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Conservation: Slow Down to Speed Up

Morse, Julie 3/14/2012

If you’ve ever trained for a marathon, or at least read a few training plans as I have, you know that all marathon training programs are some combination of three basic components: fast, hard and slow.

Individual trainers, of course, differ in the details, and each have their own exact formulas, but most agree that you need each of these components to go fast on marathon day.
Conservation, no doubt, is a marathon. That means we need to get smarter in the way we’re progressing in order to be successful in the long run. As conservationists, of course, we love going fast, and we embrace hard challenges. But slow? It just isn’t in our genetic code. Impatience is our game. A slow pace of change is a luxury that we feel we just can’t afford.
But is it a luxury, or a necessity?
Fast and Slow Food
Take one area we can’t possibly go slow about: developing solutions to the global food crisis. The planet now has 7 billion people and counting. About 40% of our terrestrial lands are already in some form of agriculture (yes, there are more farms than forests!). Global agriculture is already the single biggest contributor to climate change, while land conversion is the biggest contributor to habitat loss…yet current global food production is nowhere near enough to sustain the growing human population. People, we have got to be paying attention!
Whatever your favorite solution to the agricultural crisis is, I agree with it: GMOs to increase yields, local food movement, smarter diets, incentives for farmers, trade subsidies… yes to all of them.
And yet, along with all those solutions, we as conservationists also need to take the time to build community support and motivation among the people who will be the long-term players in integrating these solutions. Which is not fast work.
Check out this video about the Conservancy’s work with farmers in Washington State (produced by the awesome science communication firm HabitatSeven). Watch Keith the potato farmer closely — he participates in our Farming for Wildlife program, in which farmers flood their fields to attract and sustain shorebirds. Keith can’t name different shorebird species like he could potato varieties, but he’s still genuinely upset that his neighbor had more shorebirds than he did. That competition and sense of purpose — “I want to be left alone to farm, but I realize the world is bigger than that” — is intrinsic motivation.
Getting the world to a place where it’s intrinsically motivated to endorse our conservation goals? That’s pretty slow going. But here’s the secret: Intrinsic motivation works — and sticks — in ways extrinsically motivated gains often don’t.
Another great video is business author Daniel Pink’s TED talk, in which he emphatically argues that businesses always fail when they rely on extrinsic motivation. Pink is a really smart successful guy, with loads of data on the science of motivation. Yet many businesses just continue to ignore his message.
Conservation programs on private lands typically take the carrot-on-a-stick approach. Take the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), the U.S. Farm Bill’s preeminent program for creating wetlands. Implemented by the National Resource Conservation Service (as are all Farm Bill conservation programs), the WRP gave farmers across the country money to take marginally productive parts of their land and put them into wetland habitat. WRP was especially popular in the Midwest — that is, until corn prices skyrocketed because of the demand for corn as a biofuel crop. Farmers found that they could make more money from those marginal lands in corn than in conservation, so a lot of wetland habitat that ducks and other fowl had come to depend on had suddenly vanished. As conservation, the program just didn’t stick. It was just too extrinsically motivated.
Through its intrinsic-motivation approach, Farming for Wildlife is building more slowly, and is now six years old in Washington. But here’s the thing: To date, it’s influenced farming practices on 150 acres total. That’s not just slow: that’s painfully slow. But in the long run, I’d argue, it’s building a foundation with partners that will allow us to be successful and go faster in the future. It’s a necessary complement to our policy work, a precursor for developing incentives for private lands management. It’s the groundwork that will allow the groundswell. And there just aren’t any shortcuts for that kind of work. As Farmer Dave says: “You can accomplish anything over 1,000 cups of tea.” Problem is, you just can’t gulp down hot tea.
Look at how widely successful RARE campaigns have been in inspiring conservation. Their whole model for conservation change is built on fostering pride — which is nothing more than simply intrinsic motivation. As we talk and think more and more about incentive programs, or any project really where we’re enticing conservation action by offering a carrot, should we not also be considering how we can foster intrinsic motivation in our project stakeholders at the same time?
Back to that training plan. In the long run, conservation is going to be the longest marathon ever. It’s the race of our lives. So we better have a damn good training plan.
One with all three components — fast, hard, and slow.
Sure, I ran a marathon once. But like many marathon rookies, I skimped on the slow training (boring!), only to end up with a torn hamstring. I hobbled across the finish line if that’s your measure of success. But I’ve never run another marathon since.
I hope that conservation is training smarter than I did. To eventually go faster, we often need first to go slower — and have the patience to know that’s okay.

Disagree? Please, leave a comment and start a conversation. Or send comments to Bob Lalasz to be passed along to Julie.

* Julie Morse is an ecologist forThe Nature Conservancy in Washington.

Image credit: James Nord/Flickr.