Lonely Conservationists

Laura (Pt. 2 “Everything is figure-out-able”)

Written by Laura Marsh

My last blog You are enough talked about my severe depression from thinking I had to be a perfect conservationist. It’s paralyzing to learn about all the ways we are harming the planet. But then there’s added pressure to act in the most ethical, perfect way to minimize further harm. This way of thinking is exhausting, insanely stressful, and further debilitating for one’s mental health. I realized that when I am so guilty, consumed by each individual action, I can’t use my time and energy to actually do good.

Finally, after many years of therapy, I got out of the negative cycle. This freed me up to breathe and think about how I can make the biggest impact given my talents, interests, and skills. Here were some questions that kept rising to the surface:

What’s the most effective way to help conservation efforts? Is spending my time banding/ringing birds really the best way to help wildlife?

How do we help an industry that is so stifled by a lack of funds? Can we find other sources of revenue for conservation science so they don’t have to rely on grants or fundraising?

Most people say they care about conservation, but their actions and buying habits don’t reflect this value. How do we get the general public to actually act to preserve wildlife? How do we draw their attention away from screens and instead focus on the ecosystems that need help around them?

This is when I decided to step out of the job and PhD hunt and just start my own organization, Nova Conservation. Our overall goal is to find more sustainable streams of revenue to conservation: to the wildlife, people, and projects that need it the most. Initially, I started as a small, ethical ecotourism company that would take people to see biological research projects. The goal was to allow travellers to pay to see the work we do as biologists and conservationists, and thus be more swayed to preserve and protect the natural world. I even took an entrepreneurial course in January 2020. Two months later, the world changed. Travel was on hold and everyone was stuck at home. I had to pivot my vision.

For years I’ve had a dream of building a database where people can easily find projects to get plugged into helping other conservationists. Selfishly, as a biologist, I wanted an easy way to meet up with other researchers doing cool projects and just help them. Even if it’s observation only, I love seeing how other species are studied and how conservation science is done. I’m also in a position where I can also donate a bit of money to a project for letting me come out.

Early 2020, my mental blocks were always along the lines of “You don’t know how to develop a website! You’re a biologist who hates tech! It’s in the midst of a pandemic and you have a newborn. Nah, choose something easier.” Thankfully, after listening to a ton of encouraging podcasts and books, most notably “You Are A Badass” by Jen Sincero, I finally pulled the plug and dove in. After all, everything is figureout-able! Or at least that’s what the podcasts told me.

I need to recognize how extremely privileged I am to be able to start up something like this. I can only do it because I’ve had a middle-class upbringing where I didn’t have to work minimum wage jobs to make ends meet. My husband and I both made good choices financially and don’t have student loan debt. Even with two crazy kids, I have a stable home life and am not financially strained (compared to others in their early 30s). This is allowing me to build an organization without taking a salary for the past 1.5 years. Of course, the overall goal is to grow financially in order to help other conservationists. Previously, these blessings would hinder me from starting anything at all. I’d think “why me?” and feel so guilty since other people had it worse. Again, the guilt. I am so over feeling guilty for existing and trying to make a living wage to help our planet.

Now, I can confidently say that I’ve just decided to commit my career toward conservation– specifically improving this industry. It’s really tough out there, and those wanting to break in are unaware of the realities. Oftentimes, it’s only if you have a privileged upbringing – and get extremely lucky—that you can get one of those coveted, stable, full-time careers (with benefits!) I was convinced this is what conservation needs as a way to make more money. We provide a database that allows people to find ethical conservation experiences that give money back to the most helpful wildlife projects. The problem is, when I first started out, I thought that partnering with ethical organizations is the way forward. Unfortunately, many biologists are so disillusioned by exploitation that we don’t trust many organizations anymore – even ones doing some of the best work. It’s really a vicious cycle: If you don’t have a stable job and you’re trying to break into a career in wildlife, just about every single entry-level position requires experience. However, the only way to get experience in this industry is to volunteer. If you’re lucky, you find a flexible volunteer position that allows you to work a job on the side so you actually, er, make money. Otherwise, you can easily get caught in the trap of working for free.

The worst places make you pay to work for them, which is absolutely, completely, forever unacceptable. Loads of people are eager to work environmental conservation full time, but we also need to financially support ourselves and our families. To work in the conservation sector is extremely rewarding – only if you can find a well-paying job. Sadly, these are few and far between.  This is also problematic since it discourages diversity in our field, which is thankfully becoming more talked about. In wildlife conservation, unlike any other industry I’ve come across, even if you already have the necessary experience and degrees, oftentimes you still have to pay for experiences. And if an “experience” has a strict timeline (i.e. must work from 6 am to 2 pm M-F for 3 months) and/or a strict set of daily tasks that must be accomplished (i.e. data collection and entry)—this is a different story. This is considered a seasonal/temporary position. This is a JOB. And no one should EVER have to pay for their job. It’s insane that I even have to say that. But our sector is so oversaturated that certain organizations can get away with it. Or at the very least, they can get away with paying interns, seasonal technicians, and fieldworkers next-to-nothing. Sometimes literally nothing. We need to call out organizations that exploit this loophole.

The conservation industry has many problems, but this particular one: that you can get away with paying skilled laborers nothing for a job — dies in the fiery pits of hell. Yes, we should #endunpaidinternships in every industry, and I hope many others are phasing it out. But in conservation, there are many cases where it’s a delicate balance since many experiences are geographically limited and/or working with sensitive, charismatic, or endangered species. One of the solutions I see to this problem is to encourage those people who can pay to help out those starting out. There’s a demographic of people who want to give back while they travel. These are people who could give financially to these efforts if asked. They just need an easy way to find such projects. Eventually, we want to be that solution. For the time being, we are focusing on improving our process of evaluating conservation organizations on select criteria.

For more of Laura, check out @native_marsh on Instagram

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