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We need a different economic model for supporting conservation work. Here’s my story.

Many years ago, I was offered a job doing restoration work at a coal company while perusing festival booths in Fairbanks, Alaska. Still wearing my college-aged rose colored glasses, I was skeptical of working for conservation within industry, said thanks-but-no-thanks, and returned to upstate New York to finish my degree. Looking back, I honestly believe I could have enacted more positive change for the earth had I taken that job than I have in the almost decade since.

I recall this story because while at a recent all-volunteer biodiversity festival, a friend asked me ‘why can’t people do all this great work as their paid work?’ A group of us stood around silently for a few minutes, realizing that this question derived of innocent curiosity delved deep into issues of societal values, our current economic system, and conservation philosophy. In short, the answer is that because conservation brings in none of its own revenue, but depends on the tax money or philanthropy of others. When that dries up, no conservation careers are available. And even when they are, a high percentage of time on the job is spent looking for future funding through grants.

Positions like coal mine tundra restoration bring the money and conservation efforts closer together. As long as people continue to use coal, there will be a need – and funding available – for conservation. Sure, it depends upon the corporate responsibility of the coal company (and maybe this should be required as a means of tackling environmental externalities, among other good reasons). But the fact that they’re hiring rosy-eyed college kids makes me think that there’s at least one ethical corporation out there. Also, that they offered me the job with no formal application process, after just a short conversation at a festival booth, indicates that they are in need of some well-meaning conservationists to join their staff.

In contrast, I went the academic route. I was enraptured by the seeming freedom it offered and the societally-important trailblazers that went before me. While in graduate school, I did achieve much of this freedom and spent loads of time theorizing conservation philosophies and environmental justice issues around different ways of knowing the world. That is the very nutshell of my thesis (read more on my professional website). But come the end of that time, I think about where the rubber really hit the road: my partnerships in the fishing industry.

I probably spent two solid years chasing funding for my research – and that’s while my stipend was covered by a relatively generous university. Toward the end, it was easier for fishermen who believed in my research to give me the fish I needed than to accept payments off slow-moving grants that required social security numbers and other tax information. After our research was completed, I was invited to industry conferences and presented to a group of close fisher collaborators at one of their monthly meetings. For them, my questions were a matter of survival, and industry for their sons, and tangible hope for the future.

Meanwhile, my academic publications were being tossed around journals as ‘too interdisciplinary’, ‘too applied’, and ‘not critical enough’. While that last critique is a particular tradition of geography – we must tear things down to gain disciplinary credibility – I still struggle with the impact of my work. It’s rewarded in industry and actively discouraged in academia.

Moving on to post-academic life, I’m no longer supported by a lovely 5-year stipend and much more of my time is spent trying to figure out how to keep doing the things I love and truly believe in. My experiences are a blend of what some have dubbed the ‘postdocalypse’ and something funky about how philanthropic funding works. I was inspired to tell my story by an article by Kate Wing who tells a similar story from her perspective in the funders’ world. Basically: the time spent making sure we can feed ourselves, go to the doctor, have funding for tomorrow, and report on the funding of today means that there’s a lot less time available for actual work to get done.

So I’m back where I started, some days regretting that I didn’t take that job offer from a coal company (I never thought I’d say that). Yet, that is an example diverse set of industries offer time for creative thinking that seems to be a lasting impact of the technology sector’s innovative human resource practices. There are moments, when agonizing over my next grant to cover my salary for just a month, that I wish I were in such a stable environment that fostered sustainability as a matter of corporate practice and innovation. It’s just one possibility, but it’s a different model of doing good work.

In the end, we all need to think on the question ‘why can’t people do all this great work as their paid work?’. The answer might mean expanding post-academic possibilities, changing the economic model of conservation work, professionally rewarding optimism – or realistically all of the above. In a time of economic turmoil needing a new world economy, now might be the perfect time to shift the economic model of conservation. For the world to become a better place, we need an answer. And it isn’t the status quo.