The People Side of Conservation
by Ryan O'Connor
Most of our conventional thought about conservation is pretty material. We should use less plastic, eat less red meat, drive more efficient cars, and turn off the lights when we don’t need them. Of course all of those things are invaluable pieces in the puzzle to sustaining and conserving our natural world for the generations that will follow us. But material thought can only bring us so far. In the turbulent and often perplexing world we live in today, what’s going to really count is the people making it happen. Passionate, informed, and committed people drive movements, and making conservation a consistent part of the global culture is the movement of our generation, and maybe the most important the world has ever seen.
This January, I got the amazing opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Belize doing a field study course with the University of Virginia on Tropical Ecology and Conservation. While we were in the country, we got to meet some incredible leaders that have made the conservation of their home their life’s work. Sharon Matola literally built the country’s only zoo from scratch. Dr. Colin Young went to school in the States and came home to work in the Belize Ministry of Resources and the Environment. These kinds of passionate leaders are what turn the science of conservation into a reality today.
What really resonated with me, though, was the group of students I was a part of. A few of us were environmental science majors that were pretty familiar with sustainability and conservation. But most of the group came from other majors: economics, political science, foreign affairs, and biology to name a few. In 4 years of undergrad work in environmental sciences, I’ve become pretty knowledgeable about conservation in an academic sense. But seeing 24 students from vastly different backgrounds come together, put their boots on the ground, and study conservation in a real-world country where it is so vital, gave me a new perspective on what conservation means.
What I took away from two weeks in Belize was that it’s going to take our entire generation to get this done. Maybe conservation begins with the environmental scientists, but it will never get very far if we don’t push it beyond our own community. To save and sustain our world and its ecosystems, we need the economists, the political scientists, the diplomats and the biologists all equally. But most importantly of all, we need communicators: people from different disciplines that are informed on the issues and passionate enough to go out and talk about them. What I saw in Belize is exactly was we need. Young, optimistic people willing to go out and learn about the challenges we face, discuss how we as a society can meet them, and bring those messages out into society. A culture of conservation may be rooted in science, but it begins and ends with people. It begins and ends with us.