosystems and species into the future with us.
Please add your thoughts to mine by putting them in the comments section.