Vance G Martin is the president of the WILD Foundation, an international conservation organisation. He is an expert in international nature conservation and wilderness protection, and specialises in bridging the interests of people and nature through culture, communications, science, and policy.
In this interview with IDR, Vance discusses the importance of people- and culture-based models of development, the mistakes that the environment movement has made, and the need to mobilise people to reverse climate breakdown.
India is going down a certain path when it comes to development and ecology. Given your experience in conservation work, do you think we are making the right choices?
There’s a Western paradigm of development, that I believe ‘modern’ India has accepted. This was not the case when I first came to India in the 1970s, when there was still a strong Gandhian ethic. I believe India has strayed from that ethic, even though it likes to trade on it. But India has so much more to draw from to create a better development model.
The Western model of development throws a lot of money at a problem. It defines the solution, even though it often doesn’t define the problem very well. Then it decides the time frame within which it will execute the solution. That paradigm is not people- or culture-based; it is GDP-based and normally anti-culture. For example, we see it when suddenly there is a plan to build 10,000 kilometres of new roads, or 200 new dams.
Money is thrown at these projects, and they are meant to be finished quickly. What happens then?
Roads cut through habitats, causing pollution, and death if there are no wildlife underpasses or overpasses. Dams silt up quickly because they are not accompanied by a biodiversity conservation programme. So, you have a landscape that is laid bare and communities that have been displaced.
Biodiversity supports life. Dams, meanwhile, support power and water, and that’s only a part of life. If there is no effort to relate dams to the environment that they’re in, we have a disconnect, which leads to dysfunction, which leads to failure.
This particular model of development, and the scale of money involved, also lends itself to a particular type of ‘human-involvement’—corruption. Corruption for money (and/or power), and influence. India knows it, Latin America knows it, as does Africa, and my country, the United States of America. Corruption exists everywhere and it is the number one issue with bad development.
How can we move away from this paradigm of development?
What we need to do is turn this paradigm on its head, and adopt a culture-based development model. The first step towards that is to not throw money at a problem; instead first we must create partnerships. And let us not call the people we work with ‘stakeholders’. They are partners, and they must be respected as partners. When you use the word stakeholder, it indicates that you are still the one in charge.
Second, don’t give people the solution. Create an environment where the solution comes from the people most affected by it. It could be a local community, or a nation.
Third, look at the time frame. Yes, we need to create jobs and to modernise, but we also need to ask, at what cost and what pace? We need to slow down, so that we can pay attention to the needs of communities, people, and places.
Our organisation, the WILD Foundation, along with our partner in India, Sanctuary Nature Foundation, works with a ‘relationship paradigm’. We look at the relationships first—between communities, and between people and nature. The world we live in is a social construct, and if development does not work as a social construct, it is self-aimed towards failure.
Economic development requires systemic or holistic thinking. And where do we get this thinking? We get it from looking at nature. Nature is an integrated system; it has self-regulating mechanisms that produce resilience. Things live, die, evolve, and everything is connected.
I observe wilderness because it helps me understand how to prioritise relationships. If we take these simple lessons from the complex system of nature, and apply them, we can have a very different approach to development. But we humans seem to believe we are cleverer than nature. We know where that ends up!
Is it also about how the two narratives have been marketed? People are attracted to the idea of development at scale, while there is a distrust of environmentalists, saying they are all anti-development. Have we failed to build the right narrative in India?
I think the environmental movement has made a few mistakes. First, it has promoted science as the right and best tool, bar none. Science is important but it is only a tool, and conservationists have used science almost like a holy grail, instead of putting it in the context of community and culture. What we should have done was create connections and relationships in which science partnered with culture and community, and model ourselves on nature, because nature works. Science alone is just information, not a solution.
Second, the language that the conservation movement has used has been largely fear-based. Fear is a motivator; it is not a sustainer. People get tired of fear, they burn out on it. We may need to use a little fear for motivation, because the danger and impending results of climate change and the extinction crisis is real. But what people want is a solution, one that they understand and in which they can participate. The minute you define and/or scale up a solution, such that it has no relationship to a person and their community, their engagement wanes and they lose interest.
We need solutions that scale down to an individual or family level of understanding and action. Once we do that, scaling up occurs in the right way. The greatest enemy of our ecological crisis is people thinking the problem is too big, so somebody else needs to solve it. That the issue is not their problem, it is someone else’s, they have no power, and they can’t do anything about it. That is why the small things are important—we need to recycle, ban plastic bags, and so on. These, of course, are not the full solutions, but they are actions that personalise the solution.
Individual action is important, but on the other side we have governments and corporates that are much more powerful. How do fight them? What would it take?
This is going to be rather simplistic, but whoever thought that Gandhi could defeat the British empire? He took simple principles—without a lot of outside input—and applied them well. He showed us that one person can change the world, by creating a movement. Movements are how women got the right to vote. They didn’t get it by paying somebody else to do it, or waiting for yet another day. They mobilised, they created a movement.
There is a wonderful Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” So, that is what we need in our struggle for a healthy, beautiful planet—a movement of people asking for a world that is liveable, that provides power, food, and housing, with human communities that respect nature. How do we create movements? How do we stimulate people? How do we empower everyone to claim this world as their own responsibility? Knowing the principles for doing so is easier than getting them into effective action—but it is very do-able.
One imperative is enlightened leadership. Movements can change the world, but they need a leader. Sometimes, of course, those leaders are crucified because they threaten the status quo—just consider Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, or Mahatma Gandhi. The power of entropy is very strong. This is why a lot of people don’t stick their necks out. But then, look at what this young girl Greta [Thunberg] is doing for attention to climate breakdown.
So, you are saying there is hope?
If you don’t have hope, you have nothing. Without it, we may as well give up now. We build hope through small pieces of success, and out of this mosaic of successes, a story is created, one that says ‘we can do this’. But we can only do this if we work together and not in isolation.
We need relationships. The most important relationships to me are people-to-people and people-to-nature. It’s a little triangle—there is the person, the community, and nature. As long as that triangle is active and reciprocal, there is a lot of reason to hope. There will be problems and it will be very uncomfortable, because the status quo is powerful. Whether it is the self-focused corporate or political power structures, there are wicked actors at-large. That is the bed we have made, and we have to lie in it. But altruism is strong, and will-to-good even stronger. And so, we still have great reason to hope.