Transforming Conservation Practice by Mike Jones

Preface: This essay was written as a contribution to a discussion organized by the Great Transition Initiative entitled “Conservation at a Crossroads: Battle Lines and Ways Forward”. The discussion was initiated with an essay on Convivial Conservation by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, who developed the concept. Some of the essays were published by GTI, while the full set is only available to GTI members. Perspectives on where to go next with conservation practice fit with the recently published paper on Transformative Conservation of Ecosystems, written by myself and a number of members of the SERT thematic group in IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management. This essay blends field experience with a brief summary of the transformational strategies described in the paper.

Having spent 40 years at the coalface of conservation in Southern and Eastern Africa I have no doubt about the need for radical change along the lines proposed by Büscher and Fletcher. The nature-culture dichotomy of Neoprotectionism ignores the fact that recent advances in molecular biology clearly demonstrate that humans co-evolve with their environment, and that the archeological record clearly reflects the hand of man in the evolution of ecosystems since stone tools and fire were first invented.

Neoprotectionism also ignores the fact that Indigenous cosmologies are more sophisticated than modern systems science and have enabled Indigenous People to thrive for thousands of years without trashing the planet. Field experience in Africa with various market-based “solutions” advocated by New Conservationists shows that they provide short term partial solutions, mostly dependent on North-South tourism. It is unlikely that they will ever do more because they use the same kind of economistic thinking that created the problems in the first place.

After 15 years spent promoting the use of Resilience Thinking[1] and other aspects of Systems Thinking[2] to ecosystem management within the IUCN community, I have no illusions about the difficulty of achieving the change in mindset that is necessary to change conservation practice. Firstly, adults tend not to change unless strongly motivated to do so[3], perhaps through incentives or through crisis. Secondly, the current policy frameworks that are collectively driving biodiversity loss, climate change, and the associated ills that threaten our existence are deeply rooted in the Economism[4] that dominates the zeitgeist of Western societies. Various forms of authoritarian capitalism of Eastern Nations add to the relentless exploitation of our planet to maintain economic growth.

I see no signs of significant proactive response from national governments to our sustainability crises, and much of the change that is proposed aims to maintain economic growth despite all the evidence of a rapidly degrading resource base. I suspect that the current abuses of nature will continue until the crises that arise from global warming and species loss become sufficiently acute to precipitate economic collapse. Lag effects and the interactions between species and global warming will ensure that the decline continues for years after the economies go into decline. The path to “recovery” (whatever that might mean in terms of novel species and communities) will be long and slow.

Although our situation is dire, there is much that can be done at small scale to develop and test new approaches to conservation practice that pave the way for the global paradigm shift towards the conviviality described by Büscher and Fletcher. To that end myself and some colleagues from IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management wrote a discussion paper on Transformative Conservation of Ecosystems, which was improved based on feedback from others in IUCN and the anonymous reviewers who contributed many constructive comments to our initial draft.

The paper is soon to be published in a peer-reviewed journal[5] [it was finally published in March 2022], but I take this opportunity to provide an overview. The paper proposes a praxis that rethinks and restructures the relationships between industrial capitalist societies and nature; conserves biodiversity while transitioning to net zero emissions economies; and develops regenerative methods to restore lost biodiversity. In summary, we proposed six interrelated practices that can lead to a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of nature:

  1. Take a social-ecological systems approach to transformation. This recommendation draws extensively on the work of the Resilience Alliance, with special reference to conservation related work from South African National Parks and colleagues in academia.
  2. Partner with political movements to achieve equitable and just transformation. This proposition was partly inspired by the ideas presented in Convivial Conservation and recognizes that transformation is an intensely political process that conservationists trained in the natural sciences are ill-equipped to deal with.
  3. Link societal with personal (“inner”) transformation. Inner transformation is a recent field of sustainability research which recognizes that mindset change, and transformation of society begins with individuals and involves multiple psychological, sociological, and anthropological factors. One aspect of inner transformation addresses the belief that people are separate from the rest of nature. Another is to provide people with the emotional tools required to deal with anxiety caused by the existential crisis and grief over the loss of nature. A third is to promote the deep reflection that is required to adjust self-defeating cognitive filters and individual mental models based on earlier environmental conditioning.
  4. Update how we plan for conservation. This update is necessary to apply the first three practices and replace traditional planning based on short-term, single-scale, linear-thinking interventions with planning processes specifically designed to address socially and ecologically complex problems with multiple causalities that interact across multiple levels of scale. To this end, the Wayfinder guideline[6] developed by a team of practitioners and scientists at Stockholm Resilience Centre is arguably the most useful.
  5. Facilitate shifts from diagnosis and planning to transformative action. Action adds the hands and heart dimensions of doing and learning by doing to the four previous conceptional steps. It is where management based on science becomes an art, and practitioners use action, reflection and learning to develop the skills necessary to become competent change agents.
  6. Improve the ability to adjust to transformation as it occurs. In addition to the background rate of species extinctions through habitat loss, climate change will shift biomes and change weather patterns. Novel communities and relationships for all life forms will emerge demanding continual adjustment of conservation practice.

We recognize that these proposals require conservationists to make many changes in their current practices, but don’t see how else human society will find a way out of its current situation.

Acknowledgement: My summary of the Transformative Conservation of Ecosystems paper is inevitability biased and I take responsibility for any misrepresentation of contents previously agreed with my coauthors.

Mike Jones is semi-retired, working at the SLU Swedish Centre for Biodiversity as an advisor and teacher of systems thinking for sustainable development.

[1] Folke et al. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20 URL: And Folke et al. 2021. Commentary: Resilience and social-ecological systems: A handful of frontiers. Global Environmental Change 71(102400).

[2] Meadows, D. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green.

[3] Illeris, K. 2014. Transformative learning and identity. Journal of Transformative Education. 12(2): 148-163. (Unfortunately behind a paywall)

[4] Norgaard, R.B. 2015. Economism and the Econocene: a coevolutionary interpretation. Real World Economics Review 87.

[5] Fougères et al. 2022. Transformative Conservation of Ecosystems. Global Sustainability 5(e5).

[6] Wayfinder

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