Featuring cutting edge case studies, the summit seeks to demonstrate the power of optimism not only to heal ecological systems, but also improve the human condition
Packed with headlines of despair and quasi-apocalyptic prophecies, 21st Century environmental media is in need of a psychological impact assessment.
In attempts to reel in the public with ‘clickbait' and sensationalist headlines, most outlets opt for worldwide doom and gloom, leaving the more modest small-scale success stories to be ignored. Offered no solutions, the public become as stumped as the trees they couldn't protect.
This month (April, 2017), an exciting conference is seeking to redress this imbalance.
The Conservation Optimism Summit, (taking place on April the 20-22), is gathering together some of the biggest names in conservation to share the oft-neglected triumphs. Stories of mass reforestation and renewable technologies might not get a look-in on the front pages, but they constitute a breath of fresh air.
Led by the University of Oxford's Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science and the Zoological Society of London, in conjunction with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the conference will be hosting interdisciplinary and cross-cultural speakers from conservation, art, positive psychology, sustainable business, NGOs, and constructive journalism.
Featuring cutting edge case studies, the summit seeks to demonstrate the power of optimism not only to heal ecological systems, but also improve the human condition.
Following two days of workshops, talks, interactive sessions, and discussions at Dulwich College in London (pictured), the third and last day - coinciding with Earth Day 2017 - will take place at London Zoo and is free-of-charge for all to attend. The zoo will be hosting a festival of stalls, each showcasing and celebrating the impressive efforts across the world to conserve species, from partula snails to pandas.
Tickets for the event can be bought through the website. Registration closes on April 10th, 2017.
The Conservation Optimism initiative is not attempting to hide the severity of our ecological crisis or promote wishful thinking. But rather, it is about a kind of grounded hope, steeped in pragmatism and sober understanding of the challenges ahead. As one conservationist, David Orr, put it: "It is hope with its sleeves rolled up."
The conference comes amid a growing understanding of environmental psychology in recent years. When fears heighten, survival responses are triggered and one can suppress their concern for others in order to protect themselves.
The term distanciation has been used to define an issue that arises when people perceive a threat as highly important, and yet feel powerless to help. This mismatch between threats and solutions, where no commensurate response is proposed for the looming challenges, paralyses the public and lets despair run amok.
Professor David Halpin, author of the book Hope and Education, asserts: "Despair itself is the enemy of progress because in the final analysis it lacks a faith in the future."
In the early nineties, a study by Columbia University compared the capability of three strategies to communicate ecological knowledge - scare tactics, informational and experiential. Scare tactics were least effective in imparting environmental knowledge, and furthermore, participants were less likely translate this information into pro-environmental behaviour.
The Power of Hope
Hope is increasingly being understood as more than just a lovey-dovey feeling, but rather a foundational element of motivation. The Swedish researcher, Maria Ojala, conducted experiments that show those who maintain grounded hope towards climate change express higher levels of pro-environmental behaviour, such as recycling.
Characterising the importance of optimism, the philosopher Albert Camus differentiated active fatalism and passive fatalism. In both cases, one recognises a harrowing threat, and yet while the latter retreats into inaction, the former asserts that: "One should start to move forward, in the dark, feeling one's way and trying to do good... Active fatalism is a refusal to capitulate to hopeless odds."
St Francis' words encapsulated this form of hope: "Even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant this tree."
When speaking of the Conservation Optimism Summit, UK campaigner Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall said: "One thing I've learned is how important it is to present positive solutions and to keep hope alive.
"I've met so many people doing fantastic work to protect and restore our natural world. We should be sharing these inspiring stories far and wide, rather than always getting bogged down in doom and gloom. I'm therefore delighted to support the Conservation Optimism initiative and its partners in their mission to spread a new wave of positivity throughout the environmental community."
It's all too easy to forget that the world is teeming with people on the front lines of conservation, leading the developments, technologies, and battles against climate change. It is through learning the myriad ways in which environmental leaders invent, discover, and achieve, by which the public can be motivated into action.
We need more than just trees. We must plant hope too.
Marcus Nield is an environmental journalist and documentary filmmaker, having written for The Independent, Positive News, Sci-News, and the Oxford Student Magazine. Marcus is currently working on a documentary about water scarcity in Palestine.