CONSERVATION EXHAUSTION and the Children and Nature Movement

About the Author

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D., is the Brown Chair/Director of Applied Animal Ecology at the Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo Global and General Scientific Director, Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Peruvian Amazon. He is best known for his work with the giant panda and chairs the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Giant Panda Expert Team. Ron and his wife Janice have created a family nature club in San Diego with over 1000 member families. Janice leads C&NN’s Natural Families Network.

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I believe that hope, despair, and the movement to reconnect society to nature form the nexus that defines the current era in conservation.

In many ways, we live in the bleakest of times, with unprecedented rapid erosion of our rich natural inheritance. Those of us on the front lines suffer from battle fatigue and conservation despair. We get bogged down in the bureaucracy of conservation, the paperwork necessary to make anything happen in today’s society. No matter how passionate we were at the onset, we come to believe that our work is too little to stem the tide of so many potent forces.

 We swallow the bitter pill of acceptance and communicate our cynicism or disdain. We forget that we need hope — those of us committed to conservation as much as those who we are trying to convince.

A number of conservationists have given this problem serious thought and have independently converged on the need for new inspiration. Some of us find ourselves going to our internal happy place — the  joy hidden in the recesses of our childhood memories of the natural world. We find the hope we so badly need in the psychological restoration conferred by nature. But that restoration can be illusive.

Many “successful” scientists are, in effect, promoted out of nature and into the office. When we lose the anchor, we are set adrift, and like the characters in the movie Gravity, are sent spiraling into darkness. Some of us may regain balance and perspective with short visits to our field sites, or taking more personal time to hike, camp, and explore. But, as new empirical work is showing in the field of positive psychology, happiness (a close ally of hope) comes from connectedness with community, and giving back to that community — which we need as much as we need nature.

Here is where I think the movement to reconnect people to nature has great value for conservation professionals.

  • We can rediscover our own joy in nature by helping others to discover their nature connection.
  • We can restore our faith in our future and rekindle hope by devoting ourselves to the cause of connecting human communities with nature. Motivation to carry on comes from hope and hope comes from the belief that our actions make a difference.
  • We are nature experts and sharing our expertise with others can be profoundly rewarding; it involves giving and receiving at the same time.
  • Most obviously, if we don’t connect today’s children to nature, where will our next generation of conservation leaders come from?
  • If we—those who have devoted our lives to saving nature—don’t step up and do this, then who will?

These are some of the reasons why I have become an advocate for encouraging conservationists to become involved in this movement. With my wife, Janice, I have chosen to establish a family nature club as one powerful way I can be of service. By doing this, I see the world of nature fresh, through the eyes of children and parents experiencing nature together. After a nature outing with our club, I often look over to Janice and say, “We’ve done a good thing.” I am a better person for having done this, and I take a new, more positive perspective back to my day job working with endangered species.

In my C&NN blog post a couple of years ago, I wrote that I enjoy nature alone or just with my own family. So why burden it with 20 or 30 other families? The reward is the feedback we receive from the families who join us in our explorations. It’s the joy on the faces of  parents and kids as they open up to new possibilities in nature, together. It’s the new relationships we are building with these strangers on the trail. And, it’s that feeling we get inside when we share this gift. It’s the antidote to selfishness and self-absorption.

This is why I think it is no accident that an increasing number of prominent conservationists are becoming more involved, sometimes enchanted with, the movement to reconnect people to nature.

At first it may seem puzzling and ironic that a movement founded during a crisis underlain with pessimistic and daunting statistics (today’s child spending only 6 minutes per day in unstructured nature play; visitation to many national parks crashing) can also be a source of positive inspiration. But, people inherently desire to make a contribution to something bigger than themselves, and even in times of battle can find great hope — that Churchillian role-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work brand of hope.

Joining the movement to reconnect society to nature is, for a conservationist, much like joining the battle in World War II to combat the unspeakable horrors the world confronted at that time, to offer our children a better world than if we stood on the sidelines. Conservation needs the children and nature movement and the children and nature movement needs conservation.


More reading and resources

The Conservation of Conservation — and the Rejuvenation of Conservationists

The culture of conservation biologists: Show me the hope. BioScience.

Hope springs eternal: biodiversity conservation requires that we see the glass as half full. BioScience.

Reconnecting People to Nature Is a Prerequisite for the Future Conservation Agenda. BioScience

On Being a Biologist: From ‘Living Alone in the World of Wounds’ to the Joy of Connecting Children to Nature

A Veteran Voice in the Wilderness Takes Charge at B.C. Sierra

Photo: © Janice Swaisgood


  1. A lot to chew on and a lot to think about…I like your thoughts about where future success lies. Thank you.

  2. Daniela Benavides

    Thank you very much for sharing these thoughts, Ron. As a conservation biologist I identified with the situation you describe and found comfort in your words.
    At times I feel we are inevitably spiraling into environmental doom; that the underwater world that so inspired me will no longer be able to offer the same magic to those who would keep going after I am gone. However, I find resolve in connecting people with nature. I think about it as contributing to their quality of life; and if it can also help motivate young conservationists, or convince a few non-sympathizers about the value of environmental stewardship, all the better.
    Moreover, I have come to see it as part of my job to give myself time in nature to better understand my choices and strengthen my lead to keep on swimming against the tide.


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