No, we’re not talking about environmentalists sense of style. Even though most of them turn up for a day of desk work wearing hiking boots, zip off trousers and khaki! We’re talking about the way environmentalists think.
Environmentalists are by nature optimists. They have to be to maintain sanity while the world burns. They are altruistic, sacrificing salaries and lifestyle for the greater good. They are also idealists, believing that people are inherently good and if they just knew what the reality was they would do the right thing.
These traits make environmentalists wonderful. Even the quirky sense of style is endearing. Environmentalists will inspire you, entertain you, and provide visions of how good the world could be. We’ve been ‘environmentalists’ for 10 years and are guilty of all of the above (with the exception of zip off trousers, that’s just criminal!). So we feel qualified to speak here.
We’ve realised that these traits also limit environmentalists and conservation organisations effectiveness when it comes to dealing with some of the world’s biggest issues. And in particular, tackling the drivers behind climate change and the extinction crisis. So we’ve put together an article explaining three things our current thinking misses, and what we can do to rectify it.
1. We have enemies, and our efforts need to explicitly counter them.
What do we mean by this? Well, there are strong commercial interests with a lot of money and political power who benefit from destroying the environment. They benefit enough to kill for it. Look at Johanna Stutchbury who was assassinated in Kenya last month because she stopped developers from destroying a public forest. They also benefit enough that they can pour billions of dollars into fighting us. Too often conservation plans and actions forget this.
Climate change is a great example. Environmentalists spend a lot of time, effort, and money trying to raise awareness. Do our strategies account for the fact that we have a competitor trying to do the opposite? Such plans must exist but we haven’t seen one yet.
Let’s keep going with our example; The top five oil and gas companies spend 200 million USD per year on climate misinformation, converting people to their way of thinking, casting doubt, and countering our own efforts. Now excuse the business speak but what is their reach and market share compared to that of environmentalism? Well, the anti-climate lobby has outspent us by 10:1 when lobbying to influence climate policy. This gives us an idea of just how far ahead they are.
It’s basically two businesses in head to head competition. The anti climate lobby has the best strategy and marketing companies in the world on their payrolls. Environmentalists are predominantly scientists who do things themselves, not advertisers or strategists, and are hesitant or their funding won’t allow them to employ the talent to fight back. Even the big non-government organisations (NGOs) can’t compete with the creativity and effectiveness of the top marketing firms. So let’s employ them! Simple.
Here’s the hard truth, until our efforts start outpacing our enemies — be it the anti climate lobby, land developers, or coal mines — we will lose ground. This is the same for everything from convincing people of a problem to lobbying politicians. We need to step up efforts to directly counter enemies. Any conservation plan should contain a section explicitly countering actors with the opposite incentives.
2. The age of big NGOs might be over, so stop looking to them as saviours.
The big NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society also need a makeover in how they think. Controversial but hear us out…
These NGOs were born at a time when capacity for conservation was low in many countries, especially the global south. For decades, they filled a really important expertise gap and did great work. Their list of conservation successes is long. Things are changing though.
Capacity on the ground in many countries has grown, and in many places grass root NGOs, businesses and local consultants have outpaced big NGOs in terms of competency and effectiveness. At the same time, big NGOs are struggling to fund and attract in house science teams with necessary talent and expertise so often outsource research to PhD and masters students. This is fine, but it is slow, and extinctions and climate change are happening fast. Big NGOs are bureaucratic dinosaurs struggling to keep up.
Nowhere is this all better demonstrated than in Kenya. We could put together a list of over twenty locally based Kenyan organisations and conservationists with top international degrees that leave any in-house NGO team behind.
So what do and what can the big NGOs bring to the table?
The big NGOs have strong brand images in the wealthy West and are fundraising machines. They also have lobbying power with governments and strong media presence. Local conservationists have not unlocked all this yet so there is clearly room for a good partnership here. Some countries don’t have capacity yet (think Papua New Guinea, Mozambique etc.) so the big NGOs can keep doing their great work here.
But big NGOs should acknowledge that in many countries (but not all) there is better expertise than them. However, these local people and organisations need funding and support. If NGOs embrace this role wholeheartedly and only act as implementers where absolutely necessary (and don’t meddle in foreign strategy) then they will maintain relevance in a changing world. They need to rethink their role and mission.
If they don’t, it is only a matter of time until local consulting firms and NGOs unlock direct lines to the major Western donors and cut big NGOs out of the chain. Do the big NGOs have what it takes to stay relevant? Their response to this article will be telling.
3. Attack power. Stop focusing on 1 percent improvements and target the 10 percenters or bigger.
The Netflix documentary Seaspiracy was controversial but its core thesis was correct ~ the industrial fishing industry is the biggest threat to the ocean. The documentary was revolutionary because it attacked power. Solve the industrial fishing problem and we save the sea (for biodiversity and local subsistence fishers) and buy ourselves time to clean up other relatively smaller problems such as plastic pollution that receive more publicity.
In other words, we need to keep our eye on the ball.
Turning our lights off when we leave a room won’t solve climate change, stopping the fossil fuel industry will. Turning lights off is a 1 percenter that makes us feel good, and it is good and has a small positive impact, but if it means we think we’ve done our bit and become complacent about tackling power — the fossil fuel industry which is the 10 percenter — then it is harmful to our cause. Big businesses are pros at taking our eyes off the ball and distracting us, let’s stop letting them.
This thinking needs to become more pervasive in environmentalism. We are not at the stage yet where we need to fine tune because big wins are still at our fingertips. And we need big wins.
Our aim at Koobi is to challenge the environmental and carbon offsetting industries to think differently. We hope this has delivered on that. You’re welcome to push back at us in the comments!
Environmentalists, please don’t change the way you dress, we love you just as you are. But let’s all strive to improve our thinking because wild nature is too inspiring to lose.