By Ellie Warren
Because it’s true, in the conservation technology field, we are the ones who are supposed to be saving the world. And to do that, we must first save what’s left of our optimism. Conserve it like you would an endangered species. Don’t burn it out in pursuit of an answer you don’t yet have, not when there’s still something you can do right now with whatever role and knowledge you already have.”
As I write this, I am thinking about the tower of boxes in the corner of my room. My apartment complex’s recycling bin is always full, and so with every online order I make, the boxes pile up, a constant visual reminder of how much unnecessary waste one person can accumulate very quickly and thoughtlessly. Being forced to look at the consequences of your own convenience is a very simple way to understand the negative impact you’re having on the environment - I don’t know if I’d ever imagined the sheer scale of a landfill until I started to visualize my own pile of trash, multiplied a dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times - and then realizing that even that vast amount is only a drop in the bucket of how much waste capitalist humans pour into the environment every day.
Throughout creating this series, I have always been thinking about those boxes.
And the plastic coffee cups that wouldn’t be there if I’d remembered to bring my reusable cup to the café or hadn’t used my phone to order ahead, and the old batteries that have been sitting in a drawer for months because I wasn’t sure how to best dispose of them, and the old cellphones and laptops that I never took to the special recycling center, and all the other disposable things we all have that will eventually make their way to a landfill, or out to sea, or into some animal’s digestive system.
Of course, none of these problems are specific to conservation technology - and that’s what this series is meant to be about. The vast majority of us are faced with sustainability challenges and decisions every day, whether we consciously realize it or not. But conservation technology comes with its own extra layer of morality when it comes to thinking about sustainability. We’re the ones who are supposed to be saving the planet!
And because we’re trying to understand and save species and habitats that are endangered by the rest of humanity (I say as though we’re not all actively part of the same complicated problem), it’s difficult to think about how much negative impact our technologies and studies and conferences and fieldwork excursions might be having on the very ecosystems we’re trying so hard to protect. Technology offers incredible solutions to conservation problems - we’re collecting more data than ever, and in more detail than ever. We’re working together to overcome huge challenges like poaching and wildlife crime, we’re monitoring endangered species to ensure their survival, building a stronger understanding of climate change impacts habitats, uncovering secrets about the migrations of sea turtles. Within our community alone, there is someone working on every continent, in every type of ecosystem, with every type of tool, and on every type of problem you can think of. I am constantly overwhelmed by the depth of knowledge that exists within the global network that WILDLABS has brought together.
But even with all the knowledge we’ve built and all we’ve accomplished through collaboration and dedication, existential crises like climate change and extinction feel overwhelming. Add in the question of sustainability to that - and take a moment to consider how conservation technology could be contributing to negative environmental impacts - and it can seem absolutely insurmountable.
And that’s the issue that arose again and again while creating this series. Sustainability in the conservation technology field too often feels insurmountable. It’s a problem so enormous, and with so few established paths to address it, that none of us really know where to begin. Some of us don’t even know how to think about it - it’s mindbogglingly big to consider. We have to use technology to solve the biggest challenges facing our environment. We know that for a fact - it’s the entire reason WILDLABS exists! But the technologies we rely on require materials that can only be acquired through harmful mining practices, or materials that can’t be recycled, or plastics that will end up polluting the seas. They require an energy source - often heaps and heaps of batteries when solutions like solar power aren’t practical. They require transport around the world with fossil fuels to reach their deployment destinations, safely packed onto a jet plane or cargo ship in boxes and plastic wrap and styrofoam.
And they require us to operate them, at least until we can build local capacity so more people around the world can access and use these technologies in the communities and ecosystems where they live. And in order for us to build careers in conservation technology, which we have to do in order to put our big solutions into practice and start making a real positive impact, we often have to go through the rigors of academia and all that entails - often fieldwork far from home, traveling back and forth, increasing our carbon footprint to gain experience, and building projects around the newest tools to gain funding. When trying to imagine a more sustainable world in conservation tech, it feels like you have to first imagine an entirely different system from the one we’re working within. And that seems…. unlikely. For now, anyway.
There are so many issues built into sustainability, all piled on top of each other, and not one of us knows how to sort it out. We’re all grappling for ideas - biodegradable materials, renewable energy sources, less travel, sourcing materials locally - but our ideas often come with new sets of challenges, or simply can’t be achieved yet with the kinds of limited funding that constrains so many ambitious conservation technology ideas. So readers, I’m sorry to report that we have not solved the problem of sustainability. Truthfully, there is no solution. Isn’t that awful news?
Now that the existential despair is out of the way, will you give me a moment to put a positive spin on things?
What if it’s a good thing that none of us know how to solve the problem of sustainability? What if we accept that we don’t have the answer, and that we will never find a perfect fix for any of this? Because really, if someone showed up on WILDLABS tomorrow pitching every single step we need to take to fix every lingering problem in conservation tech sustainability… wouldn’t that be just as overwhelming? It’s like creating a big to-do list: good in theory, but once you see all those tasks piled on top of each other, the reaction quite often boils down to “my god, I’ll never finish all that.” But if we’re creating the to-do list together a bit at a time, we feel less alone, less overwhelmed by expectations, and there’s always an opportunity to find a new course of action that will suddenly open up possibilities for rapid positive change. At this moment, because none of us know where this effort will lead us, we still have the ability to think creatively outside of the box. In a world where all the steps are already laid out before us, that kind of thinking too often atrophies, and innovation suffers for it.
One concept came up over and over while discussing sustainability in conservation tech - the idea of keeping a narrow focus and making our own work ten percent better. When we’re facing so many urgent crises - habitat destruction, mass extinction, climate change that is already outpacing what we anticipated - ten percent may sound like barely anything at all. And I suppose that’s one way to look at it, if you’re a “glass half empty” kind of person. Sometimes I am. But at the same time, ten percent IS barely anything at all… so it’s doable. Actionable. And because it’s barely anything, it’s inexcusable to not try.
And I know that saying “if we each do a little, it adds up to a lot” is cliché to the point that some of us don’t believe it anymore. As someone who has attended climate conferences and workshops full of inspired, optimistic people who were ready to make a difference right now, only to helplessly watch the world continue to steadily progress down the wrong path, I get it. If it feels like we’re not accomplishing much, it’s because the challenges ahead of us are enormous and the deck is stacked against meaningful change. There’s no way around that reality. So I’m not going to launch into a pep talk about how our community has the ability to make huge changes if we all work together. We absolutely can, and I believe we will, but that’s not the point.
The real point here is that, if we can’t fix everything all at once and these enormous crises are going to continue whether or not we act… why not just act? Even if you feel truly hopeless about the situation, acting can’t make it worse. So why not try to be ten percent better? It’s easy to do, it makes you feel like you’re doing something in the meantime, and it’s less overwhelming than being told to immediately change every aspect of how you work in the name of sustainability. Letting go of the idea that you need to fix everything right now is fine! You weren’t going to be able to do that anyway, no matter how hard you try! But this is something you can do. Focus on it. Figure out how to make the most of your ten percent.
And in the end, maybe it will add up to a huge change, or maybe it’ll add up to a lot of little changes. Either way, it’s better than nothing, and it gives each of us a role to play so we don’t fall into despair. If you put dozens of conservation technology experts in a room and ask them to create a sustainable future for our field, each one will focus on a different part of the issue. Great! It should be wonderful news that none of us are responsible for understanding and fixing it all! If we’re all on equal footing of not knowing how to fix it all, then your role - your ten percent - is just as important as anyone else’s. And the worst-case scenario, if we all adopt the Ten Percent idea, is that we don’t fix everything, but we do make a lot of little changes that ultimately make our field and the world a little better. And by the time someone comes along with a big idea that will create a huge positive impact, we’ll be better prepared to tackle it as a team. Doing ten percent better isn’t going to stop any of these huge crises in their tracks, but we’ll never get to a stage where real change is possible if we don’t focus on the little steps first.
Maybe this was a pep talk - a somewhat negative, occasionally meandering pep talk. Partially it’s for all of us, but partially it’s just a pep talk to myself. Because truthfully, it’s hard to talk to a lot of people about sustainability over a long period of time to not only come back with the unfortunate answer that we don’t have solutions yet, but to have even more questions and worries as a result. I wanted to be able to write about complex systems like deep-sea mining and how the destruction of those habitats ties back into the technology that we use to protect those habitats, and then tie in all the ways we can start to free our work from those harmful systems... I wanted to share big thoughts and big ideas with you.
But I’m not an expert in these topics yet. It will be a long time before I am an expert. I’m still in the phase of asking questions that lead to more questions. And that’s a valuable perspective too, because like I said - none of us have the answers yet. We should all be asking questions that lead us to finding our ten percent goals. And if you try to solve a question like “what can I do with all these batteries?” just to find yourself asking more questions about why certain types aren’t recyclable, or why you can’t transport certain batteries in certain countries, or why there aren’t less destructive ways to get the materials we need for them from the earth, or why solar power isn’t always a feasible option to power your camera traps, or why why why….well. At least you’ve got one question out of the way, and you’re onto the next one. Isn’t it progress to now know something else that you don’t know?
So maybe my ten percent is to keep asking questions and creating spaces on WILDLABS where people who might have answers can come together. Spaces where people can share their own ten percents and add them together to create… well, not a solution yet, but a bigger ten percent, at least.
So let yourself - temporarily - be overwhelmed by the problems facing us. Accept that none of us will ever get it exactly right. Come to terms with the fact that this process will involve a lot of questions, and trial and error, and the world may seem like it’s not getting better right away. Let yourself be discouraged if that’s the emotion that comes to you honestly. And once all that’s out of the way, find where you can do ten percent better.
Because it’s true, in the conservation technology field, we are the ones who are supposed to be saving the world. And to do that, we must first save what’s left of our optimism. Conserve it like you would an endangered species. Don’t burn it out in pursuit of an answer you don’t yet have, not when there’s still something you can do right now with whatever role and knowledge you already have.
And if you’re like me… please. Do break down ten percent of those boxes and cram them into the recycling bin. I get it, it looks full. But there’s room for ten percent of them, I promise. The tower may not be gone, but it will be quantifiably smaller, and in the end, you’ll feel a little better about what’s left to be done.
This article is from our latest editorial series, Sustained Effort: Community Thoughts on Conservation Tech Sustainability.
Our series Sustained Effort brings together conservation tech users and makers to share their own perspectives on this topic. Through these case studies, we'll consider the current challenges of working sustainably in our field, but more importantly, how we can all take realistic, practical, and effective steps toward not only lessening our negative impact right now, but discovering larger steps toward the longterm, system-wide change needed to make conservation technology truly sustainable for our planet.