By Joern Fischer
Many researchers engaged in biodiversity conservation and sustainability science struggle – sooner or later – with seeing the point of their work. Since I have found myself amongst these, it’s not quite clear if I have anything sensible to say on the topic. But I have made a few observations that I think may be interesting to share on this topic. The following are “stages” of despair and recovery that many in our business appear to go through at various stages. They are in an approximate order, but I don’t mean to imply they are some kind of pre-destined phases – from my observation, many people (myself included) appear to jump back and forth between these.
Disillusionment with science. Many students or PhD scholars start out feeling immensely empowered by this new tool they have discovered – science. Through apparently rational reasoning, within a community of reasonable and intelligent fellow scientists, real hope appears that this can do good. Think of all the clever brains getting together at a conference to talk about how to solve big problems. This can be a tremendous source of inspiration for next-generation scientists! But soon enough, many students reach a point of frustration or even anger. Scientists more often than not seem to turn out to be ego-maniacs, who are interested in pushing agendas just as much as people in business or government. In fact, successful scientists sometimes seem to have more of the attributes one would associate with successful business people or politicians – sleek, smart at the right times, but essentially just selling their products and seeing who can sell most.
Disillusionment with “impact”. Having realised that science may be no purer (or at least not always) than other activities (such as politics or business), at least we can console ourselves that we work for “real-world impact”. Our papers inspire others. Our findings have real potential to inform those in charge, so that they can make decisions that are better for the world. But what if those in charge are not interested? What if governance systems are such that it is difficult to see how anyone would fix anything? What if it’s clear what ought to be done, and you’ve written about it, as well as others, but nobody really seems to act on it? Disillusionment with the potential to have a positive impact is not an unlikely outcome in this case.
Disillusionment leading to a loss of hope. Add to that global statistics of things getting worse, not better, and once passionate scholars can become depressed, feeling a sense of hopelessness about the state of the world. When it comes to the global scale, extinctions of species continue unhalted, so does climate change, and we still have a billion people going hungry. We don’t seem to be acting on our science in ways that actually make a difference. Nobody cares, some kind of global collapse seems likely (just a question of when), and this leaves the question why to bother with any of this science nonsense. What, actually, is the role of discovery in our current era?
Regaining perspective. When things seem pointless because the global problems just seem too big to solve, it’s taking the “big picture” perspective that is so overwhelming. But there is another side to this perspective, too: each of us are only one of seven billion or so people, so clearly, our individual impact is going to be minute. Expecting anything other than that is setting ourselves up for failure (and may in fact be quite arrogant)! Of course, collectively, the problems we ought to solve are massive, but it is reasonable to recognise which share of the overall burden each individual should carry. None of us, on our own, will be of much use or impact.
Doing the best along the journey, without knowing its destination. Based on that then, it may be possible to re-gain some energy. Even if we’re working on a single landscape or study system, the problems in such a system are typically too large and complex to simply be “solved”. Of course a strategic view on how to solve them is helpful, but it can be useful to not be too obsessed with the destination, but rather focus on the journey. Simply contributing to sustainability or biodiversity conservation – i.e. being focused on the journey – may end up not enough to avert global collapse. But even if that is so, there is not a lot more that individuals can do than travel the journey to the best of their abilities – the outcome will depend on many more individuals also choosing a similar (or at least compatible) journey.
Connect. Along the journey, despite its unknown and uncertain destination, it is energising to connect with others who share the journey, who would like to reach the same destination, but who are similarly powerless (on their own) to actually change the trajectory of the world in any major way. Personally, I believe that such connections are the single most important ingredient to making it through phases of despair with the state of the world.
Focus inwards, as well as outwards. At the deepest, and some would say most esoteric, level, I believe there would be value in focusing inwards more often while being less obsessed about the state of the world. Many wise people living before us have shown that inner spiritual development and outward impact tend to go hand in hand. And this takes us back to the first point above: Focusing on the outside only risks that we simply are part of the “science industry”, seeking to aggressively sell our gadgets (= papers or ideas) to the world because we take it as obvious that this is how it ought to be. It may seem counter-intuitive, but at least some of the time, we’d probably achieve more in the outside world if we focused instead on our inside worlds.