The Role of Optimism in Conservation Leadership

Simon Black –

Sometimes, to keep getting the work done you need to have a optimistic outlook, as illustrated in current work recovering bird species on Maui in Hawaii.

A visionary conservation leader needs to look beyond current problems and threats and see what is possible. Indianapolis prizewinner Carl Jones contends that even at the outset of his work with the most endangered of species in Mauritius, he never thought that they would not succeed.

It is an optimisim that drives action, and is centred on pragmatism – what needs to be done (Beever, 2000). However the pragmatism is not about compromise. More of a way of finding what can be done, of learning from failure.

It is a mistake to think that we can imagine and model the perfect solution for wildlife. It is also wrong to expect that humans will never change their perspective on the world, the right place to live, what to eat, how to use natural resources. there are huge challenges, but we all have common interests. It takes a humble person to find out the needs of others.

In conservation the temptation is to set out on a scientific path, pressing forward for our species of concern. But sometimes we need to step back and identify what those species really need. That will give us insight into new solutions.

A really important step is to accept failures as learning opportunities.  If we are prepared to accept what works and what does not work and learn, we are likely to accelerate conservation improvements. It is an optimism that positive lessons can be learned from negative outcomes. Let’s not brush failure under the carpet.

Of course optimism is not just blind faith. We need to learn how to better show the advances and improvements that conservation work can deliver. This may mean learnign new ways to understand, present, and discuss the real changes that can be achieved through human effort. Hope has to be placed in reality (Swaisgood and Sheppard, 2010).

It is in everyone’s interest to be optimistic.


Beever, E. (2000). Diversity: The Roles of Optimism in Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology, 14(3), 907-909.

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Purpose, processes, knowledge and dignity are missing links in interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology  28 (5): 1139-1141 DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Swaisgood, R. R., & Sheppard, J. K. (2010). The culture of conservation biologists: Show me the hope!. BioScience, 60(8), 626-630.

Carl Jones: 2016 Indianapolis prizewinner

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