Thursday, 13 January 2011

Tip of the iceberg

If Marshall Ganz is correct, we must not only present the science behind nature but also the story in order to best empower individuals to take conservation action. When it comes to climate change, I have yet to find a more compelling storyteller than Elizabeth Kolbert.

Kolbert's three-part Climate of Man series for the New Yorker illustrates myriad scientific, social and political dimensions of our changing climate; presenting individuals occupying different poles of the issue without suggesting the absence of a consensus on key tenets: carbon dioxide is increasing in our atmosphere, and increased emissions are human-induced.

The series, masterfully organized into three discreet segments, weaves together: the nexus of archaeology and paleoclimatology (with respect to links between societal collapse and droughts), early snapshots of Alaskan climate change refugees, a window into climate modeling, and political opportunities and misdirection circa 2005, in addition to other topics.

For those with a casual interest in the topic and looking for a place to start: start here. For the rest of us with an interest in climate change, Kolbert's series is a model for presenting facts in a way that captivates audiences and carries them on a global odyssey, complete with foreign scripts, seascapes and siren song.

As for Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, my copy is in the mail... more on that to come.
" warming might be thought of as the tragedy of the commons writ very, very large." - Elizabeth Kolbert

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Trying to decide who is more disappointing: Tony Hayward or the audience at his talk

Reflections on a speech given by Tony Hayward at the Cambridge Union Society on 11 November 2010

This evening I saw Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, give a talk about the lessons learned from the Gulf of Mexico/Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I naïvely assumed that most of the audience would be there to hear what BP has learned and could share about how environmental and human impacts of activities like oil drilling can be mitigated.

So what really happened and why did I come out seething mad and bitterly disappointed?

Because two of the three ‘lessons’ were on how to deal with “crisis communication” and “political risk”: he told us about BP’s own reputational concerns but dismissed the environment and spent very little time on any lessons relevant to conservation. (The other lesson was “risk management” but even that emphasized business rather than environmental risks.

Because despite expressing regret for the lives lost in the explosion, he said “we can deal with the environment: we can restore it”. Really? I guess it’s true: corporations like his think money and technology can solve anything.

Because he belittled the environmental and livelihood impacts of the spill by calling the event “an almighty corporate crisis for BP” and saying “our efforts [to stop the leakage, clean up the oil, deal with media, deal with gov, etc] have done little to soften the impact…for BP”.

But also….

Because the questions the students asked were extremely disappointing. Nearly all of them demonstrated the audience’s interest in profits, business success (in the face of environmental and human casualty) and Tony Hayward himself.

Because the only questions relating to the environment were poorly articulated.

Because no one dissented and everyone laughed and clapped and indulged him in what is clearly a reputation and marketing tour for himself and BP.

Some of the questions (summarized):

Q: Why didn’t BP have insurance against a risk like this?
A: Too expensive, BP has been self insured for 20 years.

Q: How do you recover from the personal attacks on you and what do you plan to do next?
A: What happened was terrible but it happened, I’m at peace with it, and now I’m going to take 6 months off and go sailing in the Caribbean and climb Kilimanjaro.

Q: Can you tell us more about the sale of assets BP has promised to pay for the spill? [in reference to Hayward's public promise to sell off $30 billion in assets to cover spill costs and the fact that BP is planning to sell some of its Algerian assets to TNK-BP, a company half owned by BP itself. More on this on Reuters, a blog and another blog.]
A: No.
Audience: applause and chuckling.

The only thing the Q&A session inspired in me was disgust and disappointment with the audience in the room. They welcomed Tony Hayward with laughter, occasional applause and easy questions. No one challenged his sweeping dismissals of the environmental impacts, all they did was encourage and implicitly support the assumption that all that matters is profit and company reputation. Clearly higher education is still a long way from generating environmental awareness, caring or compassion.

Finally, I was disappointed by the management of the event itself. Ushering Tony Hayward out after a brief 20 minutes of questions, 10 minutes before the scheduled end of the event, was a display of cowardice and revealed a disinterest in the “frank discussion” the moderator had claimed to encourage at the start of the event. I was also disappointed to hear that the person who asked about the sale of assets was swiftly approached by the organizers after the event, apparently to chastise her for this overly challenging question. Sure, the organizers want to maintain a reputation as a safe place for controversial speakers to air their views, but they are verging on stifling challenging questions altogether.

(Note: I tried to ask a question but didn’t get the chance. Our question would have been: “Oil, gas, mining and extractive industries are environmentally speaking high impact activities. Who has the responsbility to oversee, regulate and police corporations’ environmentally harmful activities and who who can do this most effectively: governments, NGOs, the company or another?”)

Conclusion: I am most disappointed in the audience (current and former Cambridge students who are members of the Cambridge Union Society) because I expected so much more from them.
As for Tony Hayward, he proved that my naïve optimism that he might show genuine interest in improved environmental risk management was merely a temporary lapse in realism. He doesn’t care and he hasn’t learned.

But I’m also angry that people seem to care so much about profit and so little about nature. And I’m concerned about what we’re up against in this world as conservationists – it feels insurmountable after what I witnessed tonight.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Introducing Nigel and Chris: the people who make the conservation leadership wheel spin

With deep appreciation, we also want to introduce the people that have accepted the challenge to run the MPhil in Conservation Leadership and who have contributed significantly to making it a reality. Mainly, Nigel Leader-Williams, as Director of Conservation Leadership, and Chris Sandbrook, Lecturer in Conservation Leadership at UNEP-WCMC and Affiliated Lecturer of the Department of Geography.

After training as a veterinary surgeon, Nigel completed his PhD with the British Antarctic Survey on the ecology of introduced reindeer on South Georgia. For his post-doc, Nigel studied conservation measures need for rhinos and elephants in Zambia. He then worked with the Director of Wildlife in Tanzania helping write national policies for conservation. For the past 15 years, initially as Professor of Biodiversity Management at the University of Kent, and recently as Director of Conservation Leadership at Cambridge, Nigel has worked to build capacity in conservation through interdisciplinary research and teaching that sits within both natural and social sciences, with a focus on large mammals that conflict with human interests. More information on Nigel´s career and research on

Chris on the other side, has focused his research on the relationship between conservation and local livelihoods in the developing world, evaluating the effectiveness of market-based instruments as tools for conservation and development.

In his own words: "Over the past few decades various tools have been developed to mitigate conflict between protected areas and local people who live in and around them. The most popular of these tools has been tourism, which is intended to deliver funding for conservation activities and benefits to local people, thereby encouraging sustainable resource use. However, there is little evidence that this theory works in practice. Much of my research to date has addressed this issue, using mountain gorilla tracking tourism at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, as a case study. In my PhD work I adopted an interdisciplinary approach, using qualitative and quantitative research methods drawn from the biological and social sciences to assess the impacts of tourism at Bwindi for local people and for wildlife. The results showed that tourism can raise funds for conservation activities and deliver meaningful benefits to some local people, but that there remain considerable costs of tourism and conservation, inequalities in the distribution of costs and benefits, and risks to gorillas themselves.

More recently, I have carried out research on the likely impact of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) initiatives on forest governance, the values held by young conservation scientists, and the biological and social impacts of Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) interventions in Africa." A list of his publications can be reviewed on

The first week: From Norfolk Broads to Churchill College

Having the opportunity to see the diverse set of interests that influence decision-making in the Broads was the best way to start the course. We also got to know more about the activities developed on the ground by conservation institutions such as BirdLife International and the National Trust.

Isadora arrived a couple of days after...but in time for the first class and for the First Conservation Leadership Lecture.

We were privileged to hear Mark Rose, Chief Executive Officer of Fauna and Flora International, give the first Conservation Leadership Lecture on 14 October. Among a small invited audience that included members of the Cambridge conservation community, we were privileged to hear Mark describe the early influences on his life and his love of animals, his training and his career that has seen him move from crocodile rancher in Papua New Guinea, to mover and shaker in the local Wildlife Trusts, and then to CEO at FFI. During his time at FFI, Mark has turned the organisation round, from just being the world's oldest conservation organisation, to one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial conservation organisations. Throughout the lecture, Mark gave hints of his views on leadership, and some of the interventions he has made to ensure the effective management of the organisations he is running.

Following the lecture, we enjoyed Formal Hall at Churchill College, and ongoing discussions with members of the Cambridge conservation community! Here is the group in very different attire to the field trip, and already reflecting the range of leadership experiences we seek from our course!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Introducing a new generation of conservation leaders: Anya Zavadskaya (visitor for Michaelmas 2010)

"I was born and live in the Far East of Russia, in Kamchatka. After graduating, I started work in 2008 as a Staff Scientist responsible for studying environmental threats and impacts on Kronotskiy State Natural Biosphere Preserve in Kamchatka. I carry out annual recreational impacts and research on visitor use, mainly in geothermal areas of the Valley of Geysers and Caldera of Uzon volcano. I also undertake postgraduate research in the Department of Environmental Management of the Faculty of Geography, at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia. My PhD thesis focuses on the ecological and social factors limiting the development of recreation in the wilderness and PAs of Kamchatka.

I also give lectures and work with students from local universities, and lead a scientific research camp each year in the Preserve. From 2008-2010, I was involved in various research and educational projects supported by the Russian Fund for Fundamental Studies, the UNDP/GEF Kamchatka Biodiversity Conservation Project, and Rufford Small Grants that focused on studying recreational impacts on the ecosystems of Kamchatka. I am a member of IUCN’s WCPA Young Professionals Group, the Russian Geographic Society, the Kamchatka Ecotourism Society, and KamchatKAyaking Club."

Introducing a new generation of conservation leaders: Mxolisi Sibanda

"I have an honours degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Zimbabwe, where I followed the ecology options because of my love for the natural world. Having worked for a few years as a field researcher and intern, I went for MSc in Resource Conservation Biology at Wits University in South Africa.

On re-starting work, I gained valuable experience on various issues in several southern African countries within the miombo ecoregion. Miombo is a Swahili word for a type of woodland dominated by trees such as Brachystegia. My work was wide-ranging and encompassed activities on crocodiles, elephants, sustainable forest management, community-based natural resources management approaches, bio-fuels and climate change. As a result, my personal areas of interest now include: understanding and meeting the challenges of climate change mitigation and adaptation; planning and efficacy of protected areas relative to climate change; use of the ecosystem goods and services concept within the carbon market, through Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD); good forest stewardship; human-wildlife conflict, as well as the management of organisations for more effective delivery of conservation."