The Earth Optimism Summit Seeks to Highlight Conservation Success Stories

Conservationists are gathering in Washington DC to reflect on successful efforts at protecting species and habitats around the world.

Scientists and their supporters will be descending on Washington DC — and hundreds of cities around the world — tomorrow for the March for Science. The tone is expected to be celebratory, but also infused with grave concern about US government efforts to sideline science amid a rollback of environment and public health rules.

Just a couple blocks from where marchers will convene in the nation’s capital, another gathering will highlight conservation successes that have already been achieved and how they might be expanded.

The Earth Optimism Summit is the brainchild of Nancy Knowlton, the Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In 2001, Knowlton and colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego taught an interdisciplinary summer course that opened with an overview of the state of the oceans. The lectures, Knowlton freely admitted, were depressing.

“When you start with all the problems in such an overwhelming fashion, it takes over the whole psychology of what you’re trying to do,” she said. “I have subsequently had many students come up to me and say, ‘I was so depressed by my first course in conservation that I almost didn’t continue.’”

A few years later, Knowlton and her husband Jeremy Jackson, also at Scripps, began organizing symposia, which they called “Beyond the Obituaries,” at academic gatherings. They sought to put conservation issues in a positive light by focusing on success stories. From that effort came the summit, which begins today and runs through Sunday.

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Knowlton’s approach doesn’t always sit comfortably with the conservation community, she admitted.

“If you went online and looked at the responses, a lot of them were along the lines of, ‘This is a terrible idea,’” she said. “I think there are people who still feel that the only way to get people motivated is to get people angry, and I just don’t think that’s true anymore. Especially if you’re going to grow the choir in terms of people who care about the long-term sustainability of the planet, you have to show people what’s working, and then they can become part of a solution.”

Knowlton pointed to the work of Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech climate scientist and evangelical Christian whose work has focused on persuading skeptical audiences of scientific certainties like human-caused climate change, but doing so with a dose of optimism.

“We’re not arguing that you should be disingenuous about the problems and hide them,” said Knowlton. “But there are a lot of things that are going in the right direction — although not fast enough in almost all cases.”

The Earth Optimism Summit features more than 240 speakers, many of whom will be providing first-hand accounts of some of those success stories. The scope of those stories is broad and their approaches multifaceted, but Knowlton argues that many of them appear to have a couple of common themes.

“The first thing is that you need local involvement; people have to feel a part of it and that they’re listened to,” she said. “We haven’t done an analysis of all these stories yet, but I would say the other thing that often will be a key element is the existence of someone who just won’t take no for an answer, who thinks this is an important problem, and they want to make a difference on the planet by addressing it.”

Knowlton said places like Cabo Pulmo in Mexico offer a roadmap for success in conservation.

Established in 1995, the national marine park is slightly more than 7,000 hectares (27 square miles) of protected coastal waters in the Gulf of California — and the village’s 100 or so residents, alarmed at overfishing and declines in the area’s marine life, were the force behind the effort. Though small, the reserve’s impact on marine life has been profound, so much so that some researchers have dubbed it the most successful marine reserve in the world.

According to Grant Galland of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, co-author of a study about the reserve, many factors have contributed to the its effectiveness. “It is relatively small, and its establishment and enforcement are the result of local involvement, ensuring compliance and support,” he said.

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Knowlton lamented the way conservation victories are often overlooked. Once, when addressing a room full of marine scientists in Tampa, Florida, she asked who had heard of a recent announcement on successful recovery of coastal seagrasses. She estimated that 200 or so people were present — and just four raised their hands.

Knowlton stressed that optimism shouldn't be confused with a Pollyannaish view that all is well with the world. Far from it.

“There is plenty of bad news out there, don’t get me wrong; it’s hard to argue there’s a good story from Great Barrier Reef bleaching, for example,” she said. “And a lot of these solutions are still, or seem in isolation to be, small scale. But part of conservation is the accumulation of these small-scale victories — and then of course, they’re sometimes added to by big victories. And I think it’s crazy not to talk to them.”

The goal of the summit, she said, is to inspire rather than to merely anger, and in the process to motivate an ever-larger constituency to not only acknowledge the multiplicity of issues that face the planet, but be filled with the sense of hope that action can achieve success.

“If this were just a one-off event, it would be a huge amount of money and energy for something that would just disappear,” she said. “But we didn’t want it to be a small thing; we wanted it to be big enough that it would get people thinking about how to communicate success. The idea is to really change the conservation conversation: less doom and gloom, and more ways to inspire people.”

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