Thought piece: blinded by our heroic fantasies?

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An independent thought piece brought to you by Josie Chambers, a postdoc at Cambridge University and the Luc Hoffmann Institute

“When you stand on the edge of an abyss, progress means taking a step backwards.” (translated from German)

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Austrian artist, architect and environmental activist

There is a growing sense that we are moving closer to the edge: global biodiversity decline, climate change, social inequalities, water shortages, megafires, to name a few. Yet we feel uncertain about how to collectively take action. This shared concern drew together 70 people from diverse professions and career stages at the Biodiversity Revisited Symposium in Vienna September 11-13 2019.

After reflecting on spirited dialogue over dozens of insightful provocations, it seems the most critical issue driving biodiversity loss has nothing to do with biodiversity. Rather, I think it is that all too often we see ourselves as the hero, convinced that we know what the problem (and thus solution) is – or if we don’t, that we can quickly discover it.

Our sense of certainty in the truth of our stories and goodness of our actions constrains our imagination and fundamentally limits our desire to think and act in more collaborative and intersectional ways. This problem applies to all of us – conservationists, researchers, citizens, CEOs, policy-makers alike – but most especially, those whose power and privilege depends on their stories being accepted as truth. Until we learn how to collectively explore our heroic stories – their origins, consequences, contradictions and connections – our struggles for justice will remain divided.

What are these heroic stories?

These heroic stories are stubbornly familiar. The national parks that save nature from people. The conversion of poor farmers into “nature’s guardians” through simple incentives and education. The allocation of rights to local communities to allow them to protect nature. The large corporations who fund such projects to justify negative impacts elsewhere and further capital accumulation. The researchers who generate scientific truths to inform policy. The activists who shout these truths from their apparent moral high ground.

These efforts indeed produce incremental changes, but the central problem is that these stories ring hollow for the majority. In their fervour to convince, these stories express partial truths that overlook how they compromise many people’s values – people who are not readily convinced by the argument: “I know the truth, and it says you are wrong!”

Many people simply do not care about the loss of particular species or habitats compared to fulfilling other aspirations, and some have even experienced direct trauma from conservation efforts. Stories that claim to hold truth and locate blame in ways that threaten, as opposed to respect, people’s identities and experiences risk side-lining other important struggles for justice. They can keep us fragmented and incapable of systemic change.

What could a truly transformative agenda and process for biodiversity conservation look like?

I think it requires that we step outside of these established heroic stories that mostly pursue predefined aims and check if they are fulfilled (e.g. protected areas reducing deforestation, business models increasing profit). We must instead find ways to extend beyond and cut across them. For example, we could examine the impacts of global financial flows and legal frameworks on social-ecological justice. Or we could identify societal values that foster both mental and ecological health. We must explore how knowledge can be produced in conversation with movements for justice, instead of in historically isolated and extractive ways – driven by the story that knowledge compels people to act according to its doctrine.

To openly acknowledge our own heroic stories does not mean to denigrate them nor uncritically acquiesce to others. An important role remains for diverse efforts, such as the traditional conservation biologist who discovers new species and reasons to protect them. Or the activist, who joins together with others to call for respecting certain values, which has historically sparked considerable improvements in human rights.

However, efforts to act using existing stories need not distract us from our important collective task of taking responsibility for what values we exclude and why. By accepting that our stories are always partial truth, we can begin to collectively interrogate the hopes, fears and interests that underpin why so often we accept them as the whole truth.

Such an agenda necessitates genuinely listening and connecting to each other. It recognises that people “rolling out” solutions for the majority based on singular notions of truth will play out as tug-of-war battles that push us closer to the abyss. Instead, it acknowledges the desperate need to better understand how to design legitimate and dynamic processes that allow diverse voices to be heard and connect on equal ground to build collective compromise, purpose and hope for change. This would democratise the responsibility for creating new stories that join together diverse struggles for justice.

Josie Chambers is a postdoc at Cambridge University and the Luc Hoffmann Institute

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.