Essay | Navigating conservation ethics as a young do-gooder

A baby calf found while trekking in Ladakh, India. (Max Twining-Ward)

I have always understood the inherent value of nature. From my childhood memories of splashing through waves on the shores of Samoa, to eye-opening travels as a teen, the wonders of the Earth in my mind are both beautiful and crucially important. How can it be that my understanding of our planet is far from the norm? Perhaps because most people don’t get the privilege of experiencing the natural world in its many forms from such a young age. 

Conservation and environmental protection always felt blindly obvious to me. My love for nature led me to quickly internalizing information about how the world and its animals were at risk. I then developed an even stronger concern for the fate of our planet and our species. Rather than this world being solely ours to wander, I always felt as if we were lucky just to share it with the other creatures who have long inhabited it. 

But recently, my affirmed beliefs have been questioned. After spending six weeks as a wildlife and conservation intern at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, my clarity on the ethics of conservation work are as blurred as ever. The future seems dangerously uncertain. Looming within the persistent dark clouds of the rainy season, every day at the sanctuary I felt more strongly the imminent reality of climate change, population growth, and species extinction. I felt the hopelessness of long-term, momentarily intangible projects, of underfunded programs, unfairly slow productivity levels, and infuriating legislation that allows a chimpanzee poacher to get away with less than a $1 fine.

What I had thought would be a reflective, meditative, and illuminating six weeks instead became the complete opposite. I envisioned spending my mornings practicing yoga and meditation with the backdrop of rainforest sounds, and my evenings reading my 1,000-page novel, "Infinite Jest," and then journaling, pinpointing exactly what I wanted to pursue in this field of work in the future. 

Instead, I spent many of my mornings patrolling the electric fences in the unrelenting rain, scrubbing chimpanzee poop off my pants, and making sure the millipedes hadn’t crawled back into my suitcase overnight. My evenings were spent most often in the candlelight, without power, struggling to write down my disorderly thoughts beneath the glow of my headlamp. I was totally exhausted. Was all this even worth it? 

I would often find myself trapped in this pit in my mind: 

The problems are so overwhelmingly huge, I can’t possibly make a difference. How naive was I to think that I could come here for six weeks and change a situation that is so deeply corroded?

What good am I doing, killing myself over the small problems provoked by climate change, when there are just 100 companies who create 71% of all carbon emissions?! Even if I dedicated my entire life to this particular cause, devoting every ounce of energy I have into bettering the lives of those living closest to the chimpanzee habitat in Sierra Leone, my impact would clearly be negligible to the irreversible environmental catastrophe that is looming. 

And if I did, I wouldn’t be happy — I can’t do this for more than a few months at a time. Living in the middle of the rainforest is really, really hard. Am I a phony conservationist and environmentalist? If someone who is as passionate as I am is unwilling to devote their life entirely to this issue, then who on Earth is? 

Should I just quit school then, and enjoy my life while I can? Hey, maybe I could move to Hawaii and become an artist, eating fresh papaya, and surviving off the grid with a self-sustaining garden. 

I thought about all these things, and more. I let my mind wander down the endless paths of what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. What I’ve realized is that all this worrying is doing far more harm than what I could be doing if I was doing anything but worrying.

The problem these days with conservation action, with considering climate change, is that we spend way more time deliberating and arguing about whether or not it is happening than actually implementing solutions. People are willing to put as much energy into arguing about how to save the planet as they are into actually getting about doing it.

I almost fell down this hole, too. But doing something, anything, is far more moral than doing nothing at all — and that in the end, it does add up. International development work is certainly not perfect; it is riddled with ethical conflicts and it’s important that we continue to examine these closely. But it also has dramatically improved and saved millions of lives, provided critical health care, education, jobs, infrastructure, and political stability. Maybe these improvements aren’t seen right away, but over time they add up. Slight positive developments do make a difference, especially when you’re dealing with small local communities and individual animals. 

There are institutional barriers that make improvements and solutions to entrenched problems nearly impossible. It’s important to recognize that volunteering or interning for a brief period of time does not provide a systematic solution to these problems. That’s not to say it has no value, just that we need to accept our contributions for what they are.

The truth is we need both: We desperately need large institutional changes, but we also need individuals who care about specific issues, who are willing to make day-to-day changes and have conversations that shift consumer habits. 

Maybe I didn’t come away knowing what conservation-related career path I was going to pursue. My biggest takeaway was a perspective, an insight as to how complicated, sensitive, yet important conservation work can be, about privilege, about the power of storytelling. 

It was an insight into how it feels to face situations that seem doomed, but choosing to not let that shut you down. And lastly, it was an insight into how optimism and a positive outlook can change your perspective and can help you change the world.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.