Image of a mountain above a field and trees.

What is the emerging paradigm in conservation?

Pamela Collins
May 26, 2016
On May 12, the Biodiversity Affinity Group of the S&T Policy Fellowship (STPF) hosted its flagship event of the spring, "Sparking a Conservation Renaissance: Emerging Paradigms in Conservation Practice." Rhema Bjorkland created the event to draw attention to a fundamental debate within the conservation community. Moderator Diana Weber captured it in her opening question: "Should the natural world be protected because it has an intrinsic right to exist, or because of its extrinsic value, i.e. the life support services it provides to humanity?"
The panelists represented three distinct facets of the conservation world: academia, the federal government, and an international non-profit. As each speaker shared his/her unique experiences, one common refrain emerged: “The philosophy underpinning a given conservation effort is less important than the effort's success. The most important thing is that a project works. There are many ways to get the right answer. Use them all.”
Anne Dix, deputy director of USAID’s East Asian Affairs Office, observed that successful conservation and development projects keep things simple and scale-appropriate. By working within the local context and focusing on capacity building, international development workers achieve lasting results with positive impacts that endure long after project funding ends. In addition, she stressed the importance of local agency; conservation efforts are most effective when foreign development workers truly understand that “it's not their project.’’
Kevin Green, senior manager for behavioral & social science at the conservation nonprofit Rare, told the story of the St. Lucia parrot to demonstrate how pride is more effective than shame at motivating lasting behavioral change. By visiting every classroom, painting every bus, and getting the support of every preacher on the island, Rare's founder Brett Jenks persuaded St. Lucians to protect the bird’s habitat, saving it from extinction. Green co-authored Rare's strategic social marketing strategy, the Principles of Pride, which has been applied to 301 projects in 57 countries since its founding in 1978.
Gerardo Ceballos, professor at the Institute of Ecology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, reminded us that both hard science and the art of persuasion are essential to conservation. Evidence that prairie dogs improve rather than degrade rangelands convinced the Mexican government to shift from exterminating the rodents to protecting them. A casual conversation led a group of friends to mobilize private funds to purchase and protect vital freshwater fish habitat. And a good-natured jibe to a government official catalyzed the passage of legislation protecting endangered species throughout Mexico. These stories, and many others, can be found in Professor Ceballos’ latest book, The Annihilation of Nature.
The evening finished with a vibrant panel discussion about how to set priorities as financial resources dwindle. Conservation plans must be grounded in both local and global realities, use scale-appropriate strategies, and target effective communication efforts to relevant stakeholders. Rather than debating the intrinsic vs extrinsic value of nature, the focus should be on achieving clear goals. The conservation paradigm may be shifting towards an understanding that conservation needs not only science, but also relationships, coalitions, and persuasion to be successful.
* Note: The May 12 event was hosted by the STPF fellows’ Biodiversity Affinity Group with co-chairs Marit Wilkerson (2014-2016 USAID), Anjali Kumar (2015-2016 USAID), Rachel Meyer (2015-2016 NSF), Diana Weber (2015-2016 NSF), and Roberto Delgado (2013-2015 NSF). Significant support was provided by Eddie Gonzalez and Kristyn Fusco of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship professional development team, as well as by Ron Bjorkland.

Photo Credit Ales Krivec /

Pamela Collins


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

Leave a comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Subscribe to our blog