Written by Jessica Pinder
Growing up Green
It could be easily said that I became a conservationist because so much of my childhood was spent outdoors. Quite literally. Almost all our family holidays usually involved swimming in crystal clear rivers, hiking through bushland heavy with the sounds of cicadas or cross-country skiing across Victoria’s snowy mountains. My parents even renamed the iconic blundstone boot as ‘Jessie Boots’ because I wore them with everything, even terrible pink and frilly dresses.
For as long as I remember, I have always been a proud tom-boy, adventurer and self-professed nature nerd.
I mention this because early childhood is a completely fascinating and influential period in our lives. I’m so obsessed with it that I’m about to publish my first research paper on how childhood experiences influence conservation attitudes and career choices.
Even though we often think of our earliest experiences of nature as having the most influence on our life course, I found that in Australia, conservationists didn’t actually spend more time outdoors than other kids. The experiences that lead us to care about conservation area actually far more complex than you’d think.
Kids who became conservationists picked up important messages from the stories they loved most in childhood, their favourite teachers and the biospheric values they were taught from their parents and groups they were involved in. Conservation concern was passed on as a social construct, one that is value based and influenced by the people around you.
In short, the secret is in your upbringing, whether you were taught to love and be kind to animals, to respect the planet and to care about environmental problems.
The belly of the whale
As a young person who cared deeply about wildlife, I remember being very angry and disbelieving when I learned about the environmental damages that humans were causing to our planet. Throughout my teenage years I felt like I was paralysed by feelings of powerlessness. To top it off I was naturally very shy and quiet, and that convinced me that my voice was too small to be heard.
I developed a keen anxiety for the planet, which increased every year as I tried and failed to make an impact on the world around me. I put so much pressure on myself to make a difference that burnout, fatigue and frustration became my norm.
I’m 25 years old now, and some days I still feel that same sense of anxiety tripping me up. At times I am exhausted by the ever-growing list of actions: be vegan, be zero waste, be carbon neutral, buy second-hand, make yourself, plant trees, conserve water, educate others, donate money, compost, recycle waste… The list goes on and on.
For me, the problem with caring so much is that I want to do every single thing, and inevitably I fail. Sometimes these failures make me feel like a hypocrite, and I question why I spend 40 hours a week working in a job that ‘isn’t quite conservation’. I over-compensate by volunteering too much to make up for it and I end up fatigued, disheartened and unable to make a difference.
If you’re keen to learn from my mistakes, know that finding balance is essential. Taking action is an important part of healing ourselves and the planet, but taking care of yourself is even more important.
Paving my way in conservation
Growing up as I did in a country town in rural Victoria, I never felt there were many options for me career wise. Environmentalism was pretty well frowned upon and when I decided to move to Melbourne to study Ecology, most of my family members felt I was throwing my life away. There were numerous arguments about the ‘time and money’ I was wasting and countless cautions about how I’d never get a job.
Everyone said it was going to be hard, and they were absolutely right. But I can honestly say that I have no regrets. None whatsoever.
I think that no matter what you do in life, there will always be challenges. If I could offer any advice, it would reflect the word’s that Jane Goodall’s mother said to her: “If you really want something, you have to really work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and never give up.” Those words are pretty true for me.
I’ve now studied two degrees (a Bachelors in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and a Masters in Conservation Science) and I’ve volunteered my time for countless organisations and research projects around Australia. I supported myself through university for years working in casual jobs, first at a bakery and later at a hiking store. Surprisingly, those casual jobs taught me some of the most valuable skills I’ve ever learnt, like how to be a good communicator.
I landed my first job working in wildlife when I was 22. I was recruited as a wildlife presenter, and my job was to educate young people about native Australian animals which visited the classrooms with me. I loved working closely with wildlife and inspiring young people to respect our planet and take action to solve problems in their community. My public speaking improved, and I became confident presenting to large groups. I grew so much as a person in that role.
Around that time I started volunteering for the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia, as a member of the National Youth Leadership Council. I remember feeling so relieved meeting other passionate and like-minded young people who were doing their best to make a difference. I felt inspired to get back into research and took a big leap by moving my life to Brisbane to study a Masters in Conservation Science.
Skipping ahead through 18 months of anxiety-fuelled study and drastic life drama, I graduated from my Masters degree with the most amazing group of young conservationists from all corners of the globe. I took over coordinating the Jane Goodall Institute’s Youth Leadership Council and transformed the program into a tailored professional development program for young people wanting to make a difference in the world. I trained with Al Gore and joined the Climate Reality network. I was selected to attend Jane Goodall’s Global Leadership Gathering and grew my networks with young changemakers around the world. I worked as hard as I could, hoping that it would pay off.
My life today
As it turns out, I never did get that first job in conservation science that I was hoping for. Instead I joined the Queensland Government as a graduate policy officer. In my first year I worked on science innovation for Queensland’s water policy programs and the national Closing the Gap framework to improve equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Nowadays my work involves transforming Queensland’s energy system, with my new team who are responsible for delivering the state’s renewable energy target.
While my day-to-day work isn’t closely linked to conservation, I’m grateful to have a job where I can make a tangible, positive impact on the world.
For now I’ve put aside any plans or predictions about the future, but I know I’ll always be a conservationist at heart. My spare time is filled with environmental projects and campaigns, developing young changemakers, painting threatened species and preparing my research for publication. One day I’ll buy land somewhere beautiful and try my hand at restorative farming, and maybe publish a book or two. For now I’ll just see where life takes me.
Last week I watched the world premiere of a National Geographic documentary called Jane Goodall: the Hope. I hid my face under a pillow when I appeared on screen, and barely heard my words about how we’ve lost our connection to people and planet. In the next scene Prince Harry raises his hand to offer me a high-five, and the camera pans to Jane Goodall who explains how young people, like me, like you, are her greatest reasons for hope in a dark world.
This sequence of events, awkwardly immortalised on camera, is easily one of the proudest moments of my life. It proved that even after years of thinking otherwise, my voice and what I have to say really does matter after all.
For more of Jessica, check out @wildlifeofjess on Instagram