Power and Conservation: A Primer

We’re still trying to figure out power and change, so we invited conservation strategist David Johns, co-founder of The Wildlands Network, and board member of the Conservation Biology Institute, to talk with Illahee Society members at Pomarius Nursery on the first 80 degree day of 2010. Johns encapsulated the key take-home points from his new book, A New Conservation Politics: Power, Organization Building, and Effectiveness.

David Johns talking with Illahee Society members

It’s a dense read, a lifetime of experience working with dozens of organizations, documented in dozens of articles in Conservation Biology and elsewhere, crammed into 350 pages. The author himself says it’s best used as a manual, which conservation professionals can dip into as needed.

We disagree. You should just buy the book and read it cover to cover, sitting upright, with coffee. Like we said, it’s tough and dense. But so are our conservation problems.

Or you could have gotten the Cliff’s Notes from Johns this past Sunday, and a glass wine to make it go down a bit easier. Here’s the barest beginning of a summary:

We’ve had some success in the past half century: The Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Protection Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and on and on.  Many of these were passed by our greatest environmental president: Richard Nixon.

And we have largely won the debate about the need to undertake local, regional, national and international efforts to stem global warming and move toward a sustainable future.

But bottom line, our global ecological footprint continues to grow. We use more than 40 percent of the earth’s net terrestrial primary productivity (and 30% of marine NPP). We’re ripping though stocks of biological assets faster than we can renew them, never mind non-renewable geological assets, like oil. Plus we’re leaving a lot the toxic left-overs lying around.

Why is this? Simple. It’s in the best short-term interest of people in power to do this, even as many of our leaders realize it’s not in their or our medium or long-term interest. But we shouldn’t expect our elected, business and civic leaders to act in the long-term when the systems that got them there are ruled by the short-term.

What to do? Make bold demands. Power never accedes to anything but to demands backed up with the capacity to disrupt business as usual if they are not met. No major societal changes have occurred absent this.

But how? Here’s where the going gets tough, and where you might want to sit down with A New Conservation Politics for an extended while.

Problems are huge. Political resources are limited. Johns covers the gamut of strategy and tactics, which many of us might have heard many times, but practice only intermittently.  This is why he says his book is best used as a manual, to be dipped into repeatedly. Among his main points:

• Think big and stick with the big vision. We used to have 100,000 wolves in North America. That should be our long-term goal. We can always negotiate downward. Starting at 400 wolves and hoping to bargain up to thousands will not get us there.

• Be uncompromising on vision, but remain flexible on means. Work with whoever you have to (up to a point), and in whatever stepwise fashion is necessary (again, up to a point)  to achieve your vision.

• Know yourself, your adversaries, and decision-makers, and the strengths, weaknesses and pressure points of all three. Act on this knowledge.

• Words, rituals and messages matter – and with recent advances in evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics, we can use them to much greater effect. Small candle-light vigils to protest an unjust war, or a disappearing species just don’t have the same effect as the World Trade Center collapse, (which was exploited to mislead Americans into war), or a river on fire (which helped to catalyze Americans two generations ago against chemical pollution). Conservation adversaries have figured this out: “Healthy Forests” was code for cutting more big trees. “Clear Skies” was code for easing up on air pollution regulation.

• Conservationists need to work with human emotions (from the same Latin root as motivate). Problem is, many conservationists want to make the scientific case – numbers, biomass, ecosystem services disrupted – and stay out of the messy political and emotional arguments. Johns’ advice: get over it. You need to wade into the messy real world. Or work with those who will.

• Learn to identify and exploit crises and divisions among the elites. Both circumstances may weaken opponents and dominant ideologies and institutions, presenting new opportunities for conservation. When factions of the powerful fight each other they often need support from non-elites, giving the latter new leverage.

• Learn from past movements – abolition, suffrage, labor – in terms of organizing, and finding existing constituencies and institutions that become your power base.  For labor is was the fraternal organizations. For civil rights it was the Black churches. We still haven’t figured out what it is for climate change.

These few points, which David Johns shared with Illahee Society members, provide a quick menu of his thinking on power, change and the conservation movement. For the full meal, get the book.


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