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Written by Kathleen Godfrey
Heading into my fieldwork in the Maasai communities of Olkiramatian and Shompole in May 2017, I was focused on conservation as an idea, as a practice, and as an industry. On day one with my colleagues at the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO) around the table, before I began speaking about my Masters project, my colleague Samantha said “you can’t approach community members with the term ‘conservation’ – it’s not a Maasai term”. No one had ever made me question [conservation] as a tool of inquiry in this context. Of course I was already thinking of ways of being, worldviews, and practices that go beyond ‘conservation’, but it wasn’t until that first conversation that I realized “Yeah, good point. I can’t start there, nor should I.”
Maasai pastoralists are an ethnic group found mostly in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Pastoralism means livestock husbandry, or raising cattle and other livestock animals like sheep and goats. In the Maasai context, pastoralism was and continues to be peoples’ main livelihood and source of income in much of southern Kenya, and specifically in the communities I work with. Since the late 1960s, Maasai people have been living in “group ranches“, or allocated parcels of land that were originally communally owned and managed by an executive committee. Over the last few decades, some communities have opted to subdivide their land due to increased pressures on land with growing population, and fear of land-grabbing. We’ve seen that subdivision and fencing can have negative consequences for the health of ecosystems and livestock.
How do we translate ‘conservation’ to fit a Maasai context? Why does a Maasai person or pastoralist in Kenya have to understand this English word [conservation]? It’s an imposed word, and practice.
I heard people explaining that ‘conservation’ brings clients, and it a place where wildlife are and visitors go. So I found that there was a place-based and tourism-based idea of the English word conservation. And this makes sense, that’s how and for whom conservation has been ‘done’ here! So there’s a point to be made about how tourism investors, visitors, and even community leaders communicate conservation, and how honest stakeholders are about benefits, we can work it into our practice and the way we communicate what conservation can actually do economically for people, and what it can’t. [In the interview, I overstated the contribution of wildlife-based tourism and park visitation, a 2017 figure puts it at 9.7% of Kenya’s GCP in 2017].
Apart from what I think has been a miscommunication about what ‘conservation’ is or can mean—which I think misses the larger point of a vision that incorporates human and environmental care—when we moved into the realm of eramatare, people definitely linked it to raising livestock, but more and more people classified it as a ‘wide term’ involving tender care of your children, your home, yourself, your domestic animals, and some people also volunteered that wildlife are included. Sometimes I would ask “what about wildlife, what about those zebras out there, can they be included in eramatare?”, to which people responded “of course!”.
That was a really rich kernel that came out of these [fifty] conversations [I had with members of the Olkiramatian and Shompole communities], and led to my using eramatare as the centrepiece of my whole thesis insofar as it’s a lens through which we can think about, write about, and learn about holistic rangeland management; thinking about humans, domestic livestock, wildlife species, the grasses, the trees, the ants, the management and care of all these beings.
Complexity and landscape level ecology is not only in vogue but is what we need to be doing when we’re thinking about land management or ‘conservation’. This led me to think about eramatare as a social-ecological system, as a way of bring the [social/cultural] and [environmental] spheres together. More importantly, eramatare decenters the wildlife-first thinking that so many people brought up in the west are used to, the conservation narratives that I was exposed to growing up.
Is my academic research more useful for researchers or community members? SORALO was looking for a way to communicate ‘conservation’ to the communities they work with. Maasai pastoralists in these communities don’t go around saying “We are doing eramatare”, but we’re talking about a term that historically seemed to only mean husbandry. Annoyingly what’s come out of my thesis is perhaps a more useful lens for researchers working in Maasai communities and pastoral ecosystems [rather than a ‘finding’ that will help the communities I work with develop more drought-resistant cattle breeds, for example], but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless, because I imagine it contributing to a global movement of indigenizing or localizing knowledge, research, and practice. It also contributes to the movement of indigenous leadership on conservation that is (finally) underway and gaining ground.
Everybody has knowledge and information to share, and it’s about breaking down those barriers [between ‘expert’ and public] by connecting with people, which I guess is the whole point of the Connecting Conservation platform!
Written by Alison Gu
We hear it all the time: today’s youth are more anxious than any other preceding generation; we’re experiencing high rates of burn-out; we’re lazier, with less drive and ambition. People attribute these fallibilities to everything from our social media usage to our obsession with avocado toast. I think they’re all completely and unequivocally wrong.
Our anxiety is related to the extreme precarity of our futures, especially within the context of global crises. It’s related to the fact that we’re constantly made to feel utterly powerless against these growing threats, while being told that the future of our planet relies solely upon our actions. We experience high rates of burn-out because on top of juggling classes, jobs, and extracurriculars, we’re bombarded with stories of oil spills and catastrophe, heaping amounts of information and news impossible to comb through, and reminders/guilt-trips to “do our part” for the planet. And if there is truth to the perceived lack of ambition that youth have, then it is only because ambition requires planning, and planning requires the certainty of a future.
Above it all, youth know the truth: that 70% of all greenhouse gasses are emitted by 100 companies. That oil executives are in the pockets — specifically, wallets — of governments. That the science is clear but politicians aren’t listening. That while we can ride our bikes and grow our own herbs and refuse those straws and use our travel mugs, those actions don’t lead to hugely impactful emissions reductions in the grand scheme of things. That everything we do is insignificant in the face of the true realities of corporate greed.
So what then?
Not all hope should be lost in individual change. When individual actions include building a movement, joining a movement, standing in solidarity, and speaking up alongside millions of other voices, they change the world. We may not hold positions of power, but we can wield power in numbers. When our voices are unified, we empower each other, and we empower ourselves. But just like with individual actions, individual voices won’t make the change that we need to see. We need to be loud enough — together — that they can’t ignore us.
Spurred by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who started camping outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018, students have been skipping school to demand government action on climate change. (Side note: if you haven’t heard Greta speak, do yourself a favour and watch her address to the UN assembly at COP24 in December 2018 or to delegates at the World Economic Forum in January 2019). Under the Fridays for Future movement, student-led grassroots initiatives have been popping up in countries across the globe.
This Friday, on March 15, McGill students are marching in international solidarity to demand progressive climate action and legislation that limits warming to 1.5 degrees. We’re marching for a Canada’s Green New Deal. We’re marching for climate justice.
Come join us at 12PM in front of the Arts building. It’s time to rise up. ✊
Alison Gu is a concerned citizen, lover of the environment, and one of the Sustainability Commissioners for the Students’ Society of McGill University. She is one of many young activists involved in planning and organizing the McGill contingent of the march.
Written by Kathleen Godfrey
Nearly a year after a friend shared a Useful Science summary that they wrote on Facebook, I found myself troubleshooting technological issues to video chat with Maryse Thomas, who leads a board of five co-directors who run the website and podcast-based platform. As someone who doesn’t do much Facebook scrolling anymore, I’ve found that most of the posts that I pause for are those bite-sized science summaries that, for me, make Useful Science such a great tool to learn about and communicate science outside academia’s walls. Useful Science has a beautifully simple mission: to deliver accurate and reliable one-sentence summaries of scientific articles useful to everyday life.
Once our connection was good, Maryse and I got chatting. As a fan of the platform, I was curious about its origins – who saw the ‘gap’, interpreted it as an opportunity, and launched Useful Science? In the summer of 2013, after completing his bachelors in Math and Physics at McGill, Jaan Altosaar founded the platform with a group of contributors and co-founders. At the start, the idea for bite-sized summaries was inspired by the era of Life Hacks and Twitter, so shortening things was a trend. “We thought it would make science more fun and easy to interact with”, says Maryse, they wanted to provide the headline, and craft a trustworthy summary that was both accurate and accessible. She continued that, “through the years, we’ve found a place for more long-form content, because that’s how you address things like limitations and inequalities that exist in science and its methods. That’s why our podcast is so important”.
“Science being useful sets us apart, so we work hard to maintain this mandate”, Maryse explained to me. Categories of “everyday usefulness” are Nutrition, Education, Fitness, Happiness, Health, Environment, Parenting, Persuasion, Productivity, and Sleep. Maryse told me how the categories had evolved; her team recently decided to replace ‘Creativity’ with ‘Environment’ because the need for an Environment category “had become more important than ever” given our current political and ecological climate. Summaries that used to fall under the Creativity label are now categorized under Productivity or Happiness instead. Interestingly, “the Environment category is a bit different because it’s not just about helping our readers change their behaviour [like the other categories], but about raising general awareness for environmental issues”. More than simply being useful, the summaries are designed to be accurate – again, in a time when science can be warped to suit different interests, or get lost in translation between researchers and the public.
Useful Science uses a peer-review process to ensure that summaries are accessible and accurately represent the science, which entailed having a large pool of contributors at the start in 2013, who have since spread all over the globe. Maintaining this global network of contributors is hard work, but through contributor surveys, Maryse and her team have learned that involvement with Useful Science actually benefits their volunteer writers, too. “Contributors have said that they are better scientists, can communicate [their own science] better, and feel fulfilled” in terms of making a difference in science communication. The initial Useful Science group came from diverse backgrounds, which meant for a wide contributor base and “scientists talking across disciplines”, which Maryse and I both value immensely. While interdisciplinarity is not explicitly part of the Useful Science mandate – contributors write summaries about whatever they are reading, usually related to their own field – it definitely has enabled scientists to step outside their “comfort zones”, as everyone participates in the peer review process.
We took a step back from the platform to discuss academic culture, the ‘publish or perish’ mentality, and how difficult it can be to know if you’re reaching your target audience. Maryse is a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at McGill and has found that “there are sometimes workshops [for science communication], but they are organized by other grad students, [not professors or professional science communicators]. There is not enough emphasis on training people to communicate research in accessible ways, or recognition for those who do.” And even if you do find an outlet or platform such as Useful Science to contribute to, that contribution is not valued as highly as traditional publications. This culture is equally frustrating to scholars in the natural and social sciences who are realizing how important public engagement is. Why do we do the work that we do? Why do we write theses or dissertations or articles? As a record of findings, ideas, surely, but surely we want to spread the word outside our labs, departments, and institutions? That’s where science can be transformed into behaviour change and action.
The demand is there – Useful Science has over 20,000 combined subscribers across all their platforms, with most people checking out the website directly. For a student volunteer-driven science communication platform, that kind of engagement is no small feat. Despite having the statistics on platform engagement, “it’s hard to tell who our audience is. I don’t know if we’re reaching non-scientists. You can measure the impact on your contributors, but it’s harder to do that with your readers”, Maryse explained, so you can’t help but wonder whether the information is getting trapped inside an academic vacuum.
Even with these unknowns, over the last six years the platform has continued to grow and test out different recipes for engagement, for example, Tweeting at the authors of the papers they summarize. Recently, they exceeded the number of subscribers to be eligible for a free Mailchimp account. The people – whoever they may be – have spoken: they want more Useful Science!
To me, this is a true testament to how the platform has mastered the art of communicating science to help people live better, more informed lives today. And that’s useful to all of us.
To learn more about Useful Science, or to join the team as a contributor, you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a little more information on their review process and helpful tips on accessible language, check out this infographic that Maryse created.
Written by Valentin Lucet
I have been wanting to write about the documentary Anthropocene, the human epoch for a little while. I had the chance to go see the movie at the student theatre at the Université de Montreal with a few other grad students. We had just been through six hours of multivariate statistics. The movie was a questionable choice, given our level of collective mental exhaustion. For me, it was a really rough ride, one that put me into a bleak mood for weeks, and an inability to write down how I felt about it for a whole month. Only now, when the emotions have faded, and only a vague, odd feeling remains, can I really start to explain what I saw and felt.
Anthropocene is the product of the collaboration between famed photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. It is not their first rodeo, the three of them having already produced two other documentaries together (Manufactured landscapes and Watermark). The three movies explore how humans have extensively modified landscapes in an “extractionist” endeavour. Extractionism is not a common word; I could not find a proper definition on Merriam-Webster. It qualifies capitalist activities like mining or forest clearing: an enterprise whose success and profits rely overwhelmingly on the mere extraction and distribution of natural resources (such as coal, rare metals, oil, etc.). “Extractionism” used to convey the lack of sustainability in such endeavors, it is meant as a blunt, unflattering designation. Extractionism has been contributing to climate change as extractionists industries are the dirtiest of all: they emit massive amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The movie is a companion piece to an exhibit currently showing at the National Gallery of Canada, which Lindsay has already shared her thoughts on. Now, I have not seen the exhibit, nor the other two movies. I cannot speak for how Anthropocene fits within the body of work of the three artists. I can, however, explain why it made me feel like not leaving my bed for two weeks after seeing it.
I knew what I was getting into; I knew the movie was going to be about how humans have damaged landscapes to make them manageable and unrecognisable, how we have made something foreign and new out of them, and how their novel aesthetics can be sadly pleasing. What is beauty? What is part of nature, what is part of culture? That is what some of the movie is about. I was also expecting to see depictions of the injustices that capitalism inflicts across the world. Meager and silent faces, laborers with broken backs living off the crumbs left behind by decades of extraction. This one spends her days picking up plastic bottles to sell every kilo for a few cents. This one risks his health in lithium pools. Image after image, as my “expectations” were more than fulfilled, I kept feeling more sadness, desperation and guilt.
And yet, that was no foreign state of mind. I had felt the same watching An inconvenient truth. I felt the same during Before the flood. Same deal with Chasing corals. But something about Anthropocene was different. The cinematography is truly, breathtakingly appropriate for the topic. The movie takes a landscape approach to the environment, a remarkable method. It reminded me of Home, a documentary by Yann-Arthur Bertrand, quite well known in France: the same aerial shots of the landscape, the same attempt to capture how humans and non humans can, or cannot, coexist. Nevertheless, I think that The Anthropocene is unique. And the thing that contributes the most to this uniqueness might very well be the ending of the movie.
I will not reveal the final scene here but will spoil the final message of the movie. The last few images are hopeful, in comparison to the rest of the movie: they express that things are slowly improving in the way we go about treating and valuing our environment. But the tone of the narrator is chilling: although it can be shown that we are improving… it just might not be enough. The credits roll, and “making progress” from the group Rheostatics, plays:
Right now, we are making progress
We are making dreams come true, just like we discussed
And our most recent letters, communiques, measures,
Of memories and treasures, kept in bricks and mortar
And I won’t last forever, I won’t even try to
I’m just making progress, I don’t know what else to do
Our hammers fall in silence, knocking down forest
Exploding all around us, and I’m committing treason
Cause I’m in love with reason
This is where we step into pure speculation, but to me, the choice of this music to roll the credits, given the tone of the ending, cannot be fortuitous.
I see two possible meanings in the lyrics, which reflects the film’s messages. The first meaning echoes the optimistic ending: we are, undeniably, making progress. These are the first words we hear once the narrator is done talking. The other possible meaning is revealed shortly after in the song, and echoes the ambiguous tone of the narrator, with regard to how much hope we should have in our environmental progress. Humans “are making progress”, read, pursuing a different kind of progress, one we could call technological progress. We are “making dreams come true, just like [they] discussed”, just as planned. Indeed, they “don’t know what else to do”. We are “knocking down forest” and “committing treason” against the earth, because we are “in love with reason”.
I would most certainly love to ask the makers of both the song and the movie, if they had environmental concern in mind when they wrote the lyrics. Here I choose to treat the movie and the song as conveying the exact same meaning, and that might very well be completely wrong. But bear with me. This is the whole movie in a nutshell. The movie asks the hard questions: is it too late? We know, that objectively, it isn’t. There is still time for us to prevent the world from warming above two degrees. And there are signs of environmental progress, but for every sign of such progress there are thousands of signs of technical progress in the opposite direction.
The film left me questioning many things. First, who is “we”? If “we” is the set of extractionnist western societies, maybe the way the west goes about environmentalism is wrong. We think that individual actions will amount to something. We eat less meat and buy electric cars. But we know this is not enough. The patronizing narratives of personal responsibility in climate change is outdated: we know that unless larger organizations (companies and governments) get involved, we won’t go very far. And how well is the implication of such organisation in de-carbonisation progressing? Maybe it is not going fast enough. Maybe something bigger is needed. Maybe the west needs a revolution.
So, is the movie/song a call for revolution? An ecological civil war, a fight between the powerful and polluting classes ; and misrepresented, non-polluting classes? I do not think the movie goes that far. The song actually tells us it doesn’t matter, that even that would not be enough.
What good’s a revolution?
A rising and a setting sun, a trip around the bright one
Lets you off where you started from
So what is the take home message of the film? Maybe it is about narratives. Although climate change is real, the way we go about communicating climate change can impact how people perceive it. Humans experience narratives all the time: culture itself could be said to be a complex narrative. The way you have learned history in school is a narrative; one version of a story.
The narrative of Anthropocene is different from previous movies of the same genre. We know for a fact that alarming narratives about environmental degradation usually do not work as well as optimistic narratives to spark change and awareness*. But Anthropocene takes a different approach. It is not alarmist, it is not dramatic, it is visually factual and, simply profoundly realistic. Right now, if we were to estimate the probability of “saving the planet”, it would be low, because we have come this far in degrading it.
And maybe this is what we actually need to “spark change”. No alarmism, no optimism, but the cold truth: times are bad, and some progress is being made, and you can see it wont be enough unless we seriously get on it. And maybe this is not at all what we need to spark more environmental progress. Because maybe this is just pessimism in disguise: the cinematographic equivalent of your pessimistic friend to whom you keep saying to stop being so pessimistic, and who replies to you that he is actually being realistic, not pessimistic.
I can sometimes be this friend who lies to himself about his own pessimism. This is why the movie left me completely lost. What am I supposed to think now? Which narrative should I believe in? I still do not know. These are important questions for me and I think they matter to anyone who feels as strongly as I do about global anthropogenic change.
I end this post with few answers, and many questions. If you have the courage to face them, go watch Anthropocene, the human epoch, this both dreadful and beautiful movie is really worth it.
* The work of Andrew Revkin is a good starting point to explore the science of communicating on climate change.
Written by Lindsay Potts
As I parked my bike outside of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) earlier this month, the exhibit announced itself on long banners with imposing block letters: Anthropocene.
Anthropocene is a term that I am very familiar with, having been exposed to it throughout my biology undergraduate degree, now carrying over into my own Master’s project working with an endangered fish, Pugnose Shiner. It is a term as second nature to me as global warming. However, neither of my two friends attending the exhibit with me had heard of it. The Anthropocene is what many geologists are calling the current epoch we are living in, one defined by the dramatic and disproportionately huge impact humans are having on the planet. The exhibit, a collective installation by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier, included an image of men and stray dogs sifting through a giant heap of multicoloured plastics in Nairobi (Kenya), of a massive green algal bloom alongside a phosphate mine in Florida (USA), and the barren landscape of a palm oil plantation encroaching on a lush forest in Borneo (Malaysia).
As a budding conservation biologist, I know the plastic problem is monumental, I know that the mining industry is contaminating our land and waterways, I know that deforestation is devastating wildlife populations. But it was a different feeling to walk through the gallery, to take in the visually stunning shots that depict a complicated and tainted beauty. It was troubling and it was emotional. I was overwhelmed, as I periodically become, by the truly tremendous scope of our collective destruction of the Earth. As an urban dweller, accustomed to concrete and convenience, it’s shockingly easy to excise ourselves from the natural world that we are very much a part of. But here I was, in the heart of downtown Toronto, with the bitter underside of our so-called progress reflected right back at me. It made me want to scream and cry at the same time.
I wasn’t alone in this feeling. As I moved around the gallery, I noticed that families, friends, and kids of all ages were here. A sense of solemnity hung in the air as each of us were confronted by the weight of our collective impact. At the end of the exhibit, an interactive monitor asked visitors to describe, in one word, how what they had just seen made them feel. The most common answers were worried, sad, and angry. And I was struck by the way that art, that this art, has the power to connect to the public in a way that science, as it is currently imagined, does not.
Let me explain. As a Master’s student in biology, my science exists within a narrowly defined academic silo. In fact, as grad students, we become the global expert on our research topic simply because the focus is so specific. And the more specific our work, the less relatable it becomes to the general public and the worse we become at communicating its relevance.
I am most reminded of that distance when I talk to my family. When I talk about the hours I’ve devoted to rearing a tiny fish species or about the weekends I’ve spent in the lab measuring how much oxygen a fish is depleting in a small chamber, most of them will smile encouragingly but inevitably ask polite variations of, “That’s nice, but what’s the point?” And to be honest, I ask myself that question sometimes. I have devoted the last year to learning about one aspect of a specific fish’s physiology – who, besides maybe that fish, cares?
Here’s where I think that we might be able to learn from art, by bringing it back to the big picture. Because I am not just looking at the capacity to which Pugnose Shiner is able to adjust their physiology in response to thermal and oxygen stress, I am looking at how an endangered species is able to respond to complex and interacting threats in their environment. I am looking at how we can integrate that understanding into a more effective management strategy for that species. I am looking at how the successful recovery of this species might benefit the ecosystem as a whole. And, when I integrate the new knowledge I’ve generated with previous knowledge from other experts, the path towards freshwater conservation becomes clearer. In short, my tiny, specific research on Pugnose Shiner has given me a lens to understand how we might more effectively conserve these larger systems.
And by framing my own research in that way, I realized that the work that I do, along with so many other conservation biologists, is a response to what we’ve been worrying about for a long time, the same sense of worry highlighted in the Anthropocene exhibit. In fact, maybe art and science aren’t as dichotomous as we’ve been led to believe. By tapping into our emotions, art forces us to engage with our world. It challenges us and compels us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and of our fellow humans. But that’s where it leaves us: worried, sad, and angry. Here’s where science can come in. Science, with its tedious methodology and objective data, certainly doesn’t have the same capacity to connect and inspire us, but it allows us to answer some of those questions. It can offer us a path forward, meaningful solutions to the problems we care about. But first, we have to care. Science can pick up where art leaves off.
When we were leaving the exhibit, a little boy holding his mother’s hand asked, “Mommy, where do we go from here?” When his mom replied, “Well, we’ll go out these doors and down the stairs to the café…”, it immediately became apparent that he was asking the question literally. But in that brief moment when the question hung unanswered in the air, I was deeply moved by this six-year-old’s simple but intensely complicated question. Witnessing what we’ve just seen, knowing what we’ve just learned, how do we proceed? What is our common vision for the planet we share and what role will each of us have in actualising that vision? That’s a question that I’m trying to work through and I’m sure I’ll be answering for the rest of my life. But there’s no doubt that we’ve each got an important role to play, artists and scientists alike.
Anthropocene is open until January 6th, 2019 at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). For more information, visit https://ago.ca/exhibitions/anthropocene.
Written by Kathleen Godfrey
Connecting Conservation is an initiative conceived of and powered by a four person team of current and former McGill University students coming from different academic and life experience backgrounds, and who have varied skill sets and passions. That being said, we all think about and act toward some kind of ‘conservation’ goal in our activism work, academic work, or personal side-projects.
In May 2018, we four met on the steps of the Redpath Museum at McGill University and had a conversation about our experiences as students focused on ‘conservation’ in the natural and social science disciplines. What emerged was a realization of how physically and infrastructurally separated the Arts and Sciences faculties, departments, labs, and offices are, but more importantly how the ideas generated within them are rarely shared or taught across the disciplinary boundaries. This has obvious effects not only on how different knowledges are ordered in some made up hierarchy (e.g. biological quantifiable knowledge is historically more valuable than indigenous or local perceptions of environmental change that might emerge through a social science approach) in the minds of students, but also how students perceive of conservation challenges and avenues of inquiry or action that might contribute to positive collective impact or some kind of solution. We conceive of these disciplinary ‘knowledge silos’, and the lack of connection or communication between them, as opportunities not challenges.
Through Connecting Conservation, our mission is to engage a diverse audience and community to discuss and think about topics related to sustainability, biological preservation, education, knowledge silos, activism, cultural conservation, and so much more to promote interdisciplinary dialogue. It is one thing to be following all the ‘right’ people on Twitter or get Google to send you articles related to a specified keyword daily, it is another to contribute to and engage with a boundary-spanning audience and community that is committed, in the broadest sense, to ‘conservation’. Moreover, in grounding the conservation conversation on core values of interdisciplinarity, accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity, we are looking beyond the walls of academia to the vast knowledges and experiences of people who are ‘doing the work’.
This work – of getting a project like Connecting Conservation off the ground – is hard. We don’t have big names, oft-cited papers, or any kind of blue print that tells us how to build a community of thought and exchange. It begs the question: “Where to begin?”
The passion behind, and realization of this platform’s mission is all about people. It’s about storytelling; getting that idea that’s been bouncing around your brain written down and out into the world; it’s about feelings and thoughts; it’s about emerging science; it’s ultimately about connecting.
Opportunities to connect with and contribute to Connecting Conservation can take a variety of forms, whether you’d like to be a guest on our podcast (forthcoming – stay tuned!), be interviewed by us, send in a piece of writing between 500 and 1500 words, or contribute a photo or photos with a text description.
If you’re reading this, then that probably means we would love to hear from you. It also probably means that we would love support in the form of a Facebook page share, the sending of a link, sharing resources with us, or a comment on the articles that we publish. We’re just four young people, screenshotting our Skype check ins, making a lot of puns, reaching out to our networks, and hoping that we’re not the only ones thinking about these things.
I’m fairly positive that we aren’t.
Written by Celeste Welch
Echo chambers of thought and opinion (closed ‘spaces’ that produce reverberations) are highly encouraged in a number of communities to which I belong. If you want to go for days without interacting with a particular demographic or with those who oppose your views, you can, through a form of isolationism that is practiced extensively in our society, especially online. The desire by many for these echo chambers is understandable – people want community, similarity, and common ground for acceptance. These places or communities can feel like ‘safe spaces’. Despite the comforting feeling of being in a room or an online forum of people who are all in support of you, this does not help environmental or other causes beyond strengthening resolve through validation and internally focused community building. The fact remains, though, that communicating your message and growing your movement requires an outward focus. Simply put: you are going to have to talk to people who dislike, disagree with, or may challenge what you are saying.
Instead of feeling aggressed or attacked by the viewpoints of others, environmental activists must pry ourselves out from our echo chambers to cultivate learning and, potentially, challenge our own belief systems. We must put our differences aside to have earnest conversations, instead of throwing emotionally charged statements, or media sound bites, around. We must connect to other people we disagree with and genuinely hear them out; listen attentively and deeply. Finally, we must center our approaches, words, and actions on empathy (discussed in Part I of this series).
At this point, it is important to clearly state what I am advocating for. I am not, by any means, petitioning for the removal of safe spaces. These spaces are inexpressibly important for many people. While I advocate for time spent outside of the aforementioned ‘safe’ echo chambers, it is also incredibly important to note that, while some people may have the energy and headspace to take on this type of activism, others will not be able to for a variety of reasons ranging from the colour of their skin to their health or mental and physical abilities. Putting oneself in a vulnerable position when already belonging to a marginalized group is always a risk, and it would be foolish of me—a privileged white graduate student—to think that this is something that everyone in every community can engage in without reservation.
That being said, I encourage the activist or movement-invested reader to follow me as I detail a few simple exercises to help us radicalize our empathy. The first, middle, and last step always: reflection. What kinds of friends do you have? What types of people do you interact with on a regular basis? I would venture to guess that, like me, many of your friends share certain commonalities with you, from pastimes to economic status. To move away from the details of socioeconomic standing, race, ethnicity, gender, and all of those intersections we live through (to be brought up later), I want to narrow in on how the communities of thought or opinion that we choose to be a part of – divestment or climate change denial groups for example – tend to reinforce our own views. What I propose is that forging friendships with people who think differently is crucial to social movements, and can help you develop or strengthen your capacity for empathy.
Now, think about what causes or issues you are passionate about, and who you spend time talking to and engaging with on that subject. Think about the number of times a week, a month, or a year, that you spend talking to people who disagree with you. Recall how those interactions made you feel, and how your feelings influenced your communication style. Give yourself credit for interactions you have had where you were able to successfully communicate your viewpoint respectfully. Hone in on these situations and ask yourself how you can re-create this experience in the future. What did you do differently in these successful outreach attempts when compared to the failed attempts?
An example might help. I am an environmentalist to the core, and have been engaging in environmental activism since early childhood. As a ‘know-it-all’ teenager, my way of interacting with climate change deniers was to curtly rattle off facts and hurl insults if they were deflected. I felt so enraged by one’s seeming inability to accept scientific data that I had an emotionally charged response. This results in a negative and unproductive interaction for both parties; no common ground is reached, no barriers are broken down, no learning has taken place.
Recently, I have had empathetic and difficult conversations with climate change deniers, anti-conservationists, and others whose views I utterly disagree with. I start by asking them why they think what they think. I check my tone; I am not condescending. Fully attentive, I listen to what they have to say. I think about why it makes sense that they feel the way they feel about a given issue due to the background that they have and what they have been exposed to. When they are finished speaking, I suggest that we exchange reading material. Even as someone who has only been practicing it for a few months, this approach has helped me to get through to people who are terrified by my ideas, and has taught me a great deal about what makes people subscribe to different ideologies.
Another exercise that is important for radicalizing your empathy is to think about other people as the products of a combination of random or non-random factors that they have been exposed to. As a mathematically minded individual, breaking situations down into mathematical terms helps me to get to the crux of the matter, but you can feel free to think of people as an amalgamation of other sorts—experiences perhaps— especially because numbers seem dehumanizing to many. For this exercise, I would ask that for a moment you think of humanity as fundamentally good, or, at least potentially good.
Allow me to elaborate: each human is influenced by nature and nurture. Studies have shown that children are likely to politically classify themselves the same as their parents. Political, social, and environmental awareness and understanding is influenced primarily by environmental factors. You are not born a racist xenophobe or a bleeding heart reformer. Your social upbringing teaches you; as a person you are effectively the sum of every interaction you have had, everything you have been taught or otherwise exposed to during your life. My point is that thinking that all anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers or whoever it may be are simply ‘uneducated’ is the first big mistake which will sink your activism dreams and shackle you to your echo chamber forever. Learning and growth must start somewhere, and it can only happen when radical empathy is practiced toward those with different views.
Lastly, an important exercise to engage in is to understand a person as a sum of not only their experiences, but their intersecting identities, tied to gender, race, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status, first language, cultural background, family history, and so much more. Acknowledging that identity and experience are linked is inexplicably important in trying to understand another person and what makes their experiences of the world different from your own. Upbringing or socialization has everything to do with ideology, so, try to understand the circumstances of others if effective communication is your goal.
The idea and practice of radical empathy does not have to be for everyone. It is a taxing, frustrating, and occasionally fruitless process. It does, without a doubt, take work. However, I strongly believe that those who choose to engage in the reflective exercises outlined above will find themselves increasingly engaged in meaningful interactions with people they might not have previously reached out to. It is important that the environmental activist community understands that this cannot be done without attempting to understand the people on the other side as a small step toward dismantling chambers or communities of isolation. My hypothesis is that once more people are able to practice genuine communication on the subject of environmental concerns, environmentalism will seem less like an inaccessible practice reserved for extremists and hippies. Radicalizing empathy is one way to hopefully reach a productive middle ground, to reflect collectively on a shared state of being in this world rather than an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that too often overshadows forward momentum.
Celeste Welch is a Biomedical Engineering graduate student at Brown University and a developer of accessible green devices. While at McGill as an undergraduate, they engaged in environmental activism in the McGill and Montreal communities, notably founding campus groups and working as a WWF ambassador. Celeste’s efforts as an activist have been recognized via the “Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25” award, in addition to others. Their interests lie in the intersection of STEM and environmentalism and making these disciplines accessible to the general public. They are interested in developing technologies for environmental improvement and are fascinated by how communication and social factors shape activism.