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Opinions on Conservation Optimism: Naïve Or Necessary?

8th October 2019

If you’re interested in studying any subject involving biology, geography or the environment it’s likely you’ll have heard of the current biodiversity crisis faced by conservationists. Unprecedented habitat loss and overexploitation by humans have led to our current epoch being billed as the “Anthropocene” by many scientists: this can be defined as a period of geologic time in which humans are the main force of influence exerting change on the Earth. If we carry on with “business as usual”, the main marks we’ll have left on the Earth during this time will be the sixth mass extinction, and anthropogenic climate change.

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to succumb to pessimism about the current state of the planet - it can seem like a problem that’s just too big and overwhelming to do anything about. However, this mindset is not conducive to coming up with solutions to the conservation crisis. This has led to the recent growth of a movement known as conservation optimism - a change in mindset which according to Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, one of the founders of the movement, is hoped to “attract talented young people into conservation, as well as inspiring the public with hope about the future, and ensuring we can influence policy makers to help address the most urgent problems facing the planet.”

You might have seen conservation optimism in action in any of the recent David Attenborough programmes such as Blue Planet II or Dynasties (and if not, definitely give some of these a watch!), in which he usually ends an episode with a rallying speech about the lifestyle changes we need to make in order to address the current issues. Although some of the scenes depicted can be distressing, the overwhelming message is one of hope - otherwise, the worry is that viewers will fail to engage with the show and simply change the channel.

Conservation optimism demonstrates how essential it is to treat the social aspects of conservation with as much respect as the raw science. Although it is, of course, crucial to understand the research behind an issue, there comes a point where this is outweighed by the need to communicate this research to the public, businesses and policy-makers, and then to actually put into motion the changes needed. This involves an understanding of human behaviour and psychology, as well as government and business operations, exemplifying the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

Planet Earth as seen from space

So how is conservation optimism applied?

Logo for the United Nations

Firstly, many conservation goals are aligned with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals. These are broken down into various sub-targets, which generally follow the SMART rule: they are specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-bound. Steps are then taken to meet these targets by government departments, NGOs, businesses and volunteer groups. However, there needs to be funding and public will in order for this to happen, which is where conservation optimism comes in. Funding is more likely to be granted to projects which can demonstrate previous conservation success. This might seem counterintuitive - shouldn’t we assign funding where the need is highest? The reason for this is that need is hard to measure, funding is limited and conservation projects are often high-risk, with relatively low success rates, so proven success is important.

IUCN Green List

This has led to the development of an “IUCN Green List” (Akcakaya et al. 2018). You might have heard of the equivalent Red List, which is a collation of the assessed extinction risk for plant and animal species. In contrast, the Green List aims to assess species recovery and conservation success. It quantifies four metrics of species recovery progress:

  • Conservation Legacy: comparing what would have happened without any conservation action to the current state of the species, to work out the impact of past conservation efforts
  • Conservation Dependence: the importance of ongoing and future conservation to species recovery
  • Conservation Gain: expected improvement in the state of the species as a result of current and planned conservation actions
  • Recovery Potential: the maximum amount of improvement in the future

The green-list is a practical and optimistic approach to prioritising and achieving conservation goals. The next steps involve applying the framework to threatened species, such as Saiga Antelope in Asia and eastern Europe or Clouded Leopard in Borneo.

What are the next steps?

Moving on to public will, one of the first practical steps to take is educating the public about the issues that exist and how they can help - through personal lifestyle changes or campaigning against bigger companies. This can be done even after people have left formal education, through documentaries such as David Attenborough’s incredibly popular Blue Planet II, mentioned above. Zoos and botanic gardens are also highly useful for public education, mediated through the enjoyment of wildlife. This is where is becomes important not to resort to pessimism - generally, people are more receptive to good news and finding out how they can help!


The good news is that there is hope, and steps are being taken towards species recovery every day. To incorporate some conservation optimism into your life, click here for a list of news stories exclusively about conservation successes.