The Conundrum of Conservation Education and the Conservation Mission


In 2006 Conservation Biology reached the ripe old age of 20. For many years, contributions to the Conservation Education section have been among its most interesting and provocative texts, providing highly innovative explorations of fundamental aspects of what it means to study and practice conservation. Readers have been asked to consider the application of the principles of conservation biology to their own institutions, either in terms of the structure of the academy (Uhl et al. 1996), an architectural pedagogy (Orr 1993, 1997), or the potential for creating practical and organizational examples of sustainability (Orr 2000). We have also been asked to consider how best to communicate effectively with different audiences (Nadkani 2004), form successful partnerships with teachers (Brewer 2002), devise and implement interdisciplinary teaching (Jacobson 1990; Neisenbaum & Lewis 2003), integrate emotional and spiritual dimensions within our conservation praxis (Fleischner 1990; Hagan 1995; McDaniel 2002), and even favor a “slow approach” to knowledge (Orr 1996).

Together these interventions represent a powerful tradition of conservation education derived from the experiences of educational practitioners and those seeking to address conservation issues in a holistic, imaginative manner and to address some of the fundamental problems our subject faces. Nevertheless, when posited within the metadiscipline of conservation biology represented by the main body of the journal, with its “proper” scientific knowledge and established approaches employed by the more conventional conservation scientists, they take on a somewhat different hue. They reveal an underlying tension concerning what conservation education and conservation biology are and what they might be.

Among conservation biologists the prevailing view of conservation education appears to rest on a deep-seated belief that the basic function of conservation education should be to disseminate knowledge that scientists generate, essentially to transport information to the public and key groups in the expectation that it will eventually precipitate more appropriate conservation-related behaviors. This is perfectly understandable. Biodiversity conservation distinguishes itself from many other environmental subjects in being grounded on a rather discrete set of well-defined concepts and methodologies, providing a relatively reliable and coherent field of knowledge, and being accompanied by a sense of certainty as to the nature of the problem and what needs to be done about it.

Conservation educators themselves have tended to acknowledge this, with much of their early, path-finding work adopting a largely quantitative approach to educational research and action through seeking to measure and eliminate the gap between what people actually know and what they need to know. Within the wider field of environmental education, however, information-based approaches to changing people's behavior have long been considered redundant. Herein much of the debate has surrounded the lack of strong correlations between quantitative data concerning environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. It has also been informed by recognition that the processes, barriers, and constraints affecting proenvironmental behavior are highly complex, are subject to a matrix of cultural, socioeconomic factors, and personality dimensions, and are significantly influenced by what happens in the affective, qualitative domain.

Consequently, the main body of opinion has come to eschew quantitative approaches to environmental education and research and favor studies of, for instance, “significant life experiences” or the way environmental knowledge and the notion of biodiversity itself may be socially constructed. Yet it is also true that practically none of the research in question has focused specifically on the subjects of conservation or biodiversity. So with the exception of a handful of studies (e.g., Biodiversity Project 1996, 2002; Bride 2001), Pollock's 1995 assertion that there exists no substantive research on the public understanding of biodiversity per se, remains true, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Moreover, qualitative studies concerning biodiversity (Thomas & Chetwynd 1995; Wals 1999) have failed to explore understandings and support beyond a superficial level, and wider research has largely skated over the relationship between people's understandings (as opposed to perceptions or opinions) and their attitudes and behavior. Extrapolating these research findings to the relationship between conservation and biodiversity understandings and actions is therefore a questionable step, particularly because evidence suggests that understandings of this subject area can be a significant predictor of relevant attitudes and behavior (e.g., Kaiser et al. 1999; Bride 2001; Kaiser & Fuhrer 2003).

We conservation educators thus find ourselves in something of a dilemma. In seeking to address the science regarding biodiversity loss and to achieve acceptance and respectability (dare I say credibility?) among mainstream conservation biologists (and funding bodies), we are driven toward quantitative, information-led, measurement-oriented approaches to educational activities. This makes some sense given the relatively well-defined parameters of our subject area and our supposedly clear understandings as to what needs to be done. Yet, as the education pages of this journal regularly illustrate, we actively criticize many of our fellow conservation biologists for their narrow view of the role of education and their reluctance to take a more integrated, radical, innovative, or political approach, that which many of us see as an essential educative responsibility of working in our field. At the same time, although acknowledging the importance of affective and other qualitative aspects in respect to our discipline, we are perhaps not critical enough of those working in the wider area of environmental education who condemn us for seeking to quantify our subject area and who fail to appreciate that shared understandings of biodiversity and its constituent concepts are probably fundamental to the development of workable solutions to biodiversity problems. Sat between a rock and a hard place, we conservation educators seek approval from our traditional scientist colleagues and those in the wider field of environmental education but receive little from either and remain dissatisfied with both.

So what then should be our way forward? Well, we must address the need for conservation education at all levels, conduct quantitative and qualitative research, and provide examples of good practice and successful case studies that truly address conservation in an integrated way and that substantiate and strengthen our position. But we must also develop a generation of conservation biologists who acknowledge the vital role education has to play and who come to consider themselves as conservation educators according to our definition, not theirs. We must simultaneously carve out and assert our own position, demand environmental educators give our subject proper attention, not generalize findings from studies of other subjects to ours, and be much more critical of the view of education that seems to permeate much of our own domain.

Take, for example, the guidelines for conservation literacy recently produced by the SCB Education Committee (Trombulak et al. 2004). This was indeed a laudable effort to construct a framework for developing conservation literacy with a comprehensive list of principles, themes, and subprinciples. They grant conservation education a significant place (albeit the very last one) and assert that “Conservation education needs to occur at all levels in all societies so that humans can better learn to coexist with nature.”

In providing a valuable summary reference, the guidelines also reiterate the need stated in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for appropriate and widespread public understanding and support vis-à-vis biodiversity loss. Nevertheless, from a more critical perspective, we could argue that they should have given education much greater prominence and more comprehensive regard. Given that the CBD actually describes such understanding and support as a prerequisite for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, the guidelines perhaps should have included an initial statement to the effect that unless this need is properly addressed much of scientific effort to conserve species will simply describe the problem as it continues to worsen. Indeed, this lack of understanding and support should have been included among the major threats to biological diversity in CBD's theme IV or, better, conservation education should have been granted the status of a “theme” in its own right.

Users of the CBD might subsequently have been challenged to engage with the sort of radical principles advocated by conservation educators and to try to integrate some of these throughout their own institutions, communications, and practices. Furthermore, conservation biologists might even have been urged to accept individual responsibility and every opportunity to educate people about basic concepts and principles of conservation, rather than just “informing” them. Similarly, the SCB's Code of Ethics, published subsequently, could have included a statement encouraging all conservation scientists and practitioners to actively educate “to promote understanding of and appreciation for biodiversity” rather than trying to achieve this by merely “disseminating information” (SCB 2005).

Unless a process of education can facilitate development of the desired changes in public understanding and support in relation to biodiversity, conservation biology will, despite holding a few outposts, continue fighting a losing battle, with many of its exponents simply recording the demise of much of the world's biodiversity. As such it will leave itself open to the accusation by future generations of having been little more than a place for voyeurs comforted by the satisfaction of “basking in the light of their own goodness” (to paraphrase Takacs 1996). If conservation biology is to be fully activated, surely we all have a duty to be educators, to engage with some of the more challenging and critical inputs conservation educators have had (and will have) to offer, and to fight to integrate the outcomes within our institutions and practices. We will thereby inject a new vitality and direction right across our discipline.