What is an elephant worth? The power of changing our conservation conversations

I have been focused on telling stories of locally-driven achievement for almost two decades now, because I believe that when people know what works, they are more likely to try it themselves. And I like these stories – I am interested in how people come up with new ideas and new approaches. 

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But sometimes, it does feel like I am swimming against a tide of negativity.

I once worked as a journalist, so I know that there is a certain definition of ‘news’. For a long time, ‘good news’ was seen as a ‘nice to have’ peripheral feature, not a way of bringing balance to our picture of the world.

The journalism community has rethought this perspective in recent years, and now we have ‘solutions journalism’ which focuses on the solutions people are finding as well as the problems they are addressing. It tries to give us a bigger picture of our world.

This past week or so, I’ve been taking part in a virtual EarthOptimism summit, Stories of Hope,  hosted by EarthOptimism Cambridge and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. 

I thought it was a lovely idea. And I thought it was a new idea.

Turns out it’s not. The idea that optimism, and sharing stories of peoples’ achievements in conservation, would be far more motivating than stories of doom and gloom has been evolving for the past two decades.

Nancy Knowlton began reflecting on this question in 2001, when California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography founded the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. She and her colleagues imagined it as “medical school for the ocean” but it quickly began to feel like they were focused on describing death, not preserving life.

“We quickly realized the folly of focusing so much on the problems — we could see it on our students’ faces,” she said. It brought despair, not hope. So in 2009, she and her husband began running ‘Beyond the Obituaries’ sessions at academic meetings to share success stories in ocean conservation. A 2014 workshop inspired a Twitter campaign, #OceanOptimism, which had reached more than 76 million Twitter accounts by 2017, when scientists prepared for the groundbreaking first Conservation Optimism Summit.

In preparation, she reflected on what she had learned since 2001. 

Firstly, people cannot be scared into caring – constant stories of despair lead to apathy, not action. By contrast, many young people told her that the messages of optimism energized them and provided both direction and inspiration.

Secondly, it was not just the general public that didn’t know about most of the success stories – conservation scientists, policymakers and philanthropists didn’t know about them either.

“My favourite instance of unrecognized success was the 2015 announcement of the recovery of seagrasses in Tampa Bay, Florida, to 1950s levels,” she said. “Of the 300 or so people I have mentioned this to (including 200 marine scientists at a research meeting in Tampa), fewer than 10 were aware of this important conservation achievement, which was the result of keeping fertilizer-filled run-off waters from flowing into the bay.”

Because these stories weren’t well known, environmentalists used them as more fodder for despair rather than celebrating and emulating the reasons for success. “For example, when the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) was bumped down from endangered to threatened status under the US Endangered Species Act last month, many environmentalists protested and worried about relaxed protections, rather than celebrating the practices (boat speed limits and winter-refuge safeguards) that enabled the animals’ partial recovery.”

In 2014, asking why environmentalists had such problems talking about successes, she shared a tiny sampling of the relatively unknown stories. 

In Mexico, residents of a coastal village united around establishing a marine-protected area, which now yields both more fish and more job-supporting tourists. In Chile, the establishment of fisheries cooperatives for harvesting the tasty Chilean “abalone” have resulted in replenished stocks and higher yields. In California, bans on near-shore gillnets and reduced pollution encouraged the return of top predators to the ecosystem. In the Philippines, communities profited by collecting discarded fishing nets and turning them into high value carpets. In Nicaragua, former sea turtle egg poachers became beach defenders, protecting the endangered leatherback turtles and their precious eggs.”

The optimism wave that started in 2014 with that Twitter hashtag #OceanOptimism has changed the conservation conversation quite dramatically. There is an #Earth Optimism hashtag and there have been annual Conservation Optimism and Earth Optimism summits. Now there is a website called Conservation Optimism, which aims to tell those stories, too.

“As nature erodes and the response of human systems is inadequate or destructive, it can seem like the only rational response is despair,” it says. “Yet if you zoom in from the big picture, a mosaic appears; in amongst the stories of loss there are inspiring stories of regeneration and positive change, with nature making a difference in people’s lives, and people valuing and nurturing their natural environment. These stories are the key to securing our planet’s future; we need to learn from them, replicate them and thereby build a world in which nature and people can coexist. Our mission is telling these stories of conservation optimism — large and small — so as to inspire change.”

Telling optimistic stories does not mean being Pollyanna, of course. But it does reflect something facilitators have known for quite some time – that appreciative inquiry provides a more balanced approach to the stories we tell, in many fields.

David Cooperrider developed Appreciative Inquiry after a similar realization about management consulting – that it was focused on what wasn’t working, not what was. It represented a fundamental shift in perspective – to look at strengths, possibilities, and successes, not mistakes and failures.

I used a simplified version in my community development work, asking people to reflect on what had worked and what could be done differently. It took time to get people started on the ‘what worked’ side of the equation. It seemed to feel easier to look at what didn’t work. But if I insisted they start with what worked, examples of what could be done differently did emerge, but in a much different context than if we had started with what didn’t work and then tried to look at what did. These were energizing conversations that inspired, and once started, it was often difficult to stop them. Our human desire really is to celebrate our achievements.

Conservation achievements do not need to be horrendously expensive if we work with what we know, and one result of the optimistic approach is that the conservation conversation has widened considerably. There is increasing discussion about the valuation of ecosystem services, for example, and that is helping make many of our choices much clearer.

Some of the figures are so staggering they are hard to grasp. But when we think about it on a smaller scale, it becomes easier to see.

Forest elephants provide services worth $1.75 million per elephant – a poacher who shoots it for ivory might get $40,000. 

A gray reef shark in the Maldives is worth U.S. $3,300 a year in tourism; a fisherman who caught and sold it might get $32. In Palau, which also protects its sharks, an individual reef shark was estimated to be worth US$1.9 million to tourism over its life, compared with a market value of U.S.$108 if caught and killed.

This kind of awareness changes and widens the conversation about costs and benefits of many of our ‘economic’ choices.

The Guardian recently reported, for example, on how New York City in the early 1990s was facing a choice – a huge water filtration plant that would cost $5 billion in today’s dollars to build and a quarter billion dollars annually to maintain, or work with local farmers in the watershed area to the north and pay them to better conserve the land to improve water quality. They went for the second option, which turned out to be both much cheaper and effective.

There are similar stories from many other places around the world.

That is the power of changing the conversation.


Why Do We Have Trouble Talking About Success In Ocean Conservation? Smithsonian Magazine, Jun. 12, 2014

A new wave of hope in ocean conservation. Ocean Health Index, Oct. 10, 2016

Doom and gloom won’t save the world. Nature, Apr. 18, 2017

How much is an elephant worth? Meet the ecologists doing the sums. The Guardian, Jan. 28, 2021

What is the value of a shark? Ocean Health, Aug. 8, 2012.