The WILD Foundation’s President, Vance Martin and Vice President of Policy and Communications, Amy Lewis, highlight the important and often forgotten role of storytelling and community organising to encourage conservation
For decades, the environmental conservation sector has prioritised technical and scientifically oriented knowledge and programs, operating as if the challenges we confront – the twin climate and extinction emergencies, fraying wildlands that increase the likelihood of new pandemics, and the staggering loss of biodiversity that destabilises entire economies – are of an ecological nature. And yet, the environment is not the cause of its own destruction. Society, our laws and economic habits, is at the root of what we call the “environmental problem.” Meaning that it is not so much ecology that we must come to terms with, but ourselves.
Social movements make possible the transformation of public beliefs and behaviours, but they do not occur spontaneously. Strategic thinkers nurture and steward movements through a combination of tactics that, when effective, target our identities and imaginations – not our scientific literacy. To meet the challenges of the next century, conservation would do well to consider the social science literature on movements and make significant investments in the types of activities that drive movements: storytelling, community organising, and social proofing.
The WILD Foundation has invested in movement building since its inception in South Africa in the 1970s. This was largely due to the influence of one of our co-founders, Zulu chief Magqubu Ntombela, who called for a global indaba, or meeting of the tribes, to protect wilderness. He and the legendary South African game ranger, Ian Player, forged a new path for conservation, one that began to change the course of conservation but is yet to be fully adopted.
Now is the time to fully commit to these, and other, efforts.
Why we need a planetary conservation movement
The scientific consensus concludes that we need at least half of Earth’s land and seas wild and intact to maintain ecological security and the planetary life support systems upon which we all depend. The reason for this is that ecosystems lose functionality precipitously when more than approximately half a landscape (or in the case of fragile landscapes, like rainforests, 20-30%) is lost. Currently, on a planetary-scale, we are on the precipice of the half threshold – and we may have already dipped under it.
Abundant wildlands and marine areas are huge (and the most cost-effective) carbon storage facilities, utterly essential for our achievement of the Paris Agreement targets that are necessary to secure our future. As we destroy nature to expand our industries and communities, we simultaneously diminish our ability to prevent pandemics and stabilise the climate.
Protecting nature at a global scale is an unprecedented challenge. And regrettably, policies are too often extremely resistant to science.
Transforming outdated laws and the systems supporting them requires movements; they require constituencies and coalitions; they demand we pay heed to the cultural forces that attract and sustain collective action. Conservation science is at its most powerful when it informs us of what we must do, but cultural knowledge is essential for encouraging us to actually do it. And until conservation prioritises the latter, we are unlikely to create the systemic change needed to effectively implement the former.
The realisation that our problems are not rooted in the environment, but in society, dawns on the cusp of a critically important decade in which we might still have time to stabilise the climate and halt extinction. As this occurs, though, nature conservation is lacking in the social science and humanities experts required to strike at the heart of our broken relationship with nature.
Now is the time to turn to social scientists, community builders, and artists for solutions.
Using story to build movements
We in the West temporarily forgot the power of such techniques, preferring more sterile, science-based approaches to education. But some cultures never dismissed the wisdom of story.
Even in the contemporary era, Indigenous Peoples continue to explicitly organise their societies around stories. Incidentally, they often also happen to be the best stewards of biodiversity. The highest-quality biodiversity is on Indigenous lands, and Indigenous communities, though consisting of only 5% of Earth’s population, steward approximately 40% of Earth’s remaining wildlands. The lands (mostly) and seas they steward are, of course, their home and the crucible for their stories, and as such have value far beyond money and possession. But they are also a bulwark to save precious life-supporting biodiversity that has evolved over millions of years, to vastly mitigate climate breakdown, and to help avert future zoonotic pandemics. In purely monetary terms, protecting these wild lands and seas is the most cost-effective and most efficient action we can take to address all three of these existential challenges. Wild nature is the best line of defence, and almost half of it that remains is rightfully controlled by Indigenous Peoples, albeit only a small amount of what used to be.
But we need to remember that these lands that are beyond the value of money to their stewards, are under daily threat from money-centred resource companies operating both legally and illegally across the globe. In defence of their homes, it is the Indigenous stewards who pay the most direct price for trying to hold the line on planetary survival. In defence of what is left of their homelands, these stewards are the targets for hired gangs of thugs. The statistics for the assassination of environmental defenders, almost entirely Indigenous, are staggering. According to Global Witness: in 2018, 164 were killed in 19 countries; in 2019, the total was 212 in 21 countries. The continuing acceleration of murder to exploit and control the resources of these wildlands is hard to comprehend. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders and, according to INDEPAZ, in 2020 alone there were 284 such assassinations in that one country.
What is happening to these courageous Indigenous Peoples in defence of their homes is actually a microcosm of that which is facing all of us across the planet. While they pay the ultimate, immediate and direct price, it is also a signal for what is occurring to all of us in a less direct, more abstract, but ultimately just as lethal a manner. We both need and have the power to change this story. Our survival depends on it.
We depend on the power of story based on more than science to manifest change. Let us now invest in stories that mobilise fresh and united strength for equitable actions that build our communities, strengthen our civilisations, and inform our individual identities. Being able to speak to the heart – and our innate longings to simultaneously belong to a group and discover our own potent potential – is fundamental to our capacity to transform ourselves and our societies in time to meet the challenges of the coming decade.
The future of biodiversity, the climate, and our own civilisation depend now on the storytellers.
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