Depression and delusion in conservation

Garnett and Lindenmayer argue that like Cassandra of Greek mythology, "foretellers of doom alone will always be ignored until too late"

By  Luke P. Shoo

Conservation biology is generally regarded as a crisis discipline (Soulé 1985). However, consensus on the nature of the discipline does not extend to how the science should be communicated in order to further the primary goal of conserving biodiversity.  Garnett and Lindenmayer (2011) contend that relentless communication of an impending mass extinction may actually be counterproductive for conservation and cite evidence from other disciplines (medicine, public health and road safety) that  bad news needs to be balanced by empowerment if political and social change is to be achieved. In a counterpoint, Arlettaz et al. (2011) argue that a focus on good news could be highly detrimental, engendering a lack of perspective and giving academics and politicians the illusion that the crisis could be solved without questioning business-as-usual practices.

An ongoing debate

This debate, played out in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, has not occurred in isolation. Similar exchanges have featured in related journals including Conservation Biology (Beever 2000; Orr 2004; Webb 2005; Knight 2007; Nugent 2007; Orr 2007), Bioscience (Swaisgood and Sheppard 2010; Patten and Smith-Patten 2011; Swaisgood and Sheppard 2011) and probably elsewhere. It appears, then, that there is a fine line to be negotiated when broadcasting conservation news. We may want to combat conservation despair (Swaisgood and Sheppard 2010) but at the same time avoid the perverse outcome of breeding self-deceitand naive optimism (Noss 1995; Webb 2005).

Arlettaz et al. say that focusing on "good news" through fear of the Cassandra syndrome may be just as detrimental

‘Good news’ conservation

Some practitioners have noticed that many good news stories have failed to attract wide attention and in response have begun the task of amassing and actively communicating examples of conservation successes. In a recent example, Sodhi et al. (in press) provide a global review of conservation interventions that have likely reduced extinction and endangerment of vertebrates and environmentally damaging practices of corporations. For instance, establishment of protected areas has reduced carbon emissions from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and better enforcement of whaling regulations has prompted a population recovery of Pacific grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus).

Reframing the question

Much of the argument against the presentation of good news is based on the negative ramifications of cultivating blissful ignorance. However, it could well be argued that “the problem lies with ignorance, not with optimism, because ignorant pessimism is as problematic as ignorant optimism” (Beever 2000). Clearly, then, there is a role for evidence based conservation (Sutherland, Pullin et al. 2004). Moreover, there is a need to give heed to context when communicating evidence of success.

One way to do this is to  ask the question: how different would the world look in the absence of conservation action (Ferraro and Pattanayak 2006)? For example, Hoffmann et al. (2010) estimate that conservation actions have reduced the rate of deterioration in the status of the world’s animals by at least one-fifth (i.e. conservation impact). Nevertheless, almost one-fifth of all living species remain classified as threatened and on average 52 species will move one category closer to extinction each year (i.e. context) (Hoffmann, Hilton-Taylor et al. 2010).

The impacts of conservation efforts should be communicated within the correct context. Adapted from Rodrigues et al. 2006

Undoubtedly, the effects of some actions will be difficult to measure (Brooks, Wright et al. 2009). There may also be surprises that prompt us to rethink the merits of some conservation practices (Bottrill, Walsh et al. 2011). The point is that studies designed to properly evaluate the efficacy of conservation interventions can provide the raw material to report on conservation success in proper context with the ongoing reality of problem. Presenting a more complete picture may help readers resist any tendency to become environmental Pollyannas* whilst guard against conservation apathy that can stem from a mental diet composed exclusively of bad news.

*an excessively or blindly optimistic person as used by Noss (1995).


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