Fury to Publication: Decolonizing Conservation Science
Today my paper got published in the Journal Conservation Biology. It has been a year-long process and I wanted to hop on here and tell the story of how me getting angry in class led to two publications.
For the last class of my conservation biology course as part of my Master’s in Conservation Biology program, my professor assigned two papers that were supposed to summarize the current state of the discipline: “One Hundred Questions of Importance to the Conservation of Global Biodiversity” published in 2009, and the follow-up paper, “Ten-year assessment of the 100 priority questions for global biodiversity conservation” from 2018. Both were crafted by conducting a survey of existing practitioners and researchers in conservation “around the world.” The ten-year assessment paper included a pie graph with the origins of the survey participants.
I felt a rage start to billow in my gut. I let the feeling simmer for a couple days (I have written vicious emails in the heat of the moment before and regretted it) before writing the author:
I am a student at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. For my conservation biology class, I was assigned your paper “Ten‐year assessment of the 100 priority questions for global biodiversity conservation” and I must admit it infuriated me. While I applaud your transparency, I still ask, how is it possible, that North America and Europe make up 14% of the world’s population, and yet make up what appears to be 75% of your respondents? This paper, like the 100-question paper it references, steps outside the guise of objectivity to make explicit value judgments about what is considered important to study. If this paper largely reflects the subjective opinions of a single perspective, what is the value of it? How does it move us beyond the scientific echo chamber into a more expansive scientific discipline?
Yes, this is only a single paper, but this is exactly how power dynamics are perpetuated. These papers are used by NGOs, institutions and governments to allocate funding, resources and guide hiring decisions. But whose perspectives are reflected? Who is asking these questions? You mention that there is a big interest in studying climate change, and that this “reflects the severity of the threat posed by climate change to the world’s biodiversity.” Glaringly omitted from this sentence is the devastating effect of climate change on PEOPLE. Who will be affected the most from climate change? It is universally understood that the global south will suffer the most. Why are they not steering the science? Whose interests is this science serving? Who benefits from the answers?
There is an attempt to address these omissions in the supplementary materials. In the appendix addressing limitations, you elaborate that “online surveys provide a tool to address precisely this issue, as they allow the pool of participants contributing to the prioritization exercise to be expanded beyond the small group of experts that typically convene for these types of exercises.” I easily accessed the online survey by clicking on the link provided. This is precisely the solution you point to, so why wasn’t it more widely distributed? In a globalized era, there is no excuse for this. I want to know how hard you tried to seek input from communities that are consistently left out of the conversation — and yet, have the most to lose. I can guarantee that there are people practicing conservation in every single country in Africa. I could probably come up with a list of names and organizations in a couple hours on Google. I must ask, how are papers like this relevant in a global age? Why do graphs like these STILL exist? I imagine it is easier to send out the survey through western institution networks, but who has access to these institutions? What forms of knowing do they legitimize? Was the online survey ever translated to reach a wider audience? For example, the whole continent of South America?
In your paper you address some of this, explaining that the survey represented “academic institutions based predominantly in western Europe and North America, but with strong working experience outside these areas.” I just want to point out that there is a big difference between working in an area and being from there. The difference is how much you have to lose. The difference is the composition of your whole social fabric. The difference is perspective. White westerners cannot continue to go into previously colonized countries and be the judges of what these countries need. This is just colonization under another name. The role of western science now is to ASK and LISTEN.
You point out that the lack of interest in technology is probably because respondents were unfamiliar with the topic. Remember that the white, western perspective wrote these questions in the first place. What topics out there are receiving no attention because respondents are unfamiliar with them? What topics does the global south want to study? A question framed around increased human dissociation received high relevance scores in your survey. But dissociation is a product of western culture. In some ways, it is a luxury. Dissociation from the natural world belongs to people that don’t have to work the land to make a living. Who won’t starve because of drought, or lose their livelihood because of climate-change fueled wildfires. Who don’t benefit from amassed wealth and resources to protect them from a volatile environment.
At the end of the paper you pose the following questions: “do these patterns emerge because researchers work hardest to address those problems that are genuinely most pressing or are researchers more likely to have been exposed to, become familiarized with, and work on topics that have been the focus of extensive previous research?” Overwhelmingly, your paper proves the latter. Previous research is also the result of power structures in place in our society. If we do not consciously try to break out of the mold, seek to integrate a variety of perspectives, try to learn from diverse communities, science as it is will lead us nowhere. You are probably taken aback (or perhaps offended) by the aggressive tone of this message, and I apologize for this. My need for emphasis comes from the urgency my entire generation feels in contemplating our uncertain future. A future our current frameworks created and therefore cannot resolve. We need current power structures to be challenged and overturned. We need holistic solutions. We need inclusive change, NOW. I urge you to do better.
All the best,
I bcc’d my professor, who had assigned the paper. When I showed up to class in the afternoon, he looked at me all wide-eyed. “NAI-ra” he whispered, aghast. I ended up reading the email out loud to the whole class.
The very next day I got a reply from the author, who responded to every point, mentioning that he agreed with most of what I was saying. He explained that he’d written the paper with other young researchers as a way to get experience publishing and to have a project to work on. He explained that the paper was very much a product of their limitations, as they were all overworked with other projects that actually paid their salary, and that their initial attempt was to open up the discussion of conservation priorities to a wider audience. He suggested I write and seek to publish a response paper. He saw it as ‘we could have done better.’ I saw it as ‘if you couldn’t do better, you shouldn’t have published this at all.’
First, I made my professor promise that if I ended up getting something published, he would assign it in next year’s course. I wanted to make sure that the next round of students would have access to a different perspective. I wrote up an article that expanded on my email. I asked a lot of pointed questions. I showed it to my professor and he suggested that I talk a little bit about myself, about why I reacted the way I did, about my background. So I put in two paragraphs about my own experience and inspiration to pursue conservation biology (i.e. my childhood moving around South America and Africa).
After submitting the paper, I received a review back. The managing editor of the paper had selected a self-identified Indigenous reviewer who was well versed in decolonization theory, who new the history of the discourse, who knew all the scholars that would contribute to it. The review I got back totally ripped my paper apart.
When I wrote the paper I came in all hellfire, torches blazing, ready to burn it all down. The first draft had all the emotional impulse of my rage. But I had not done my homework. The essence of the reviewer’s comments was this: How could you possibly think that you are the first one to come up with these critiques? To ask these questions? To probe the inherent colonialism of conservation biology? And here’s the thing: any oppression you may perceive exists in your chosen field or in your life, against a group of people that isn’t you, trust that it has been experienced, observed, and more importantly, already discussed, analyzed, and disseminated by the oppressed. I had not dug up all the discourse around decolonization theory and conservation biology because I didn’t know it existed. I hadn’t been exposed to it in my studies. Which was frustrating. I pointed out the things that bothered me without realizing there was a whole body of literature behind these critiques. That there were indigenous voices I could be channeling and amplifying, instead of my own. The reviewer suggested scholars, authors, and works for me to consult.
Let me be clear: this review was the best thing that could have happened to me. I treated the suggested reading list like a syllabus. I had six weeks to do the revision, and I was travelling for two of them. When I got back, I took a deep dive into the literature. I had 2,000 words to work with, including references. I ended up doubling the size of my literature cited list, referencing indigenous scholars and decolonization theory at every step because it offered a wider context and analysis to the initial questions I’d posed, and because it de-centered me (a white person with American citizenship) in favor of the people I was trying to argue were excluded from the conversation in the first place. If the paper had been published as my first draft was, I would have been embarrassed, and I would have perpetuated the very harm that I was trying to confront.
I combed through the literature. My paper had to be air-tight. I was coming up against a paper that had 35 authors on it, established researchers with careers in academia, who had published a whole lot more than I had, that is, published at all. And who was I? I wasn’t even a student anymore, I was nobody, I literally have never published anything academic before in my life. And here I was coming for them. I couldn’t give them any reason to dismiss me, any fault in my references, in my argument, in my writing.
I submitted it and promptly got an email of acceptance. The most important part for me was the note at the very end of the email from the assigning editor, with a comment from the reviewer:
Comments to the Author: The expert referee who vetted this comment read the revision and approved it: “The responses are very good; the revision is now acceptable and looks much improved.”
My hope, after diving deep into decolonial literature regarding science, is that the next student who comes along will read my paper and follow the trail left by the literature cited. My hope is that they will see there much has been written about this, that conservation is not set in stone, is not and should not be defined by white European men, that the exclusion of most of the world’s population is a problem that many people have identified and discussed at length. I want these papers to be part of a regular course on conservation, not just taught in sociology classes.
My hope also is that students will see themselves as active participants in this evolving body of knowledge we call conservation, and not just vesicles to be filled with the words of wiser and older (inevitably) men. And that was a process I had to go through, too. The author of the original paper thanked me for sending the email, saying that it really made him think. My professor said this had been a learning experience for him. That he didn’t even notice that much the discrepancies in the graph. I had to learn to trust my gut, to trust my outrage, but not to ride entirely on this rage, but to allow it to steer me towards a body of work assembled by people who have been feeling the sting of colonialization long before I have.
It is funny because in many ways this paper was the culmination of a lot of the frustration that had been mounting in my studies of conservation biology, but in the process of writing the paper, in many ways, my faith in the discipline was renewed. There were a number of (white, male) gatekeepers in the process that acknowledged the importance of this critical perspective —
1. My professor, who was surprised, but told me that these conversations were important to have, and encouraged me to write the paper,
2. The author of the paper, who responded point-by-point to my email, and who largely agreed with what I was saying and admitted the structural limitations of representation in conservation, and who then read the first draft and gave me feedback, and,
3. The lead editor of the academic journal, who accepted my first draft, and passed it on to an Indigenous scholar who he knew would give a thorough and critical assessment of my paper.
I got the sense that all these white men knew very well that there was a problem, but weren’t entirely sure what to do about it or how to go about fixing it. Admitting the issue is the absolute bare minimum — but still, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Colonial power dynamics are so unbelievably entrenched in academia it can be hard to figure out where to start picking the whole thing apart. It’s a diffuse, abstract foe, but this work could literally not be more important — our entire global ecosystem depends on us decolonizing conservation biology, now.