How can we make conservation matter?

I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed and see a post titled “Our Climate Crisis”. After a one-second pause I continue scrolling and land on a hilarious Game of Thrones meme that I share with four of my friends. It’s not that I’m not interested in reading about climate change; I have read so many articles about how we are doomed and there’s not much I can really do about it, right? 

My meandering mind returns to the present. I breathe. The undercurrent is picking up but I can  still see my buddy at the edge of the sandbar so I start kicking my legs and rejoin the group. My friend motions me over and points at a beautiful stingray hiding under some pristine white sand. Thought we would miss you, eh?

Just off the coast of Havelock Island in the Andamans, this turned out to be a really great dive site. It wasn’t the same thrill as the previous day’s night dive where we saw an adolescent catshark, but visibility was above average and it was nice to see a lot of the familiar faces. At the 44 minute mark as we slowly begin our ascent to the surface, I glance 15 feet below me to see a plastic bottle stuck between two corals. I quickly swim down and yank it out, stuffing it into the pocket of my BCD (jacket) along with all the other trash found on that dive.

Blue ring angelfish (Pomacanthus annularis) off Havelock Island
Sea Turtle Research Unit (SEATRU) in Terengganu, Malaysia

Sitting in a meeting room on the 37th floor of a Mumbai high-rise, it’s not always top of mind. But the more I experience, be it diving, walking through rainforests, or climbing mountains, the more I get passionate about protecting what we have left. This made me realize that even if I am not actually in the ocean tagging sharks (yet!), I can still play a role, for we are all stakeholders of this planet. Just as a virus has an “R-naught”, individual choices and actions do too. What you do doesn’t end with you but also influences those around you, and if you can even influence just one other person, you have already doubled the impact. However, conservation isn’t always “sexy”. Sure, there are times when it is. Like when we were digging out turtle hatchlings to incubate them in a safer environment before releasing them into the ocean; that was cool! But generally it is a lot of hard work with little reward. There’s not much money in it and you rarely get to see results in your lifetime. In today’s world there is general awareness and concurrence (?) that our planet is under threat, but what are we doing about it? Making real changes is not easy, not profitable, and generally inconvenient. In business many decisions are made based on “ROI” or “Return on Investment”, and the visible, tangible, return on investment here is murky at best. I’ll be honest: it doesn’t always make business sense for a corner shop to trade in their plastic bags for paper bags that are at least four to five times the cost. There might be a PR spin they can add there but the net ROI is unlikely to be positive. The more I thought about this, the more I realized, it needs to get individual and personal. 

For me it was scuba diving. After every dive I would borrow a fish identification book from the dive shop and sit there, sipping my chai, turning the pages to find the fish we had seen. This can lead to heated arguments too; was it a Moorish Idol or Indian Bannerfish, a porcupine fish or pufferfish? Well I wasn’t going to touch to find out. It was a magical world down there, and the more I learned about how quickly it was disappearing, the more I started to care. Take sharks, arguably the most misunderstood of all fish: despite what the movies show, their mission in life is not to attack humans. They don’t even like human meat – most shark attacks are in error because a paddling human often resembles a fish at the surface. There were 5 fatal shark attacks reported in 2019 while humans kill an estimated 11,417 sharks; Every hour. Sharks are 80 million years older than trees (!) and we can’t be sure if they will make it past the next 80 years? Now I’m not going to make this article about sharks… although I can’t say I’m not tempted to. It is when we learn more and really reflect on our experiences with nature that we truly start caring enough to shift our behaviors towards tangible change. In the immortal words of Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

A hidden beach on Redang Island, Malaysia

There is a lot to be hopeful about. We are seeing a greater mobilization towards environmental consciousness today than at any other time in our history. When I go to a bar and order a drink, there often aren’t two straws in my glass by default. And it’s not about the two straws that have been saved but rather about the conscious decision that was made to reduce plastic consumption; however small that might be, it influences other, larger behavioral changes too. People are reading more, learning more, and experiencing more. Research is getting more accessible and is presented in ever more digestible formats. Communities can no longer ignore the urgency with which we need to tackle climate change, deforestation, and the rising levels of plastic in our landfills and oceans. Weather patterns are getting weirder, documentaries are getting more attention, and those “1990 vs 2020” pictures are getting even more convincing. As more individuals take this personally, corporations and governments cannot ignore it either. Businesses are committing to net zero carbon, supply chains are sourcing more sustainably, and local governments have started legislating against single-use plastic. These are all steps in the right direction. 

It all starts with awareness. These changes would not have happened if individuals – you and me – didn’t take a personal interest in protecting this planet, and demand that corporations and governments do the same. Nothing is more humbling than realizing how small we are when placed within the known Universe, but yet how large the impact of our actions can be. 

Sunrise over Rio Negro in the Amazon rainforest

I laborioursly climb back onto the boat and feel the sudden weight of the air tank on my back. I slowly walk back to my spot, trying not to knock anybody on the head, and remove my dive equipment. I sit down and take my mask off, looking at its foggy insides. When I worked in consulting we often talked of the 80/20 rule – and it applies here too. We don’t need 20% of people to put in 80% effort but rather we need 80% of people to put in just 20% effort – and we might be able to leave the planet in a better state than how we found it. It doesn’t take herculean tasks to make a difference. It could be something as simple as carrying a reusable water bottle around, carrying a bag to the grocery store, or reusing that takeaway container to store leftovers. When a handful of people start making small behavioural changes, others around start following too, and before you know it laws are changing and those behavioural changes become the new normal.

When I climb back onto the boat after a dive I am excited – about all I have seen and all the stories I am going to share with my friends and family. But I am also anxious – will those black tip reef sharks still be around when I visit Johnny’s Gorge next? I know my individual actions can contribute to that reality. With greater awareness comes an unavoidable feeling of responsibility; and with that comes the incentive to act. Because somethings are worth fighting for.


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