Conservation in democracies: The role of advocacy

By Dr. Jesus A. Rivas
June 2001

    A week before the last presidential elections in the USA, the competition between the two major candidates looked incredibly close. Both candidates represented radically different positions on environmental issues. One candidate advocated for increasing timbering in old growth forest, oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, denied the existence of global warming and even wowed to lower air and water pollution standards for big corporations. The other one represented quite opposite positions in the environmental arena. Although there is a clear majority of people that care about the environment in the USA, the emergence of a so-called "Green Party" was threatening to draw enough votes from the environmentally friendly candidate to make the other candidate win. I was surprised that the Society for Conservation Biology had not set a position due to the clear difference between both candidates in the environmental arena that made clear which was the best choice. When I inquired about it they told me that the SCB could not support one candidate over another without risking loosing the tax exempt status that SCB enjoys. The only thing that SCB could have done is to contrast the candidates in the environmental issues without endorsing any particular one. However, with only one week to go before election day there was not enough time for this to happen. It brought to my attention that SCB journal has spent rivers of ink advocating advocacy yet we failed to be advocates in the issue that is most important on the conservation landscape of the United States of America (where most of the membership of SCB resides). I can identify two levels in where conservation biologists can be involved in order to contribute to the solution.

    One of the levels is analyzing the candidates and guiding environmental constituents to vote for the environment. Why was it me, of all people, a foreigner, the one to ask SBC to begin involvement in discussion of how national politics affect conservation? I realize that the problem at the core of this debate may lay in the difference between policy and politics. While the authors and readers of Conservation Biology have supported involvement in environmental policies in order to accomplish the goals of conservation, many might still be reluctant to get involved in the politics of environmental conservation. However, politics is simply the way to make policies happen and the only way to promote action in a democratic system. Can we really get policies working without getting involved in the politics of the environment?

    In a recent editorial Whitten et al. (2001) debated how conservation biology has succeeded as a science while failing with a loud thud in the very goals that it has set out to accomplish. Not unlike a surgeon that performs an excellent surgical procedure though the patient dies on the operation table. Why have we failed after doing such a good job? I contend that we spend a great deal of effort developing good environmental policies, but for lack of environmental politics, all our efforts are lost. The fact that in the last presidential race in the US the environmental voters had such a big part of the decision, and were so misled, makes me believe that SCB should orient the public in this arena. I realize that many people do not want to get involved in partisan politics; however we need not support a party line. We can do what scientists do best: look at the facts. If a given candidate has a good environmental record, we can do a public impartial analysis of the candidates bringing attention to the environmental record and platform of each candidate. This is simply part of bridging the gap between scientists and public, (education if you ask me). Identifying people who have a good environmental record and encouraging our readers and membership to consider the environment when they vote is not a partisan position but good environmental campaigning. This is nothing but the way the democratic system works; if we believe in democracy we better start playing by its rules. If the electoral masses choose based on the environmental agendas the parties will contend with each other with ever-greener policies. God bless a country where parties compete for votes over environmental issues!

    The other level of the dichotomy politics vs policy that I identify is in our teaching to our students. Should we address political issues when we talk about environment or should we stay in policies and ignore the politics around them? Should we identify the players of the different debates or should we shy away from it? For example, if we are talking about the residing hair line of the tropical forests around the world should we only identify demographic explosion on developing countries as one of the insurmountable problems, or shall we go the extra mile and inform the students that during the Reagan-Bush administration the US stopped all the economic help for family planning in the developing countries? Should we stop short of telling the students the whole truth because it might be a political issue or should we boldly bring the debate to the very core of the problem? This point is very important when we teach undergraduates considering that many of them, if they vote, they just tend vote for the party they were "born in" or are easily carried by popular campaign rhetoric. How many of us provide information to our students about the environmental record of the different candidates for various offices so they can make informed decisions? In my experience teaching senior biology majors, I was surprised at the low awareness of conservation politics and how their votes may affect the outcome of conservation effort. Not only this line of discussion was welcomed among the students but in addition after the course finished I keep receiving thank-you e-mails from my former students for what they learned in that style of discussions.

Conservation biologist is a discipline of crisis and the solution for the crisis calls constantly for newer actions. In the past we moved from pure science to working in policies. Then, there was a fair amount of resistance among the most conservative members of the scientific community that refused to move away from the pure science paradigm. Currently most people agree that developing environmental policies is a great part of our work. Now it is time to move also to work in politics. Offering technical solutions is one of our responsibilities but guiding environmental voters to make the best for the environment with their votes is, in my view, another very important part of our role. Being aware of the need for conservation voters, I find negligent not to move in the direction to create them. Letīs consider a medical Doctor that walks by a person bleeding in the street without doing any attempt to help the person; we would probably think that it was irresponsible. Are conservation biologists that are aware of the need for voters to make pressure on the elected officials to pass legislation and protect the environment but refuse to speak out for environment and environmental politics doing an equivalent mistake? I would welcome responses about our role in politics both as a society and as citizens

Literature Cited

Whitten T., Holmes, D., and K Mackinnon. 2001. Conservation biology: displacement behavior for academia? Conservation Biology 15: 1-3.