Progress and Conservation

‘Humans, culture and society’ (OECD, 2002) only exist because of balance. It is easy to think of research as dealing in innovation (progress), but the more we come to discover about our planet the more it becomes about preservation (conservation) too.

Striking a balance here could mean the difference between a future we want, or one we don’t. We can see this balancing act playing out through the work of a unique practitioner who operates in as a mediator between the ‘indigenous’ and ‘western’ mind-set.

Wade Davis (author, anthropologist and [what has to be the coolest job title available] National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence) has found himself in the rather unique position of operating somewhere between industry and indigenous societies. In his interview with George Stroumboulopoulos (2013) he explains that indigenous culture is built on the idea that we have responsibilities for the planet, that this relationship will direct destiny.

Davis refers to the aboriginal people of Australia (although similar stories could be told around the colonisation of indigenous lands all over the world). When the British turned up in the early 1600s they saw people who looked weird and had primitive technology [as they saw it]. What really offended the British was that they had no interest in improvement or progress. They therefore concluded they weren’t people at all and began to shoot them. What they failed to understand was that many indigenous ideologies are aimed, not at changing the world, but trying to keep it as it was at the time of its creation. This way of life does not result in putting a man on the moon, but neither does it result in climate change and our capacity to threaten the the life-support systems of the planet. Western culture might see the earth more as a bunch of raw materials ready to be mined.

“It’s not for us to say who’s right or wrong but how the belief systems mediate the interaction between human beings, natural landscape, ecological footprint and the beneficiaries of industry.”

Wade Davis

It’s people like Davis that have started to inform an ethical position; not progress versus conservation, but ‘progress for conservation’, research that negotiates successfully between the two, or makes both equal stakeholders in its investment, outcomes and impact. This position is also inspired heavily by who we might call progressive, socially aware, entrepreneurs of the new world. The things that Elon Musk (Tesla) or Boyan Slat (Ocean Cleanup) are trying to do with their companies, technological innovation and ecological awareness for universal benefit. In a similar way to the British being offended by the aboriginal lack of ‘progress’, we should all be offended by high volume, low quality, polluting, disposable products of limited merit.