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What if ditching plastic isn’t the number one thing you could do for nature?

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

As conservationists, we’re often mindful of our environmental impact. We proactively make changes (big and small) in our everyday lives to reduce our footprint: We recycle, we buy FSC products, choose renewable energy plans, boycott unsustainable palm oil companies and use ‘ecologically ‘ friendly cleaning products. And I’ve been to multiple conservation conferences where I’ve been instructed to cut out single-use plastics, take public transport, fly less and become a vegan. It’s actually often the takeaway question in the closing remarks at these events “what can you do today”.

We've cleaned up in our personal lives

If I’m honest with you, I often find it exhausting – and it’s an endless task. Yet, these small extras still seem worth it (even though I’m no saint, so I haven’t quite managed them all!) Due to the mixed feelings that I personally have regarding the pressure, guilt and obligation being endlessly piled onto individuals to make ever more changes to their daily lives, this blog seems hypocritical. But, I also can’t help noticing that as conservationists, there’s a missing piece here. A piece that we all seem to be ignoring.

Like you, I’ve dedicated much of my life to nature conservation, I work at it every day. So, I would argue that the biggest impact we, as conservationists, can have on the natural world is through our work. Our potential impact reaches far beyond our personal carbon footprint and expands exponentially when we consider the potential that our professional influence could have in reversing the biodiversity crisis. If you dedicate your life to something by thinking and working on it for five days a week, every year – imagine the slow creep of change your work can have.

Towards the end of 2018, I attended a seminar where the room was asked – what have you personally done for conservation? It made me question myself; after 10 full years of my career totally dedicated to conservation, what can I say I have truly achieved? What was my mark on the ground? Reflecting on those years, most of it felt like paperwork. That one question at the start of a seminar affected my perception of my work and myself more than I actually realised at the time.

THAT question; "What have you personally achieved for conservation?"

It did lead me to think about the challenge set out in this article’s title: I realised what I do at work really matters. In addition, using my time at work wisely has the potential to have a much more profound impact on nature conservation than my recycling (although no doubt this is still important). So why the crisis of confidence in the 2018 seminar? I somehow wasn’t doing enough or being as effective as I could be.

I truly I believe we all need to challenge ourselves to be more ambitious, even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. One thing I have learned during the course of my career is how professionalising our approaches as conservationists we can increase the rate of change more rapidly. Something which I believe is invaluable for a crisis discipline.

I have been fortunate enough to work in the conservation sector during a time where approaches are professionalising, so I've seen the difference it can make. For example, strategy, once limited to the business realm was formalised in the conservation world and I’ve seen the transformative effect it can have on the ground. It’s one of many professional approaches being integrated into nature conservation and it’s happening right now.

Yet, I feel there continues to be a lack of investment in people. Unlike the private sector, professional development opportunities can be limited, or sometimes absent. Because funds are often restricted to specific projects, there’s frequently a lack of budget for these core costs and consequently a lack of emphasis in this area. And I believe that’s failing conservation.

We all need to step up

Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t going to change overnight so (although it makes me shudder a little to do so) this is another thing I would add to your list of things you can do today, and as a conservationist, I think it’s the most important one.

Push yourself. Push yourself to be the best you can be. Take time to train, learn new skills, ways of working and advocate for professional development opportunities within your workplace. Don’t write off professional frameworks as a headquarters issue, something not for the conservation sector or something you don't have time for. By continuing to learn, gain skills and being ambitious you can transform the impact you have on the ground so investing your energy here can will pay dividends compared to the other task you probably bumped it for.

All that said, we need to be pragmatic. So it’s all very well reading this in a blog, but what can you realistically do now to increase your own impact at work in the limited time you have? My advice is;

  1. Identify your two biggest weaknesses, or the greatest gaps in your expertise, and work with your manager (or a mentor/adviser) to identify training or development opportunities that could help you to fill these gaps.

  2. Sign up for newsletters, read blogs and follow people online who share professional development resources that might help you. For example CIEEM, FSC, Conservation Careers, Wild Team & (of course, I have to mention) Vision Wild are all dedicated to helping conservationists gain new skills and offer a real variety of training opportunities.

  3. Did you know you’re a leader? We all are. Many conservation organisations have recognised that strong leadership throughout an organisation is the key to success. Look at the Conservation Leadership Programme and the Osprey Leadership Foundation for example. I’d strongly recommend investing time in leadership training such as Barry Dore’s Lead Like Mary programme. Barry has worked with many conservation organisations as well as big business – he really knows what he’s talking about.

  4. Many conservationists are introverts so the idea of networking either terrifies us or bores us. But it doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might think. Start with your existing conservation friends, and simply focus on maintaining exisiting relationships and keeping up to date with them.

  5. When you see that amazing job you’re not sure about applying for because it’s a step up, don’t talk yourself out of it, give it a go, you never know what might happen.

For me applying monitoring and evaluation techniques, theory of change approaches and project management principles to my work benefitted the projects I worked on. They transformed the impact of my work as an individual and – I saw positive impacts on the species I worked with. I also progressed in my career because I had developed a new perspective, which was a bit of a cherry on the cake.

Development in conservation is not about ego. It's your duty,

Ultimately though, investing time and energy into my own development has made me jump higher than I ever would have dared and in turn expanded my influence as a conservationist. I feel a responsibility to continue to make myself uncomfortable, and continue to learn, because the further I push myself professionally, the greater the impact of my career on the thing I love; our natural world.

So I challenge you to change your own perspective of professional development, from one that’s not egocentric but your duty. Perhaps even, the number one thing you could do for nature, today.

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