Ethics & Issues in Conservation: Part I

Cultural Cognition & the Natural World

A thousand and one things in our lives influence how we perceive the world around us. Everything from past experiences, education, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, age, and gender can influence how we think, act, and behave. Collectively, these are called your cultural cognition. Each one is individual to the person, but overlaps with others. For instance, I belong to cultural sub-groups such as women, young adults, scientists, and Americans. Over the years your cultural cognition will transform as your life progresses and new phases arise. Ultimately, your cultural cognition shapes how we view ourselves and those around us.

Differences in cultural cognitions can be the make or break factor in conservation, especially when dealing with significantly different cultures as is often the case with international conservation. It’s not just what people think, but how they think that matters. Changing what people think is much easier than changing the very essence of how they think. The way that we process information, make decisions, structure thoughts, perceive society and the natural world, and view ourselves within this greater matrix is deeply embedded in ‘s us. It’s part of what makes us, us – and what makes us so resistant to change. Examining and understanding the cultural cognition of all groups involved in a conservation project can boost the odds of succeed. By doing so, it will help cultivate relatable parameters and mutual understanding.

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The Impacts of Self-Perception

Conservation projects have a better chance of achieving short and long-term success if the researchers, patrons, and local community all feel respected and understood. There are four ways that an individual can view themselves in relation to society: (1) egalitarianism, (2) individualism, (3) hierarchism, and (4) fatalism. These address the extent to which individuals associate themselves with a group identity, and in turn how this impacts their self-perception within societal structure. It is important to understand these differences when approaching a new community. Will a democratic approach be the most effective, where every individual has an equal voice and option to contribute? Or will going directly to the community leaders be the best way to gain trust and open lines of dialogue? What about when opposing self-perceptions are involved and inter-personal communication must be navigated?

I often feel frustrated at the outpouring of natural resources feeding into the black market of traditional medicine. From my perspective, I cannot understand what drives people to be so nonchalant about destroying nature. There are broadly four perspectives people take on the natural world:

  • I am a part of natural world and the forces that govern it.
  • I respect nature and know that I have a responsibility to take care of it.
  • I am ambivalent to nature, neither caring for it nor claiming ownership over it.
  • I am not part of the natural world and may control and do as I please with it.

Personally I fall somewhere into the first and second categories. Unfortunately, not everyone shares my perspective on nature. The psychological distance people place between themselves and the natural world is linked to several other aspects of our cultural cognitions, such as education and religion. By examining a group’s cultural cognition, it would allow conservationists to anticipate the likelihood of a group accepting or rejecting a conservation plan, as well as design it to best meet their values and needs. For instance, when developing a conservation plan for the KwaZulu-Natal region (South Africa), the local community was consulted about what was most important for them. A seemingly insignificant plant emerged as a key part of the local rituals. Without consultation with the community, it never would have emerged as a conservation priority.

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Our Hwange guide demonstrating the natural soap produced by wetting & massaging the Devil’s Thorn plant.
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Examining the leg bone of an elephant to check for evidence of diseases.

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

As that example demonstrated, involving the local community and carefully considering their values and beliefs is invaluable for conservation success. There is no blanket solution for all cultural conflicts in conservation, nor will the concept of cultural cognition amend all miscommunication in multicultural situations. However, appreciating and honoring all parties involved will help to create unity and foster an atmosphere of mutual dedication and motivation toward the final conservation goals. All too often nowadays conservation turns into a political or social debate, trying to placate each side as they air their grievances. The real focus – the wildlife, the plants, the natural world – gets reduced to a mere bargaining chip for each side so they can bend the negotiations to their favor. If a respectful dynamic is cultivated from the start, then the environment can remain the focus, furthering the benefits to our planet.

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Tracking elephants on an uninhabited island in the Okavango Delta.

Categories: Culture & NatureTags: , ,

the traveling biologista

Hoping for a brighter world through biology, ecology & a sustainable future...one idea and design at a time. Cynically sincere, realistically optimistic & overly fueled by coffee.

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