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When Rome is burning - conservation strategy in fast-changing times

Rome is burning. It's been burning all my lifetime. I was born in 1961 - only a year after most recent environmental baselines for comparison of our predicament. As a childhood lover of trees, nature, wildness, creatures, volcanoes and adventure, I was destined to throw myself into this predicament.

But only now is much of the rest of the world finally feeling the heat. We have not been successful as a global conservation community - yet. But we can be. We must be. There's never been more at stake.

We in the environmental movement - scientists, farmers, gardeners, policymakers, activists, artists, economists, parents, recyclers, faith communities, students and teachers - need to be incredibly inventive, collaborative, scale-minded, and efficient if we are going to turn the sustainability tide in time for this planet and this climate.

At the same time, there are people with breathtaking ambition and confidence making waves with organizations and how they operate, by wading into the ring and grabbing bulls by their horns. @Hari Balasubramanian of @EcoAdvisors is one of these. And thank goodness for him! I've been inspired and excited to be having discussions with Hari and with a whole range of big-picture planners, thinkers and doers around the world in my efforts to scale up and increase the impact of what we are doing - not only we in the Conservation Biology Institute, with our collaborative platforms for geospatial decision-support and science/policy translation - but also in organizations and groups around the world.

Hari Balasubramanian said to some of us this morning that his own epiphany, some years ago, was listening to a speaker talk about a mind-bending European Commission report. It said that more than half of global GDP - some US$35-40 trillion - was spent in economic activities which were deliberately trashing the environment.

So he started doing calculations on the back of an envelope about the budgets of global environmental conservation organizations. Optimistically, they barely approached US$50 billion. He realized with a stone in his heart that this meant that under the present economic paradigm of business operations and national development, 1000 times more money was being spent against us than for us. And that therefore, things had to change - massively.

I have a real fire in my belly about collaboration and scaling up successful examples in conservation. And I'm increasingly using my own allocation of oxygen, carbon and other resources to maximize our impact - on reversing biodiversity loss and climate change, and on enabling rapid, just, and lasting solutions to this existential crisis for civilization.

For me, there are few more pitiful and irresponsible things to witness - and I feel this viscerally - than the aggressive scrapping of environmental organizations over diminishing crumbs at the table, thrown there by agencies, philanthropies and corporations. In my youth, I was a raptor ecologist, and observed raptors mantling over their prey, just like some conservation organizations are mantling over their grants and donors. Some of these organizations are big, and a law and vehicle unto themselves. They have little interest in listening to or, sometimes, in working with others. Others are tiny, and probably don't have the critical mass to succeed on their own. Do we just let the tiny ones founder through the laws of natural selection? Or are we better than this?

It's time to step back from the fray and remember that we are all in this for the same purposes. Life doesn't have to be this way. We can change it. But we won't change it with the same competitive mindset, and a law of dramatically diminishing returns.

I was lucky to be part of biodiversity and climate change science, planning, policy and conservation management in countries like Namibia and South Africa, and globally, for more than 34 years. I fell in the right place at the right time. In those countries, I learned that conservation effectiveness is largely a consequence of shedding small thinking. Because Namibia had won its independence from its colonial masters in South Africa (and before that, Britain and Germany), and because South Africans had won a transition to democracy from their oppressors, the slate was wiped largely clean. New constitutions were written, new flags and anthems were designed. They were heady days - inspiring days. They were days where we could ask, publicly, "What kind of a society do we want to have now?" And "How are we going to get there?"

And for at least a brief moment in space and time, we managed to shape that society. Namibia still has one of the only constitutions in the world that explicitly protects biodiversity and essential ecosystem processes, forbids toxic waste dumping, and requires the sustainable use of natural resources. Like most countries, it's not perfect. It's faltered, sometimes badly, in implementation. But it has one of the world's very best and most ambitious protected area networks that generates significant, lasting revenue for the country.

Sandwich Harbour, Namibia by HimanshuuSheth

And early people at these critical moments in time and history in the early 1990s thought big - people like Chris Brown, Mary Seely and Shaun Russell in Namibia (respectively then the director of environmental affairs, director of the Desert Research Foundation, and dean of science at the University of Namibia), and Richard Cowling and Kristal Maze in South Africa (respectively then academic ecologist and conservation biologist and chief director of biodiversity policy). They opened up space for a wave of incredible young black conservationists, policy analysts and thinkers to grasp the opportunities and extend them further for social and environmental justice. They strode straight up to the center of the national development stages and pointed out that those countries' ambitions depended fundamentally on the state of their ecosystems, species, and people, and that the three were inextricably intertwined. They wrote ambitious but practical plans, hired dream teams, influenced the National Treasury and national development Vision 2020 and 2030 processes which presaged the "Half for Earth" movement. They had the courage to think big, and understood the power of the times.

The work we did in those days effectively overcame much, though certainly not all, of the damage of decades of paramilitary-style conservation during colonial rule - in which conservationists tended to be white guys in khaki uniforms, sticking up fences, sinking boreholes, throwing out local communities and declaring conservation areas. Not all of these white guys were small-minded, of course. Some were the most incredible, humane and thoughtful visionaries I've ever had the privilege of working with. But a sea change was long overdue.

False Bay coast, Cape Town, S. Africa - P. Barnard

We are now well past the 11th hour. We are failing at our task if we continue as though nothing's changed. Things are changing fast. The tide of public opinion, corporate practice, and public policy is changing around the world - even in the USA. So we can again be bold. There's no time to waste.

It's long past time for all of us in the environmental sector to stop wringing our hands at the periphery of the global economy. It's long past time for conservation organizations to stop scrapping and competing for public funds, attention and goodwill. We need new paradigms of collaboration, resource pooling, and collective action with new and old partners to accelerate change. So it's time again, to stride straight up to the center of our national economies and public policies, and work with others to shape the solutions.

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