How to challenge the conservation status quo

Ian Parker / Unsplash
13 July 2023

An insight piece by Sudha Iyer, Communications Consultant for the Future of Conservation NGOs project

In the last ten years, as a conservation professional in India, I have witnessed the struggles faced by marginalised communities and how large sections of our population still lack basic necessities and face discrimination based on caste, religion and gender. I have also had the opportunity to work in the corporate sector, integrating sustainability into day-to-day operations, and I spent a year and a half with a group of conservationists from 21 different countries at the University of Cambridge learning how to be an effective conservation leader as part of the the MPhil in Conservation Leadership course. 

These experiences have led me to realise that conservation decisions are influenced by various factors  like political history, narratives, social dynamics, ideological differences, diverse value systems, cultural realities and scientific uncertainties. 

In 2021, I joined Unearthodox (formerly the Luc Hoffmann Institute) to work on the Future of Conservation NGOs initiative. Our goal was to surface transformative pathways for future conservation NGOs given the complex socio-environmental challenges of the 21st century. Through more than 100 conversations with individuals from diverse backgrounds working on conservation issues worldwide, we identified four areas in need of significant change. Together, we scrutinised conservation’s 'existing state of affairs' and found that this status quo often lacked diverse voices, had imbalanced narratives, insufficient diversity in governance structures and composition, and funding models that perpetuate existing issues. It became clear that all of us, including our team at Unearthodox, were part of this larger system and we needed to be particularly mindful to be and remain part of the solution without inadvertently reinforcing the problem.

The question arose: how do we challenge this status quo and collaboratively build a future that is equitable and regenerative? What does it entail to challenge the existing state of affairs when, to some extent, you are part of it?

Being a rebel with a cause

Challenging the status quo encompasses a range of actions, from simple tweaks to significant overhauls. It involves critically examining existing patterns, beliefs and practices and recognising that some of them may no longer serve us or the greater good. Whether in the realms of social justice, politics or conservation, challenging the status quo requires a willingness to ask difficult questions, consider new perspectives and advocate for change.

Fundamentally, challenging the status quo is about acknowledging that the way things have always been done may not be the best way to achieve our goals. It requires recognising that existing norms and practices may be ineffective, unjust, or simply outdated.

Over the last 12 months working with the innovators who won our Innovation Challenge, I learnt that challenging the status quo is often not an easy process. It is uncomfortable, disruptive and risky. People often struggle to speak up or advocate for change, especially when their views are unpopular or go against the prevailing narratives. It requires the courage to step outside your comfort zone and take on the risk of being viewed as different or unconventional. Despite these challenges, the process encourages creative thinking and enables problem-solving. I’ve seen innovators develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their values, and they often expressed feeling a greater sense of fulfilment.

Challenging the rebels 

I look at conservation organisations as rebels with a cause – fighting for the protection of biodiversity. But rebels, too, can fall into the trap of rigid thinking and entrenched practices. Many established conservation processes and approaches have been in place for decades and are sustained by donors and loyally accepted by conservationists, whose genuine concern is that challenging them could undermine the progress made so far. This is something similar to the status quo bias, which is an emotional preference for the current situation, often discussed in behavioural economics. As humans, we tend to engage in status quo bias because choosing the default is easier; opting for an alternative may require us to go out of our way.

However, conservation work is not always effective and there is much room and an urgent need for improvement. To enable effective change, we must first rebel against our own biases.

Letting go of control

When individuals challenge established norms and practices, they usually meet resistance. As a conservationist myself, I have often wondered if and how the existing power dynamics were impacting me. I also often find myself resisting change. The fear of losing control or influence can make it difficult to accept change. What seems to work is to remain focused on the ultimate goal. 

In order to achieve its ultimate goal, the conservation sector must remain relevant, adapt to rapidly changing external trends and demonstrate its impact. Rebalancing power dynamics and letting go of control is a necessary step, even though it may seem difficult and uncomfortable. 

This process is not automatic and requires effort. If we want to challenge the status quo we must first be aware of our own power and influence, work on our listening skills, and critically examine our willingness to consider and accept different viewpoints. By doing so, we can foster a more inclusive and collaborative environment in our day-to-day lives. In my experience, this approach unlocks untapped potential and drives innovation.

Servicing our ego-systems

Challenging the status quo is not just about shaking up established practices ‘out there’ but it also requires a willingness to engage in inner work and personal growth. I find this both challenging and inspiring. It means taking a critical look at our assumptions and beliefs and being open to questioning them.

One of the biggest challenges in doing this is to overcome our own resistance to change. We may have internalised messages that certain things are ‘just the way they are’, or that change is too difficult or risky. We may also have unconscious biases and assumptions that shape our thinking and actions and limit our ability to see and embrace new possibilities.

To challenge the status quo, we must be willing to engage in inner work that helps us identify and confront these internal barriers to change. This may involve working with a coach or therapist, engaging in mindfulness or meditation practices, or simply being more reflective and intentional in our day-to-day actions, attitudes and behaviours.

Ultimately, challenging the status quo is about more than just shaking things up. It is about creating a more just and equitable world, and this requires not only external action but also deep inner work and personal growth.

Being a curious conservation leader

If I had to sum up what I’ve learnt in the past few months, I would say I have rediscovered the importance and power of being curious about other people, points of view and ways of doing things. I do believe it’s time to embrace the power of curiosity – as a route to true inclusion and progress. Let us create a culture of belonging and trust through empathic curiosity and make it safe to challenge the status quo. Together, we can break down barriers – internal and external – push past limitations and make progress towards more inclusive and regenerative futures. 

Operationalising transformative change

In July 2022, Unearthodox (then the Luc Hoffmann Institute) announced the names of the nine winners of the Future of Conservation NGOs Global Innovation Challenge. 

These trailblazers were chosen for their innovative ideas that challenged the traditional conservation status quo and reimagined the conservation space for a more just, equitable and regenerative future. They participated in a specially curated incubation and co-learning programme, where they tested out different ideas, tactics and strategies.

Look out for our upcoming series of Q&As with several of the Innovation Challenge champions. They will share their inspiring journeys towards disrupting the conservation status quo, shaking things up and making a difference in the conservation space for more equitable futures. From their experiences in the incubation and co-learning programme, they have gained unique insights into how to operationalise their ideas and approaches in the real world and how to overcome challenges in the conservation sector. 

Watch this space! 

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of Unearthodox nor the Future of Conservation NGOs project.

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