Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Why do conservation?

I have toiled away my evenings for the last nine months or so at my local pub, pulling amber pints of Speckled Hen and serving too many greasy cod and chips than I care to remember just to pay back the costs of my last lot of conservation volunteer work and save for the next. Standing behind the bar on an evening shift, I was confronted with a question from one of the dedicated regular drinkers that has niggled like an unreachable tick at the back of my mind since that night.   As I placed his third pint of bubbling Carling down on the glazed wooden bar top with a soft thud, he looked at me with a blank, wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression of simple shock. “But what about your LIFE?” he asked me. His question was prompted after I explained that I wouldn’t be behind the bar the following week, as I was going to volunteer in Greece for three months with a marine conservation charity. This man is not the first, and I’m sure will not be the last, who does not understand the reasoning behind the choice, and the necessary process to work in conservation. I have seen this confused blank expression on many faces during the short time throughout and after university in which I have decided to make conservation my career choice, which is caused by the clash of opinion and understanding about what life ‘should’ be.

            Since that night behind the bar, I have had time to contemplate this career choice, and the justification of the necessary way of living to eventually be paid, as well as the importance of the research, science, activism, community work and influence on local and national policy that conservation is all about. So here I will attempt to explain to those who do not understand, to those who have lost faith in, to those who do not agree with the idea of (and necessary life style to permit) conservation work.

            To my Dad, who’s reaction to this latest three months volunteer work was “You can do what you want Alice, you’re old enough now that I can’t stop you”, who sees voluntary work abroad as time wasted putting off getting a ‘real’ job in the UK, my Dad who when I announced I will be applying for a PhD in conservation genetics said “How old will you be when you finish THAT? But what about getting married?” (I think he was joking...) My Dad who has also toiled away day after day, in a job that has turned his hair grey, to provide a privileged standard of living for me and my family, and who only wants the best for me as his little girl.
            To my Mum, who wanted the same things I do, but never took the leap to make it a career because of pressures on her to make money in an office job. Who hated her office job so much that she quit out of stress when we were kids. Who worries about me every time I get on a plane. Who I tell white lies to about the number of species of poisonous snakes in the area, and the absence of any anti-venom in the first aid box. My Mum, who inspired these desires in me to live in, and protect nature.
            To my girl friends who have asked me where and when I plan to settle down, who have the five-year-plan all mapped out. My friends who have to put up with me missing birthdays and events every year because I’m living in a rainforest somewhere. My friends who don’t understand why I would want to live in these places where I can’t wash for days and can’t see my boyfriend for months.
            To my boyfriend, who supports and encourages me everything I do, but who may wonder what my motivation is for leaving him for months at a time, who may sometimes doubt the practicalities of making a long distance relationship work, who may worry about me when I don’t have internet for days or weeks at a time and will have to go without communication between us and call this his relationship.
            To my friends from my university course, who also love conservation, but gave up on it because of the overpoweringly sheer hopelessness of most conservation efforts. My friends who are clever enough and interested enough to work in conservation but went for better financial prospects working for huge research companies or selling insurance.
            To those people that say they would never give money to an environmental charity, as the only thing worth giving money to, are charities that care for humans. To those people who believe that conservationists, if they had the choice, would rather shoot a human than a dog. To those people that see conservationists as tree hugging, vegetarian hippies, who have their head so high in a cloud of sunshine, LSD, orang-utans and rainbows that they forget the suffering of PEOPLE in poverty and exploitation.
            To the policy makers who sit behind desks and make decisions that affect the entire planet about how much of it we are allowed to keep taking and taking and taking without giving back. The policy makers who may have never set foot in a forest, or walked through a wild flower meadow, or seen a fish swim in the sea. The policy makers who continue to allow extortionate exploitation of natural resources at rates that will mean we have nothing left in the next 50 years.

To all of these people, my answer is this.

            Dad, I don’t want the life you imagine for me. I don’t want to get a graduate job as an environmental mitigation officer for a global food research company and spend my days contemplating the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of Marmite. I don’t want to be a Biology teacher and go from a life in the classroom to the rest of my life in a classroom forcing text books down unwilling throats. I want to do something I love, I want to see the world, I want to I feel I’m contributing some good in a world where so many people don’t care about preserving it. I want to do something that challenges my brain and heart every day, and pushes me beyond my comfort zone: and that will not come from sitting behind a computer. Financially, this may be a problem - I will have to volunteer, keep a bar job on the side of my PhD, start right at the bottom and take post docs or short contract jobs that will be unpredictable and unsecured. But I regard a stimulating, exciting, enriched standard of living in which I may see the world, learn many languages, experience many cultures and feel proud of what I do, over a financially rich one.
            Mum, this career choice may be difficult and it may be dangerous. I may die after getting bitten by a snake, or skewered by an elephant, or drown diving, or squished under a falling tree, or contract Malaria or Japanese encephalitis, or be eaten by a crocodile or fall off the side of a mountain, or constricted by a rogue anaconda. But I also might die in a car accident, or of cancer, or stabbed in a robbery, or I might just die as an old lady peacefully in my sleep after a long and fulfilled life in which I did my best to prevent the onslaught of human mistakes by protecting the biodiversity on earth, stimulating my brain, developing my knowledge every day, and seeing the beauty of the world. I promise I will be careful.
            Friends, I’m not ready to plan out my marriage; my 1.8 children; how many rooms I want in my detached suburban house; what brand of car I want and what colour to choose to match the bathroom towels to the bathroom tiles. I’m twenty three, and I have the rest of my life to worry about that. Maybe I’ll live on a boat, maybe I’ll live in a tree house, and maybe I’ll have a tiny flat in central London shared with four other people. Right now, it’s not a priority for me.
            Boyfriend, you know this is what I have dreamed of. I have always wanted to see the world and every forest, lake, mountain and creature it has to offer, because there is just so much THERE that one life time isn’t enough. It’s overwhelming how much there is to see. I have always been angered by the destruction that man imposes on an Earth with an ever dwindling array of life, and someone once told me that where you have passion, you will succeed. It is that passion that is the reason why our relationship may be difficult at times, but I know that if anyone can fire and reflect that passion in me, it is you. I am a bird that will migrate across continents, I look forward to a day when you will fly with me, and if you are patient, after the days, weeks or months when we must fly our separate ways, I will always return to our nest.
            University friends, I may come to find one day that I will be forced into the same path as you. I may find that I have to have more money to live or that I want to settle down in the UK but can’t afford the house prices whilst I’m working in conservation. I may become disheartened at the uphill struggle and seemingly endless battle to preserve biodiversity and eventually say “Fuck it!” but for now, I will try, because my gut tells me it is important and morally right. If the greatest threat to conservation is thinking that someone else will take care of it, then I will not leave it to someone else. Yesterday I found a kitten on the edge of death. Its eyes had sealed closed with thick green puss and become one huge scab. Its head was covered in tiny white lice that had grown in layers over layers, blocking its entire head from the light. It didn’t have the strength to make a noise. I knew it had nearly no chance of surviving, but I spent the morning cleaning it and feeding it through a syringe until all the lice we gone and its eyes were clean and open. I put it in a cardboard box with a towel and visited it before bed with more food. In the morning it was dead. In hindsight, it was so weak and ill, that it didn’t surprise me, but even knowing this now, I would do the same thing again because my gut and my heart tells me to try.
            To those people who stereotype conservationists - if I had the choice between shooting a dog or a human, I would shoot the dog every time. I value human life over the life of an animal. But at what point that is always the case, I do not know, at what point do we value life for its quality rather than because it is the same species as us? If you gave me a gun and asked me to point it at a thirty year old mother elephant, with wise eyes behind long lashes that keep out the African dust, an incredible memory of the layout of the land, and an emotional and social structure more intense and complicated than a human one – then point me at mass murderer or serial rapist who has exploited and lived on the suffering of others his entire life, I think I’d be stuck for a decision. I am not a vegetarian (as much as I have contemplated it, but that’s a whole other article). I do agree with the work of human charities, I do understand the need to put poverty, human abuse and human exploitation as a high priority. I believe the biggest threat to earth is over population, and this is should be the primary issue facing our generation. However, I also believe that human preservation comes hand in hand with the preservation of the environment.
            That includes the ecosystem as a whole. The global ecosystem, consisting of the fabric sown by the hand of evolution, made of the fibres of the pollen grain on the leg of every bee as he makes his journey from flower to flower across the countryside so that humans may survive on fruit, vegetables and grain. The fabric that includes the microscopic phytoplankton floating in sea that depends on clean water, which feed the zooplankton, which feed the mesopelagic fish which feed the tuna that propels the fishing industry that provides livelihoods and food for millions of humans. The fabric that consists of the oxygen in the air that we breathe, expelled by the stomata of every leaf of every tree that we cut down for paper or space to grow coffee or oil palm, which as we do, slowly chokes our atmosphere until a day will come when humans can no longer live with the pollution and subsequent effects of high temperatures. Trying to slow the destruction of mankind because of the mistakes of mankind - this is conservation.
            To the corrupted policy makers who make laws and quotas that allow you to make dirty millions from the over exploitation of resources. Do you think when you have allowed the last fish to be hooked out of the sea and allowed the last tree to be cut down, you will eat your money? Do you not care about the preservation of mankind after you are dead and buried in your oak, gold rimmed coffin bought with the backhanders from corrupt politicians with personal interest in the decisions you make? This is why I want to do conservation. To bring some balance to your decisions. To stand up for logic in the court of Earth. To give evidence against you so that there is hope of the continuation of our species as well as the other millions upon millions of species that you directly affect.

But more selfishly, I want to do conservation because of the life it allows.

Sitting on a boat watching the sun rise, platinum-gold at five in the morning over the flood plain of a rainforest, where the cool air is bursting with sweet life in your nostrils, where the proboscis monkeys crash between the branches making leaves fall down at your feet and the hornbills swoop overhead in shocking colours: this is living.

Lying in a hammock at night as the thick tropical rain drops pound down on the thin lining between you and them, where the water runs in streams through the mud below you and you pray that the supporting strings don’t snap: this is living.
Sitting and watching a Red Capped Manikin lek fly above your head in a mating dance of chirps of wing vibrations faster than your eye can see, whilst you quietly listen to the glorious diversity of the dawn chorus using the senses that our devolution has left dusty on the shelves of our subconscious: this is living.
Holding your breath until your lungs twitch in response to oxygen starvation as you swim to the ocean floor to meet the eyes of a fish who curiously comprehends you, and the peaceful thick silence like that in an enormous empty cathedral that lies all around you whilst you sway in the current and feel the cold cover your body and look up to the bright, white, shimmering rays of the sun on the surface of the water: this is living.
Laying on a boulder next to a mountain river as it gushes next to you, teaming with tadpoles and tiny fish growing in the shallow pools, staring up at the silver white moon in all her clarity, glowing through the cloud halo as the stars scatter the sky like spilt salt over a black table, shooting occasionally straight across your vision: this is living.
Seeing the glowing eyes of an animal in the night that could put you in the hospital that is at least three hours journey, but judging the situation using your senses, feeling your heart pound in your throat and your adrenaline rush, as health and safety is forgotten here and you are reminded of your vulnerability, your pain, your senses, your animal nature: this is living.

And so, if I had the time to think before I replied to this man at the bar, I may have said something along these lines. But in answer to his question and to the question in all its forms of why I want to work in conservation, the answer is simply, to live.

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