Written by Jessie Panazzolo

Being a conservationist can sometimes feel like a curse that forces you to explain too many of your life’s details to complete strangers. This is all because of the absence of a simple job title to satisfy their question:

“So what do you do?”

“So, what do you do” actually means “So, what brings in the money?”, and for most conservationists, money isn’t even a huge factor in our lifestyles and often times we don’t make a single cent for our work in the industry. We may make coffee, sort parcels or even sell underwear like I did for a bit, whilst doing the work we actually care about. But that doesn’t mean we are obliged to define ourselves as baristas, post officers or retail staff- because in our hearts we aren’t those people. Saying I am a conservationist always leads to the follow up question, “where do you work?” and even that can be a challenge to answer.

The other day I found myself in an Uber talking to the driver and he asked me the dreaded question of what I do.  I felt the panic start to rise through my body even though I could just lie to him and say I was a kids show host or a horse rider. He didn’t have to know the truth and I will probably never see him again. It would have been easier than trying to explain my current situation of having four meetings a week, managing social media pages and a website, editing and scheduling blog submissions, learning business jargon and preparing for week long training sessions, all without earning a single dollar. It would be lying to flatly say I own a business, but  it would also be unfair on me to say I wasn’t working at all. For the hundredth time I fumbled through the same repetitive conversation of trying to explain my life to someone who really probably doesn’t even care that much.

There is also an element of shame involved. I left a stint volunteering at a ecological organisation because I got a job at an organic fruit and veg shop and I needed the money more than I needed the ecology experience. I told the ecological place that I had to end my volunteering because I got a job, and they asked what I was doing instead. Even though this vegetable job worked perfectly for me because I could work in the mornings and work on Lonely Conservationists in the afternoons, I felt an element of embarrassment telling them I was leaving such a big organisation to pack fruit and veg. It worked for my life, so I shouldn’t have been ashamed, but by society’s standards, I felt that I needed to be.

Society is structured in a way that doesn’t suit conservationists. People like to put other people in boxes, to categorise and even judge them based on what box they are in. Conservationists mess with that system. You can’t put me in the unemployed box and feel bad for me or disrespect me, because I am spending my days working hard and being proud of what I have created. You can’t put me in the elite box because I am not earning money and money defines success. Most conservationists can’t be boxed up because we are multi dimensional people who aren’t defined by our money making jobs, but much rather our contributions to scientific and natural discoveries, restoring the planet’s ecosystems or cleaning the mess other humans have left behind.

My whole life I have never had a simple answer to this question, but rather a small spiel explaining my current situation. I don’t owe anyone that spiel, I don’t really need to sigh with frustration every time I see someone who wants to engage with me in small talk. The thing is though, I probably won’t stop. I will probably never lie about my job or underplay what I’m working on with a false title, and this is because change will never happen if we don’t talk about what we are doing. Talking to people about conservation and our role in it reminds people that there are actual humans out there on freezing islands covered in penguin poop, humans covered black with mosquitoes in swamps or humans getting snared in tropical forests.

Conservationists are defined by our passion, we are people who are sacrificing the easy answers of the seemingly simple question “what do you do?”  in order to make sure that the next generations can enjoy a future on our planet. I guess when people ask what we do we should just say, “I’m looking after it, don’t worry” and leave them guessing about the rest.

For more of Jessie’s thoughts, check out @ecolojesst on Instagram