Why Emotion Matters in Conservation Science

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    May 16, 2013


    Why Emotion Matters in Conservation Science

    At this Earthwatch lecture, Dr. Anastasia Steffen and Dr. Wallace J. Nichols discuss the role of emotion in conservation and neuroconservation. Explorer Paul Rose chairs.

    At this Earthwatch lecture, Dr. Anastasia Steffen and Dr. Wallace J. Nichols discuss the role of emotion in conservation and neuroconservation. Explorer Paul Rose chairs.

    View the recorded presentation from
    Why Emotion Matters in Conservation Science:

    “Why Emotion Matters in Conservation Science” was chaired by explorer, polar guide, TV presenter, and Earthwatch ambassador Paul Rose, who revealed how his passion for nature had begun at the age of 11 when the exploits of his hero, Jacques Cousteau, had inspired him to become a diver.

    Rose spoke to the audience at the Ondaatje Theatre, as well as to an international audience listening to the evening via Webinar. Earthwatchers were also able to keep in touch through live Twitter updates.

    Paul introduced the first speaker, Dr. Anastasia Steffen, who leads an Earthwatch project studying the landscape and historical use of the Valles Caldera in New Mexico, a beautifully scenic volcanic area with grass valleys, hot springs, and streams.

    Most of the Valles Caldera is above 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) in elevation, which is too high for agriculture, and until 2000 it was privately owned. Dr. Steffen’s team, with the Valles Caldera Trust, is tasked with preserving the cultural and natural heritage of the area while providing public access.

    “The word people often use for these areas is ‘pristine,’” she said. “In reality the area is brutally logged and heavily grazed – but we keep using that word, pristine. I think people use it to describe a healthy, safe environment. You can recognize in the Valles Caldera that you’re in a safe place. There’s water, resources, shelter. Consequently, we recognize it as beautiful. I don’t know what coyotes think when they find a safe place, but I imagine it’s something akin to love.”

    The Valles Caldera is protected and relatively undisturbed, but it’s not unused. The Holocene period – an 8,000-year span – saw people thrive here.

    “It’s important to realize that the Archaic period was the last period when human adaptation here was sustainable,” says Dr. Steffen.

    But as beautiful as the area is, it has also suffered. In June 2011, a forest fire burned a third of the Valles Caldera. “It was a time of pain, grief, and anxiety. We recognize a landscape that is not safe. But there is tremendous relief in watching the green sprout back again.”

    Dr. Steffen noted the importance of managing our emotions in the face of environmental challenges and stressed the value of fostering positive connections with our environment to recognize the need to preserve it. “Fear and denial won’t help us,” she said.

    Dr. Steffen also reiterated the importance of “taking every opportunity to get children out into open spaces” to help them “fall in love” with nature and recognize the need to preserve it.

    Dr. Steffen then handed over to former Earthwatch scientist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, who aimed to talk about “the L word”–love. Dr. Nichols, a marine biologist, is leading the emerging scientific field of neuroconservation, investigating how natural environments could be essential for our well-being, helping to reduce stress–a factor involved in 60% of disease–and encouraging creativity. He believes that scientists shouldn’t be afraid to talk about love more, especially as we are starting to understand the neurological implications of emotion.

    Dr. Nichols confessed to being a “turtle geek” from a young age who took his passion to Mexico, where he did his doctoral work. Despite grim predictions for the survival of Baja California’s black sea turtle, he began working to preserve them. Dr. Nichols was happy to share the data he was collecting before publishing (uncommon among scientists) because he believed it would generate more science and give the turtles a better chance. Indeed, it helped build up a network of turtle protectors. This year, he noted, we’re seeing the best black sea turtle nesting season since 1978.

    Nevertheless, he added, there is still an ocean crisis: “We need to rethink our relationship with the ocean. We need to understand how we can change our behavior.”

    Dr. Nichols discussed how we can now use powerful technology to see what’s going on in our brain. But “Who’s embracing neuroscience?” he asked.

    “Marketers are. They know how brands affect us emotionally.”

    He pointed out how musicians also use neuroscience, and magicians, and people who meditate, so perhaps it’s time that conservationists use it too. Dr. Nichols has combined the fields of neuroscience and conservation to create the emerging field of neuroconservation.

    “With neuroconservation, we can start talking about the science of dignity, compassion, and empathy. In science, we use fear and shame to propel its agenda. If we use those tools alone, all we’re doing is stressing people out more.”

    Dr. Nichols finished his talk with a quote from Jacques Cousteau. “‘People protect what they love’ was the original quote,” he said. “I’d like to add the word ‘sometimes.’ Sometimes people protect what they love. Let’s go a step further and change that to ‘all the time.’”

    Earthwatch Program Manager Ben Jack closed the lecture by thanking the Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe and Africa for sponsoring the Earthwatch event program. Without this support, these fantastic events could not happen.

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