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Accountability in Conservation: Making Love Real

Accountability is all the rage, and can even cause rage, for it questions entitlement, which is present in our conservation practices. The Western sense of conservation is intertwined with the white and colonial power structure that has relied on its entitlements, and we need to call attention to this situation.

I write this not to call anyone out, but to call you in. Shame may arise, but it is not the intent. I ask us all to share in the essential work of revealing this pervasive sense of entitlement in our world, which is at odds with accountability, and the well-being of all.

Peter Block writes in Community:The Structure of Belonging that....

The essential work is to build social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountability among [members]. When members care for each other, they become accountable to each other. Care and accountability create a healthy community.

We need healthy conservation efforts, because far too often the lack of social and organizational intelligence and conflict sends our conservation efforts into a tailspin. Let’s face it, conservation as a whole is not working. Species and ecosystems continually fall prey to systems of domination that seem blind to or ignore calls for accountability. And this dysfunction is within each of us and our organizations. To often we slip into entitlement, which is essentially centering a conversation of “What’s in it for me?”

Entitlement or lack of accountability in conservation can manifest as:

1. Seeking permission from a community or indigenous community to work on a conservation project, or to enlist them in the project, after the grant application or conservation strategy has already been designed or mostly envisioned

2. Teaching biodiversity values and practices from a curriculum designed outside of the context of the local community

3. Performing research and publishing reports without local input or revision, and withholding the final version or credit to others involved

4. Awarding the greatest perks and salaries to those outside of the local area, such as managers and grant administrators who may live halfway around the world

5. When questioned about the fairness or economics of conservation strategies to the local people, accountability is evaded by saying “The donors or grantees require…”

6. What others can you think of?

Lest you think that I am calling you outside of a community of care, and professing any purity in these matters, I have been guilty of all the above in my 34 years in conservation (hopefully less so in recent years). I mourn for the entitlement that has kept me separate from those I care for and that has made made my conservation efforts less authentic, relational, and committed. We are all caught in the domination systems where entitlement abounds.

Again from Peter Block:

Entitlement is the outcome of a patriarchal culture. The cost of entitlement is that it is an escape from accountability and soft on commitment. It gets in the way of authentic membership. What is interesting is that the existing public conversation claims to be tough on accountability; but the language of accountability that occurs in a retributive context is code for ‘control.’ High-control systems are unbearably soft on accountability. They keep screaming for tighter controls, new laws, and bigger systems, but the screams, they expose their weakness. The weakness in the dominant view of accountability is that it thinks people can be held accountable – that we can force people to be accountable... It is an illusion to believe that retribution, incentives, legislation, new standards, and tough consequences will cause accountability. This illusion is what creates entitlement – and worse, it drives us apart. Every colonial and autocratic regime rises to power by turning members against each other... Commitment and accountability are forever paired, for they do not exist without each other. Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from. It means we have conversations of what we can do to create the future.

We yearn for accountability, for to be accountable means that you count, you matter. It means that you belong.

I believe we need more belonging, caring, commitment, and accountability in our conservation practices. It seems too often that our failures to let go of entitlement shame us, and in response we grasp ever harder onto wanting to control the outcome or metrics of conservation, instead of being invited into and inviting one another into relationships of care in which we are learning from each other how to more effectively care – how to make love real (Rev. Meredith Garmon speaking on accountability).

To help bring as much love and accountability as possible into conservation, please join us for our webinar series: Intersections of Oppression and Conservation that we co-host with Science and Perspective. Our next webinar is on Wednesday, August 19, 3 p.m. Eastern USA in English and Wednesday, August 26, 3 p.m. Eastern USA in Spanish. We request that you register for either. These will be ongoing, so please sign up for our newsletter here or check back regularly for updates on our website.

You can count on me to show up with as much vulnerability and courage as possible. May I count on you for the same?

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