Fear and conformity in conservation
Conservation is like guerrilla warfare. But are the similarities flattering for conservationists?
No matter how big, conventional and entwined with power conservation organizations get, they still have the posture of guerrilla groups. While conventional warfare seeks to reduce an opponent’s capability through head-on confrontation, guerrillas seek to undermine the opponents’ strength and their public support. Guerrillas often also have popular backing and are financed through outside supporters.
Conservation works similarly through strategically picked battles (our conservation projects). Public and outside support is crucial to conservation’s success. And our “armies” are so much smaller than those employed by “the enemy.”
You might be encouraged by these comparisons. But conservation and guerrilla organizations have other, less comforting similarities: the way they communicate, their near-religious underpinnings, and their penchant for groupthink.
Guerrilla fighters are dispersed and their organizations need strong internal communication to ensure that everyone is in line. External communication through propaganda is vital to ensure public support. Strict loyalty to the group is also crucial. You are either in or out, although “out” is not really an option once you are “in.”
Judged by the hundreds of daily emails, frequent meetings and many papers to sign and forms to fill in that plague our business, conservation workers encounter similar views of communication and a devotion to (if not obsession with) process. Process and groupthink bring coherence to an organization, but they also control its individuals. Holding alternative views and speaking your mind about the direction of conservation, or criticizing management, are generally frowned upon within a conservation organization as harmful to its unity.
This impulse to police makes sense: Conservation and guerrillas are strongly mission-driven. And even if the practical implications of that mission are often unclear, the organizational principles that follow it have quasi-religious powers. Stepping outside that framework and being openly critical are often seen as heretical. Also, those who control and administer the process — the priests or apparatchiks, if you will — become focused on and defenders of process to the exclusion of substantive goals, because that is how they defend their position of power and authority.
As with conservation, the success rate for guerrilla war is mixed. Some guerrillas fail in their mission and either fade away or join regular, established governments. Those that succeed often stay in power for decades, rarely if ever through democratic means. Somewhere along the line, they pass a tipping point in growth, stop being flexible and creative, and become sclerotic.
This is where I see conservation now — as a collection of aging guerrillas, holding on to an old vision, old ways of organizing and communicating, and an aging constituency as we slide toward irrelevance. We’ve forgotten the guerrilla’s ability to improvise under difficult conditions and strategically pick the battles that will lead to the biggest net gain. Do we still have that entrepreneurial spirit in conservation? Does conservation generate enough creativity and reward it appropriately? And can individuals still have a major impact on conservation, or has the agenda been hijacked by conservation organizations that have become too big and cumbersome to function effectively?
Where I hope conservation can differentiate itself from guerrilla fighters is in the nature of our wars, and what we consider success or failure. Our wars are not black and white; this is not about winning the mother of all conservation battles, after which we can rest on our laurels or sleep in our graves. Our battle is never over. Conservation is not about right and wrong, either. There are no religious conservation principles to adhere to; there is only muddling through.
Conservation will forever be a struggle to defend the wildlife and environments of this planet against human greed and indifference. Once we realize that the struggle is truly endless — that we will never “win” the war — we can step away out of our internal straitjacket and become the smart, nimble, flexible, adaptable, compromise-seeking and solutions-focused movement that we need to be. Unfortunately, these are characteristics I rarely encounter in conservation organizations, which tend to be conformist, bureaucratic, internally-focused, opaque, unaccountable, and often in competition with other conservation organizations.
All this leaves me a bit uneasy. I seem to be preaching some neoliberal agenda where conservation is driven by individuals and small groups in some meritocratic framework. While I think this is what conservation needs, there is definitely some personal irony here. Because while promoting that agenda, I realize at the same time that conservation success requires broad-level societal support and a social agenda. This puts me back on the left side of politics. No wonder I feel a bit torn these days.
Maybe I confuse practical needs now with ideal solutions in the long term. In the short term, conservation should become an accepted societal goal with practical solutions to everyday problems. Ideally, it should become a way of life, with individual people building their ethical systems on a basis of respect for nature. The key to either model is the dedication of individuals to set examples about how things can be done better. When choosing between the three spirited fighters depicted above this piece, we might want to be a bit less like Che, stop acting like Don Quixote, and walk and talk more like Nelson Mandela.