David, Meet Goliath

At a recent workshop for The Nature Conservancy’s marine team, I found myself staring out of the window (hey, we all do it!) at a vast cruise ship docked for refueling.

It dawned on me: Assembled in my room were 25 marine conservationists, representing a significant chunk of the Conservancy’s few hundred marine conservationists.

That cruise ship? It probably has 1,500 staff just on that one boat.

David, meet Goliath. How the heck are we going to change the world when we, a giant among marine conservation organizations, are so utterly dwarfed by the staff of one single cruise ship?

For years marine conservation has focused on marine protected areas (MPAs) and we’ve rather lamely talked about other threats that don’t get fixed by an MPA. Of course we’ve become better at what we do: planning, zoning and local participation have led to some impressive local results.

But local results don’t translate into ocean-wide protection. MPAs still cover less than 2% of the oceans. Optimistically, half of these are effective. That leaves 99% of the ocean unprotected. And that 99% is losing life fast.

The answer, of course, is that marine scientists can’t possibly save the oceans.

The oceans need to be saved, just like the land, by popular demand. The best we scientists can do is help create the demand.

This presents two courses of action. First, we must stop fussing about biodiversity and point out that nature save lives, feeds people, defends coastlines and provides life-saving medicines. This is important.

This is the big jump the Conservancy is currently making. We’re working with the insurance industry, with Dow Chemical, with commercial fishers, with aid agencies. It took shockingly long for this blindingly obvious reality to strike home. This is where we can actually start to turn the world around.

Fishers are still wary of conservationists in the U.S., and they outnumber them probably 1,000 to 1, but things are changing: not through battles but through a shared common vision. Look at the Conservancy’s work with fishers in Alaska, California and New England.

If you want to see how success scales up, find out about the story coming out of from countless villages across the Philippines and across several Pacific island nations. Local ownership of resources, combined with a realisation that marine management and even the closure of small areas to all fishing helps feed families. The ideas are spreading like wildfire: every villages wants the benefits. No need for conservationists; Goliath has become a gamekeeper!

But this rational approach isn’t going to work everywhere. There are models which suggest that it might even be sound social and economic science to let species and habitats move towards the brink of extinction. If we only play the hard game of rationalism to defend nature, many of us with our hearts as well as our heads invested in nature are going to find our hearts regularly broken when we find that it is rational to let go of something we treasure.

So the alternative course of action is to invest in nature because it’s there, because it’s beautiful and because it’s inspirational. So many people are tied in to this organization because we love nature and we must not forget this. Using two approaches isn’t disingenuous either.

David defeated Goliath because he was smart (and a darned good shot). Think again of the size of the cruise ship. We’re never going to fight our way to victory at a global scale. If the rational economic argument is compelling, we can hand over the tools and let Goliath defend nature.

In theory, that frees up our resources to work harder in the more challenging cases. This is old-style conservation. Protect the best (and remote) coral reef, defend the grubby, low-diversity urban woodland or fishing lake. Don’t come up with spurious half-baked economic arguments. Do it because you love it. And you can bet that if you love it, others will too.

(Image: Cruise ship at Grand Cayman islands. Source: Flickr user pmarkham via a Creative Commons license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. People need to feel that conservation efforts directly impact them. Pointing out that conservation directly correlates to their survival will help the cause push forward.

Add a Comment