Seima Forest
The Seima Protection Forest in Cambodia is home to dozens of endangered species and is one of the areas being researched by ICCS academics.

Image credit: Harriet Ibbett

New summit aims to get us feeling optimistic about conservation

Stuart Gillespie

From the 'Red List' of threatened species to reports of indigenous people suffering from the loss of their natural resources, we are constantly faced with upsetting news about conservation.

But while the issues facing the planet are serious and urgent, a new summit being organised by the University of Oxford is aiming to highlight the positive work being done in conservation: the new government initiatives, the success stories at local level, and the optimism we can feel about the future.

The Conservation Optimism Summit, to be held next year from 20-22 April, will bring together people from the worlds of conservation, government, industry, NGOs and academia to highlight ways in which we can celebrate successes and get behind a new, positive way of thinking about conservation.

The summit, which is a joint venture with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), will culminate on Earth Day 2017 with an outreach event open to the wider public.

Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity in Oxford's Department of Zoology, and Director of Oxford's Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS), is one of the figures spearheading the event. She says: 'In broad terms, we are trying to effect a change in the way people think about conservation. There's lots of bad news out there, and it can give the impression that the field is all doom and gloom.

'But it's not like that, and what we need to do is change that mindset so that we can continue to attract talented young people into conservation, as well as engaging the public with important topics like biodiversity and ensuring we can influence policy makers to help address the most urgent problems facing the planet.'

Professor Milner-Gulland highlights initiatives such as #OceanOptimism, which was launched two years ago and is spreading the word about ocean conservation successes via social media.

She says: 'Nobody is underestimating the task that faces us in terms of conservation. The massive loss of global biodiversity – much of it caused by human activity – is very clearly expressed in things like the IUCN Red List and the Living Planet Index, and this has a huge knock-on effect on the livelihoods of people around the world.

'But we also have to realise that things are moving forward productively – from smaller successes at local level to things we can be proud of at government and international level, such as the establishment of marine protected areas.'

Jonathan Baillie, Conservation Programmes Director at ZSL, says: 'No matter how you dress it up, the human impact on the environment has been devastating. Not surprisingly, the conservation movement has traditionally had negative messaging focusing on the threats and overwhelming challenges. However, this is not the way to inspire change. We need to create a positive vision for the future, focus on solutions and inspire society to take action. We need to celebrate success, identify what is working and bring it to scale.'

The summit has already attracted a high-profile supporter in the form of chef, television personality and environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who says: 'I'm lucky enough to have the medium of television to discuss and investigate environmental issues that I think are important. One thing I've learned is how important it is to present positive solutions and to keep hope alive, as well as educating audiences about the problems facing the world.

'I've met so many people doing fantastic work to protect and restore our natural world. We should be sharing these inspiring stories far and wide, rather than always getting bogged down in doom and gloom. I’m therefore delighted to support the Conservation Optimism initiative and its partners in their mission to spread a new wave of positivity throughout the environmental community.'

The event will partner with the Global Earth Optimism Summit, coordinated by the Smithsonian Institute, and will touch on a number of themes: why we need to be optimistic; how we can celebrate successes; how we can learn from those successes (and from failures); and how we can scale up good ideas to help tackle the world’s major conservation challenges.

Professor Milner-Gulland adds: 'We're also trying to engage the arts in a way that doesn’t usually happen in conservation science. By thinking more creatively about optimism and conservation, we hope to be able to engage people with the subject in greater numbers.

'Our response to pressing conservation issues has thus far been half-hearted. We want to form a big, global movement to help change people's attitudes towards conservation.'

The first two days of the Conservation Optimism Summit will be held at Dulwich College, London, with the third hosted by the Zoological Society of London.