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Grieving for the Past, Hoping for the Future

By Richard Hobbs

Many conservation scientists may be suffering from grief over the loss of species and habitats. If this is true, can an understanding of the grieving process be useful?

I have been increasingly struck by how divisive conservation science can be. For instance, I have been involved recently in discussions on the issue of non-native/invasive species and novel ecosystems.

In the case of non-native species, it’s been suggested that the emphasis should be shifted from considering primarily a species’ origin to a focus on the impacts species have on the ecosystems in which they establish. This sounds reasonable but subsequent critiques of this view revealed a degree of alarm, almost outrage, at the argument.

There is also considerable disquiet about the notion of novel ecosystems in some quarters. Some believe the concept will adversely affect restoration practice, and open the way for less stringent targets.

In both cases there appear to be two very different sets of people. One holds firmly to established ideas and principles concerning invasive species and ecosystem management/restoration. They think that any departure from the core set of ideas will be detrimental to efforts to restore ecosystems. The other set argues that there has to be a move away from the more traditional perspectives toward one that recognises the changing situation facing us.

Both sets consist of smart, dedicated people seeking to improve conservation management, yet they now find themselves essentially “talking past each other” in stark disagreement.

Why are there such visceral responses to suggestions we need to start thinking differently about these things? One explanation occurred to me as I reflected on the nature of loss. Loss of any kind can result in grief – the death of a friend, the loss of a pet, or losing one’s job.

People working in conservation are constantly faced with loss. Whether it’s the destruction of a local woodland, the loss of a species or the clearing of the Amazon, people with an interest in the environment are constantly assailed with loss. It could be argued that most conservation scientists live in a constant state of grief. But scientists rarely talk about the emotional aspects of what they do.

The process of grieving has been explored perhaps most famously by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who proposed a five-stage process of grieving involving denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Denial is seen as a temporary defence mechanism, as a buffer against unpleasant news. This may be replaced by feelings of anger, envy or resentment. Bargaining is an attempt to postpone the inevitable, while depression results from the recognition of what has been, or is about to be, lost. Acceptance is the final recognition of the inevitability of death (which need not be viewed as giving up).

Kubler-Ross made it clear that these stages were not necessarily sequential, and individuals could flip back and forward. Although this approach has many critics, the five stages are recognised by most as “handles or points of entry to comprehend what before was enigmatic even chaotic”.

When assailed constantly with accounts of loss of species and habitats, could it be that many conservation scientists may be suffering from grief? If this is true, can an understanding of the grieving process be useful? In relation to the polarised debates discussed earlier, one can ask whether they might at least partially be rooted in the different stages of grieving.

Denial in this context does not relate to the type of vested-interest denial that characterises much of the debate on climate change. There is a different type of denial within the conservation community that relates to an inability or unwillingness to recognise or accept ongoing ecological changes and/or that these changes cannot be reversed. This type of denial leads to demands for more action, not less – and also leads people to reject suggestions that the time may have come to look at things differently.

Anger is another common response to conservation issues and challenges, particularly in the face of inaction or continued activity that leads to ongoing loss.

Bargaining encapsulates the set of ideas surrounding decision-making and trade-offs – a recognition that it will be impossible to do everything.

Depression appears to be a constant possibility for people as they face ongoing declines of species and habitats.

Finally, acceptance represents some degree of reconciliation regarding past losses, and a recognition that there is still much to value.

Kubler-Ross’ treatment of the grieving process included the observation that hope generally remains. Restoration ecology certainly provides hope for the future.

That hope, however, has to be realistic. Blind optimism can lead to false promises and poor outcomes.

Richard Hobbs is a researcher with the Environmental Decisions Group. He is based at the University of Western Australia.