- Ken Wilson has been working at the confluence of community rights, biocultural diversity, and philanthropy for the better part of 40 years as an academic, within foundations, and as an advisor and NGO leader.
- In those capacities, he has been a keen observer of a broad shift in conservation and conservation philanthropy toward more inclusive and community-oriented approaches beyond establishing strict protected areas.
- Wilson says the concept of biocultural diversity is being more widely embraced by these sectors because “it is a term that somehow invites attention to the connections – tangible and intangible – between local cultures, territorial governance systems, sustainable livelihood traditions and the experience of sacredness.”
- Wilson spoke about his origins and inspirations, trends in philanthropy, his love of dragonflies, and a number of other topics in a wide-ranging interview with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
The concept of “biocultural diversity” has gained wider prominence in recent decades as academics, institutions, and practitioners have expanded cross-disciplinary work at the intersection of human culture and biological diversity. Within the conservation realm, this trend has helped raise the profile of issues like Indigenous rights and traditional knowledge, especially since the mid-2010s as many philanthropic foundations and “mainstream” conservation NGOs moved toward more inclusive and community-oriented approaches beyond establishing strict protected areas.
Ken Wilson, who has been working at the confluence of community rights, biocultural diversity, and philanthropy for the better part of 40 years, has been a keen observer and commentator on these developments, first as an academic, then a foundation program officer and director, and as an advisor and NGO leader.
Wilson, who served as the head of The Christensen Fund for 13 years and currently lives in Malaysian Borneo, told Mongabay that conservation’s trajectory–from an academic standpoint–has been increasingly influenced in the past 40 years by areas outside its traditional domain, “destabilized” by the “rights and social science inspired critique of ‘fortress conservation’ and its corollaries in the 1980s and 1990s” and “global systems analysis enabled by remote sensing and computer modeling capacities.”
“This research has been crucial to pluralizing and globalizing conservation,” he said. “It has enabled connection to the bubbling up of the environmental justice and Indigenous environmental movements and has taken mainstream conservation into earth system areas like climate, ecosystem services, agricultural commodity production and so forth.”
Wilson says that the concept of biocultural diversity has been embraced because “it is a term that somehow invites attention to the connections – tangible and intangible – between local cultures, territorial governance systems, sustainable livelihood traditions and the experience of sacredness. Furthermore, it bolsters claims of significance and rights in ways that simultaneously convey beauty, responsibility, wholeness, caring.”
Given the role philanthropy plays in shaping the conservation agenda, the rise of biocultural diversity has significant implications for the business of giving away money too. For example, supporting initiatives like helping Indigenous communities secure recognition of their traditional territories requires a different approach than simply writing a big check to a major conservation institution.
“These initiatives need quiet, slow, long-term, flexible support, provided on local terms through grounded-staff and locally-accountable intermediaries,” Wilson said. “They are necessarily messy, meaningful, and organic; they do not thrive when we press upon our Indigenous partners the stereotypes of perfection or heroism; they do not work when we imagine ourselves as the heroes.”
“Healthy partnerships need genuine human connection, strong networking and movement building elements, and with all partners continually questioning their answers.”
Wilson spoke about his origins and inspirations, trends in philanthropy, and a number of other topics in a wide-ranging interview with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
AN INTERVIEW WITH KEN WILSON
Mongabay: What set your own trajectory in conservation?
Ken Wilson: Looking back my trajectory looks rather logical. I was born in a little hospital in a forest on the slopes of Zomba Mountain in Central Africa. My mother was a linguist and my father an anthropologist doing community development. They and my wider family were keen naturalists.
The stories of my early life are all about joyful immersion in biodiversity, especially insects. But valuing culture and a discomfort with power were always in there to. My Quaker family lineage was rooted in social justice struggles in Britain, and, as anti-imperialists and pacifists, there were many deep family engagements in addressing the mess of colonialism in Asia and Africa.
The first phase of my own life was dominated by the search for meaningful contributions to the freedom struggles in Southern Africa, as seen in the light of the shortfalls of African independence unfolding across the continent. I remember my childish thrill to hear on the radio in the early 1970s, and with a weirdly inappropriate lack of surprise, that gorillas were waging a liberation struggle in Mozambique. I wanted to know how they had volunteered to join the movement, and what most confused me was that I knew Mozambique was outside their species range. My patient father explained what guerrillas (as opposed to gorillas) actually were.
In short, from the youngest age it seemed to me utterly to be expected that humans and nature would share common cause against concentrations of power and the Cartesian legacy of splitting nature and culture.
Mongabay: So what was the origin of your passion for Indigenous wisdom and territorial governance?
Ken Wilson: That passion just came. It wasn’t something I ever chose to do or worked out was right. I was just a skeptical, happy, rather intellectual anarchist, much more comfortable with African community life than with proving my worth in western society. My mother’s contempt for the establishment and uncompromising feminism steered me away from needing to be another important white man doing something Afro-glamorous, and my father’s practical radicalism affirmed roles as a dedicated ally, not as an act of guilt or charity, but as an exciting act of collective untangling driven by curiosity and determined compassion.
I was educated in Britain, where the narrow curricular tradition requires choice, at 16 years, of either a science or humanities track for A-Level and therefore university. From somewhere (I know not where) I confidently declared I wanted to take the sciences because I needed formal training in ecology, and that I would use that to try to understand Indigenous African land-use systems. Agro-ecological landscapes were systems I somehow just saw. I was a sometimes sickly child. In one bout, aged around 13, I was so bored I rummaged an old typewriter and tapped out a one-fingered essay on the causes and consequences of hedgerow destruction for the English countryside. Both the topic, and point and peck typing, chose to never leave me.
As a Zoology undergraduate at Oxford I participated in as many graduate seminars and programs in African Studies as I did my course lectures, and, through engaging with radical scholars like William Beinart and Richard Grove who were opening new fields like environmental history, I found a bridge. But this bridge went both ways. Aged 19, I had found and thrilled to the (then) obscure 1973 paper by the late Buzz Holling on “the stability and resilience of ecological systems”. I was enchanted by Ilya Prigogine and his fancy non-equilibrium dissipative structures, and his Order of Chaos Book, and I immediately grasped that there would be deep conviviality between Indigenous ways of knowing and being and the radical new interpretations of ecological dynamics coming out of systems theory. Thus was my mind continually drawn to the relationship between diversity and complexity, and while always attentive to history I also felt spatial heterogeneity, and hence landscape processes, were core to system persistence and change.
I share all this as encouragement to any self-doubters: it is well worth the risk to ignore well-worn paths between school curricular, cubicle jobs and traffic jams. Instead, we can indeed embrace the leads and instincts thrown by life, even if such directions seem pretty out-there at the time, and even if they can take a lifetime to make sense. It has been a particular joy to see my daughters find their own purposes and bliss in similar journeys.
The ecology professors I favored of course knew that local people had extraordinary knowledge of the species and ecosystems they lived with, and I was in turn charmed by the anthropologists’ early giant tables of “Indigenous Knowledge” listing species, soils and winds; but by the time I was starting my own doctoral work I had spent enough time listening to people in their territories and sacred sites to instead want to explore Indigenous ecological theory as something in its own right. I was also determined to rescue what I deeply valued in ecology from its context in Africa in the 1980s, namely as “the study of landscapes from which people had recently been removed”, and, one might add “and then studied as if people had never been there”. The scholars I admired at the time were Hussein Adan Isack, who was some years ahead of me and worked with the African honeyguide, a bird that communicates with humans to locate bees’ nests in exchange for access to the wax and grubs; my doctoral supervisor, Katherine Homewood who was one of the ecologists collaborating with African pastoralists to re-write narratives about their being backward over-grazers; and the late RHV Bell whose curiosity about savannah-woodland-soil dynamics enabled him to see how in many systems the changes underway in supposedly pristine protected areas were still being driven by the legacy of forced human removals during a park’s creation.
My own PhD Thesis was entitled Ecological Dynamics and Human Welfare, and it explored in Zimbabwe, via ecological history and agro-ecology, how Indigenous concepts of soil-moisture dynamics could explain contrasting seasonal and inter-annual fluctuations in agricultural productivity, nutrition, health, mortality and even marriage rates across a soil-type boundary. That these soil differences were so crucial was a local understanding deployed strategically within this society: people used it to guide their decision-making, and those who got to choose where to settle first lived mostly right along the soil boundary. I thought this Indigenous theory worth exploring more fully and connecting to then fashionable ideas in savannah ecology of eutrophy and dystrophy. To get there had meant re-learning everything, including what I’d thought I’d already re-learnt, and generated the forty-years and counting journey I can never let go of with the good people of Mazvihwa, where the Muonde Trust works to this day deploying action research around “Indigenous innovation” in the nexus between water, soil, gender and culture.
In the journey of researching that thesis, I became thoroughly convinced of the necessity of deep relationships with territory for an appropriate and self-healing relationship with the Earth. And I saw again and again that to reach landscape scale – and to persist across generations – meant such relationships needed to be collective. Thus, sustainability required plural governance systems rooted in enduring cultural values. Living and working with a community in that way also made these struggles intensely personal, made my patent privileges starkly visible, foregrounded power, and disabused me of any tendencies to romanticize the Indigenous.
Mongabay: While you are now ostensibly retired, I know you are keeping busy. What are you up to these days?
Ken Wilson: In 2015 I retired from The Christensen Fund and relocated from San Francisco to Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), where, after a lifetime in mostly semi-arid regions, I am now living in a kind of tree house we built on a deeply-green deliciously-muddy ridge among orchards in lowland rainforest on my wife Cynthia Ong’s family land. It’s not shabby: we wake each morning among rising mists beneath ‘Aki’, the sacred Kinabalu mountain. Establishing the KampOng Campus for Ecoliteracy & Change, our intention is to reconnect with the land and live the life we had always fought for, while creating a space and community where people and movements could gather to refresh, reconnect, and learn together. We are ourselves challenged to steward the land, and to work with our Dusun neighbors to restore rice farming, and ultimately, we hope, whole watersheds. Meanwhile, and as karma for my over-education and years as a funder, I get roped into many of the exciting things that her various organizations and their allies address, typically when proposals, reports and analyses need attention, and towards which I can serve as a crustily passionate mentor for a new generation of Sabahans. I also have the opportunity to remain engaged globally through advising two international philanthropic initiatives in this field that are pursuing bold new furrows.
In addition to learning to co-steward this land I also find time to continue to explore Borneo’s delightful dragonfly diversity, including as part of Indigenous citizen science efforts around water quality. Beyond bucket lists, as life unfurls one’s gratitude list grows. The late Peter Miller imbued my original love of dragonflies; my wife gave me Bert Orr’s guide to the Borneo’s species; and it was the youth in Babagon watershed who requested my help to document their forest species: a figure which has now reached around 100. Appreciation of these sparkling dancing river sprites is a gift I enjoy sharing on.
One of my central intentions in retiring was to write, and especially to delve further into the social and ecological history of Zimbabwe as a way of looking at how change happens. My larger interest has been in documenting the complex ways in which local initiative and landscape processes shape larger-scale dynamics previously rendered invisible or (mis)understood as structured only by macro-level political-economic drivers.
However, of late, I have surprised myself by putting much energy instead into developing non-polemical accounts of the life, times and often appalling behavior of white colonialists like Baden-Powell. I find myself doing this because my generation of white men need to address their responsibility for the fact that Britain still has not resolved its identity issues due to the lack of a proper and sensitive reflection on the truths of its imperial past. I do not think we get very far by just feeling good about condemning it, denying it, or saying it’s over. Instead I think we have to work hard to come to honest terms with it, be human about it, actually see how much we have been shaped by it, and look at what we can do now to move forward, together with the societies we once tried to rule.
Mongabay: You have been something of a weaver between the worlds of science and those of traditional livelihoods and Indigenous political struggles. What have you seen is the role of academic research in building the kinds of understanding that can transform conservation?
Ken Wilson: It is true that I revel delightedly in savoring all kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing, and that I have found that – when each is suitably respected on its own terms – the patterns that become apparent through interweaving different knowledge systems are often transformational. Furthermore, even as a student I sensed value in deploying radical field research approaches to making visible the struggles, suffering, needs and agency of Africa’s displaced peoples, inspired by working with the late Barbara Harrell-Bond and her book Imposing Aid. Meanwhile, Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich gave me the language, as an anxious and undoubtedly self-righteous student, to justify connecting education, participation, liberation and a democratization of science and research.
On the other hand, I have always had a love-hate relationship with universities and academia, both as a student and then during my time on staff at Oxford. When I shifted from research into grant making at the Ford Foundation that experience of ambiguity only continued, even as I helped channel millions of dollars into building university systems around the world. How could something potentially so liberating as higher education be so comfortable with its own internal competitiveness, self-reference and conservatism on the one hand and its tendency to be all superior and critical of ordinary mortals’ efforts to solve problems on the other? Furthermore, the Victorian intellectual tradition of extractivism around local artifacts, biodiversity, knowledge or experience remains well alive, even in fields that ostensibly critique it. But despite all that, I have to acknowledge that I always found wonderfully passionate people in the academy, folks truly committed to advancing the relationship between the elaboration of ideas and the driving of change. And during the decades of extreme marginalization of Indigenous Peoples it was in maverick academics that they often found their few allies, even as their institutions remain closed.
Now to the question of academia’s role in transforming conservation. To be frank I don’t think most of the evolution in the practice of conservation in the last few decades has been shaped by field biologists; far more important has been what the wealthy public wants to fund given the resurgent biophilia of the urban populations of liberal democracies. Meanwhile mainstream conservation in my lifetime has become professionalized, sometimes even bureaucratized, and ever better at doing a few simple but necessary things little connected to the findings of cutting edge research: namely declaring more and more protected areas and nurturing more and more appreciation for the value of nature. Perhaps the scientists’ only major contribution in all that has been driving recognition of the importance of connectivity and edge-effects to protected area effectiveness. That trajectory of conservation-as-fence-making has in turn faced disturbance from two waves of destabilizing research from left field. The first was the rights and social science inspired critique of “fortress conservation” and its corollaries in the 1980s and 1990s, only to be followed since 2000 by two decades of battering by global systems analysis enabled by remote sensing and computer modeling capacities in the encounter with the Anthropocene. This research has been crucial to pluralizing and globalizing conservation. It has enabled connection to the bubbling up of the environmental justice and Indigenous environmental movements and has taken mainstream conservation into earth system areas like climate, ecosystem services, agricultural commodity production and so forth. But it has helped much less with the original conservation questions about how to retain biodiversity in land and seascapes (as opposed to just in protected patches). Space for that “how” has been opened by a third – unfortunately rather thinner – wedge, namely work that explores biocultural, socio-ecological, common-pool resources, and related notions of how humans can thrive within systems and landscapes and be part of the persistence rather than erosion of diversity, complexity and resilience.
I rather hope the next wave of impactful research will be work grounded in the emerging new generation of programs that are working towards transformation with multiple stakeholders at jurisdictional and/or landscape/seascape scales. These efforts typically connect and interdigitate well-rooted bottom-up initiatives with expanding collective vision and deep economic and governance changes at larger scales. Research is needed to share the experience of these efforts, and will often illuminate struggles not mainly with preservation, which is not how we shall get through the poly-crises of the Anthropocene, but instead with approaches to retaining functional diversity through adaptation. This will be work co-authored by mapping geeks, Indigenous citizen scientists, erstwhile (mostly fully-recovered) anthropologists and field biologists, maverick legal scholars, historians of the future and students of institutional change and story-making. Most of its practitioners will be people working organically within or alongside those programs rather than reflecting about them from afar.
Mongabay: Why has the concept of biocultural diversity gained so much traction over the last decade? In what ways can a term like this make a difference?
Ken Wilson: It is certainly true that the term “biocultural diversity” is now everywhere a watchword and aspiration; but this has not come out of nowhere. In a piece republished in Langscape last year on “biocultural diversity: flourishing at 25”, I explore how the family of diversity/complexity ideas that have come to the fore in recent years were rebirthed in western society in the interaction between cultural revolution and systems thinking in the 1960s; actually named in the 1980s; launched by conferences, organizations and research centers in the 1990s; surprise-marched into the mainstream in the 2000s (often with foundation funding); and then battled for institutionalization in global governance over the last decade. I report there that when we mined key word indexes for academic journals we found all the terms we now use – from biodiversity itself, to agrobiodiversity, to Indigenous and resilience – show the same exponential rate of increase in use, and all since the year 1990. Biocultural diversity was the last big idea out of that block, in large part because it required first the establishment of its component building blocks, and then the development of sufficient eclectic interdisciplinarity and Indigenous voice within the academy to make visible the connections between the different diversities.
The term biocultural is proving powerful for multiple reasons. It’s an unusual case where a polysyllabic expression coming out of academia has become owned and championed by many (if not all) local and Indigenous communities around (and within) whose lifeways and territories it carries meaning. It’s proven useful to them and their allies because it takes what had been historically rendered invisible and finds a way to flexibly re-package it as something officially recognizable – and worthy of international and treaty attention. It is a term that somehow invites attention to the connections – tangible and intangible – between local cultures, territorial governance systems, sustainable livelihood traditions and the experience of sacredness. Furthermore, it bolsters claims of significance and rights in ways that simultaneously convey beauty, responsibility, wholeness, caring. It is not a bland rights claim that possessively asserts “mine”, but instead affirms what communities feel compelled to value and steward in their lives and territories, and then locates these deliciously complex things within a universal field of uniquely-valued planetary treasure. The implication is clear: the future of biocultural diversity can only be as locally-held rights and responsibilities, alive in a community’s own loving hands. And, as such, reference to the biocultural also facilitates escape from the straight-jacket thinking of progress as modernization and homogenization, to instead open the door to a whole-of-territory and self-determined development path so core to the visions of Indigenous Peoples’ movements.
Mongabay: What are the main lessons you feel you have learned from your nearly three decades of channeling funds to Indigenous land stewardship initiatives?
Ken Wilson: These initiatives need quiet, slow, long-term, flexible support, provided on local terms through grounded-staff and locally-accountable intermediaries. They are necessarily messy, meaningful, and organic; they do not thrive when we press upon our Indigenous partners the stereotypes of perfection or heroism; they do not work when we imagine ourselves as the heroes. Healthy partnerships need genuine human connection, strong networking and movement building elements, and with all partners continually questioning their answers, as one of my mentors at the Ford Foundation, Walt Coward, always pointed out. Backing the emergence of Indigenous institutions as larger entities is as tricky as it is necessary; their success requires rare leadership and philanthropic confidence.
I have seen failure. Philanthropic initiatives are not helped by grand promises, needy logic models or easy money. Grants made to fob off critics, meet quotas, or from guilt, or that rely on major conservation NGOs to somehow go local, don’t do any better than one would expect. Philanthropies need people deeply rooted in a place to find and build genuine long-term relationships with grantees; without such individuals as program staff, advisors and board members a philanthropy flies dangerously low without the radar on.
Philanthropy never does well when it tries to use money to single-handedly muscle the world into its preferred shape, despite the fact that while the money is flowing the crowd will insist that the Emperor’s clothes are exquisite and that the problem is wilting in the face of the benefactor’s virtue and command. The temptation of the silver bullet has felled many a foundation great and small; nowhere will this be more likely than in trying to assist Indigenous stewardship. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann shows us the math in “The Quark and the Jaguar.” Diversity, complexity, adaptation and resilience can only be created by diverse iterative processes and never with the top-down cookie cutter (however sophisticated). Such work needs scaling-out not scaling-up, because ultimately its power resides in its limited human-landscape scale. To grow such work means supporting self-replication and in finding and strengthening multiple channels for getting smaller grants into diverse hands. Money itself – or rather the need to move it “efficiently” – can be fatal when it is given the driving seat.
Ultimately, funder-effectiveness depends upon building the capacities to bring radical openness to understanding both individual grantees and the wider socio-ecological systems in which they seek to make change. Whenever I was too sure about the needs and solutions I missed opportunities, and failed to hear where things could go off-track. Successful programs are those that somehow integrate livelihoods, lively creatures and community-building, alongside water cycles, song cycles and reporting requirements. The most generative efforts are those where other beings also somehow get their voice in, and the ones where people who had been divided get to know each other’s hearts. Change happens both chaotically and in waves, and at the speed of the seasons and with how fast trees grow. Waving a measuring tape at things doesn’t encourage the deeper kinds of change to happen.
To lead from real change means relearning the significance of story. Within our hunger for archetypal story is the source of both humanity’s hubris and its redemption; it is only with story that our calculating confusable brains find the intention needed to face coherently the world’s uncertainty and chaos. We can equally do that well, or do that badly. That’s something else I learned from my mother and her books. Humanity now desperately needs to co-craft a new story to the one which drove the now-falling West: that story of necessary dominion over nature and other peoples, of progress as growth, materialism, individualism. This new story needs to accept that no hero – philanthropic or otherwise – will don a great outfit and personally end our planetary tribulation by turning off the Anthropocene. Instead, we need a story that builds its meaning from a billion quiet intensely biophilic unheroic heroes’ journeys. These journeys will be witness much grueling loss but find occasional restored belonging. Their common thread will be of muddling through with wild but humble determination. Their gift will be illuminations of new/old meanings for our existence, and fresh paths to finding happiness in softening our crushing footprint on the rest of life.
Mongabay: Now retired, what are the most promising trends you see in philanthropy in respect to conservation funding?
Ken Wilson: Growth and quality. Growth in whole landscape-seascape connected approaches beyond protected areas. Growth in attention to biocultural diversity and Indigenous stewardship. Growth in recognition that transforming agriculture needs to be a core concern for conservation. Growth in support to environmental justice movements. But growth has dangers too – and it comes back to the fact that, with bigger money, it usually seems easier, faster and grander to deploy it through bigger projects run by bigger organizations pursuing (so-called) bigger ideas. Doing that unbalances the funding ecosystem, putting too much money at the top and too little for the base of the pyramid. Without substantial initiatives owned at community level the big projects spin their wheels, and wider society looks at conservation as the plaything of the wealthy and powerful, or, at the very least, as something not for them. This dynamic has of course long characterized the poor performance of conservation in our most colonized contexts. This is where a change in quality comes in.
For much of the new money flowing into conservation the quality question is seen as about having a data-driven killer theory of change that can get to scale fast enough to catch up with the Anthropocene. The systems theorist in me likes those too. But these can be deceptive when they are crafted out of a narrow universe of knowing, and evaluated by people from that same universe. In short, they can be hamstrung by their exclusion of more diverse streams of knowledge and ways of making change, and they can be especially hampered by a fixation on a pre-ordained finishing line rather than flowing with generative process. That is why – for me – the most encouraging sign that the quality of grantmaking will improve are that some philanthropies – more philanthropies – recognize that genuine diversification in their governance systems and staff leadership can open them to a wider range of ideas and experience than was previously visible to those close to large amounts of philanthropic capital. Particularly significant, I believe, are the diverse emerging partnerships between funding agencies and Indigenous and other social movements, including both the co-governed efforts and the emerging Indigenous-controlled funding agencies. These initiatives are an important part of opening a pathway to the strategies and relationships that will prove critical as we struggle through the planetary unraveling to come with a more open-ended and responsive dynamic.
Such developments are associated for me with decolonizing, for decolonizing needs to be at the heart of our broader environmental transition. This includes a rebalancing towards the feminine, towards more diverse ways of knowing, towards the valuing of the collective, and ultimately with an openness to the energies and yearnings of the Earth itself. In philanthropy such yearnings are reflected in the rise of the female donor, namely a rebalancing of the masculine and feminine. But the rebalancing required goes beyond simple notions of gender; it is internal and neural. It means bringing to the fore all elements in our ability to think, whether from connecting the diverse places in the brain that make music beautiful all the way to valuing that part of our intelligence that resides in the gut. In short it means embracing how neurodiversity relates to biocultural diversity.
But operating alongside these promising trends are the countervailing forces. One is that within environmental philanthropy there still lurks the very same boyish enthusiasm, that unbounded, linear, messianic, left-brain, top-down solution-hunger that got this exceedingly clever ape into this giant mess in the first place. Another is the scale of promises now being made to give proper attention to funding Indigenous-led conservation by genuinely well-intentioned institutions with little experience of how to do this effectively. Goodwill is only step one. Institutions operate on systems: those systems need opening, exploding, rescaling and evolving; their intended beneficiaries need a substantial presence in their visioning, management and governance systems. Another countervailing trend is how new boundaries to change are emerging everywhere as societies tremble in the face of the corrosion of public trust and resurgent reactionary populism. This populism is dramatically obstructing the collective process of redistributing truth, rights and responsibilities that we so need right now to turn things around. Ironically these threats are gaining traction in many societies precisely because of the same yawning inequality which generates the possibility for all this extraordinary philanthropy. Ultimately, institutionalized philanthropy is rooted in extremes of wealth; its success requires transforming and eroding that same inequality around how its donations are governed and redistributed.
Mongabay: You point to “the rise of the female donor.” What has been the impact of this trend?
Ken Wilson: The oft-prescient Josh Mailman, in a panel I moderated in 2008 at the American Museum of Natural History’s Symposium on Sustaining Cultural and Biological Diversity, first named, at least for me, the “rise of the female donor” as a major factor in this transition in philanthropy towards attention to holism and diversity — the beginning of the era when women routinely got their hands on significant philanthropic moneys. These women, coming of age from the 1960s were less afraid of complexity and more ready to back the intangible, the beautiful, the spiritual, and the knowledge of the hand and heart and not just of the head; in short, the things long marginalized in western society as trivially “feminine.”
Female leadership is central to the stories of nearly all the foundations that tipped philanthropy towards attention to Indigenous Peoples, biocultural diversity and related approaches over the last two decades, and the decidedly anti-patriarchal exceptions to this are themselves proof of the rule. That does not mean that there are not other wealthy women ardently backing conservation’s white patriarchal silverbacks – especially as so boringly usual in Africa where the white savior complex alas dies last – so everything remains work in progress. And neither does any of this mean that we don’t desperately need (reformed) male energy for completing the process of change and healing. In fact, my brothers, I think we need it more than ever, lest we continue missing in action.
Mongabay: Do you think there is still time to drive the kind of change needed to make a meaningful difference?
Ken Wilson: Allow me to answer that sideways.
In 2002 I had the opportunity to run the Christensen Fund, on a close to blank slate. Taking a long hard look at the Anthropocene, and noting there were at least a dozen positive planetary-scale feedback loops in play on climate alone, I had to conclude we had already lost the struggle for the world that was, and that more attention needed to be invested in helping diversity – both cultural and biological – to weather, and, in future, regenerate from, the global system collapse that science, activism and philanthropy could likely no longer avert. With another of those female donors – the inspired realist Diane Christensen – and a remarkable Board and majority-Indigenous program team we crafted strategies earthed in Indigenous partnerships seeking what might be meaningful in the face of this impending unraveling. Thus, we were optimistic pessimists. Optimists in the sense that we still thought we could make a difference even if, as pessimists, we doubted the destructive juggernaut of globalized extraction would be slowed in time. Ultimately this optimism rested in the belief that investing in resilience and the seeds for recovery was an act of practical hope at least as meaningful as seeking to prevent an almost inevitable crisis. To do this, we chose to work at community-level in Indigenous territories to find, nurture and connect the curmudgeons and practical dreamers who were holding onto the biocultural in their daily lives, as well as the movements that were building and restoring livable alternatives to all that needed to be let go. These good folks were invisibly everywhere, doggedly passionate, and somehow bound up in another realm of governance and communication with the animate Earth; they showed us that much that had been reported lost was in fact still recoverable, and, with help, many of them built organizations to unfurl it in their territories. We had decided to seek these territories in a suite of neglected bioregions that seemed at once more immune from the Anthropocene and at the same time places responsible for major generative roles in building biocultural diversity historically, including through previous cycles of climate change. For the record, these included the mountains of Central Asia, the Rift Valley in Southern Ethiopia, the islands of Melanesia, and the US Southwest/Northwest Mexican deserts and mountains.
Looking back now on that Christensen work we were of course over-optimistic that anywhere could escape the ravenous escaped goat of globalization, but we were not overly-pessimistic about philanthropy’s capacity to right the sinking Ark. And we were, I think, shown to be about right on our call that some careful investment in backing the local stewards of biocultural diversity in the restoration and adaptation of living systems could render the planet more resilient to, and able to recover from, the coming chaos, although we shall likely all be dead before it is clear whether that is ultimately true or not.
In retirement, I teeter between philanthropy and misanthropy. I despair at how this marvelous jumped-up savannah primate is so poorly prepared for effectiveness beyond small groups, and so recklessly capable at getting what it wants from its environment. Wisdom and listening are really difficult given just how much our opposable thumbs and ridiculous frontal lobes render us humans deft in manipulation, execution and self-delusion. Everybody and everything else is projected responsible for every problem, and we barely hear our own hearts beat. Indeed, one can only marvel at how well the human race can endlessly calculate its way around making the necessary changes, skillfully postponing every reckoning until, one has to assume, the resultant suffering for people and planet in the “big back loop” of collapse will be overwhelming. It can be hard, looking at all this, not to feel that civilization, and the civilized, will deserve their miserable demise, and to only hope, with Joanna Macy, that there is least something observing us from the stars to record, for posterity, our abject lesson in the stupidity of cleverness.
On this bleak note I sense the planet now careering in vivid slow motion into a century of unravelling of our life-support systems. I think we’ll witness a magnifying of these increasingly connected crises, while wild hopeless schemes galvanize energy around trying to use old mechanisms, like rampant commodification, to make nature responsible for getting us out of our mess. Of course, I tracked Glasgow’s wavering 1.5-degree needle with “outrage and optimism”, and, despite an often wistful heart, celebrated every hard-won small win for its contribution. But I can’t believe this is a world where the South Pole ice-sheet, the peat deposits of Siberia, the Atlantic Gulf Stream (AMOC), or any of the other systems now untethered, are going to agree to return to Holocene boundaries if we make (or even implement) the requisite pledges. But in that grim prediction of unpredictability I am also sure there will be boundless space for meaningful engagement. For humanity to keep going under those circumstances means ever re-learning how to properly grieve and mourn and forgive and restore. Whatever we think, and indeed whatever we drink, I can only assume that life itself will never waiver from its determination to find a way. Perhaps we humans do somehow have it in us to work with that. My own intent has been to leave some trace in that direction.
Mongabay: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to work at the intersection of conservation and Indigenous rights?
Ken Wilson: The future of this particular space is in the hands of Indigenous “conservationists” (a label they’ll have to decide about using once it’s sufficiently decolonized). To that new generation my advice, for which I doubt they are waiting, is to network widely and hone practical skills to shift the struggle from winning the argument towards achieving transformational implementation within territories.
In terms of advice to non-Indigenous people who wish to engage in this area, what has always remained needed is solid, listening and accountable allies who can bridge institutions and mindsets; who can back the restitution and devolution of rights and resources; and who can co-deploy new educational approaches to share suitably decolonized technical skills deep across grassroots movements.
In terms of what next for Indigenous and non-Indigenous partnerships in conservation justice, I think building alliances will require increasing discernment since this will be happening in the midst of cultural tumult, as new generations find themselves engaged in blunt struggles over identity and self-definition. As we pluralize, migrate, intermarry and integrate residence in TikTok with any sense of physical home, who is “Indigenous” and who is “non-Indigenous” will become increasingly contentious. Biological inheritance alone will become increasingly dissatisfying as a measure of legitimacy in the culture wars over our footprint on Earth. The resurgence of essentialism is dangerous. This is the idea that we humans are divided into immutable categories by race, gender and so forth, each group with their different emotional and intellectual aptitudes and a correct place to be in geography and society. In the battle to establish the worthiness of all, and in the struggle to turn the tables on oppression and to recapture paradise lost, I feel there is too much re-framing of Indigenous Peoples as intrinsically and homogenously the opposite to all the things now considered wrong and dangerous in dominant and colonizing society.
To be frank, and in my experience, the era is over during which it has been useful to project or claim inherent virtue and perfection for all things Indigenous. Indigenous individuals and peoples are just as diverse as everyone else and equally dynamic in the face of historical cultural processes. It is not just colonization that has marginalized, eroded and divided. Neoliberalism has also packed penetrating power by providing the few much license and opportunity at the individual level. Many people of Indigenous descent are gaining sufficient stake in the mainstream to choose to undermine communitarian values and while appropriating the idealism of the Indigenous social movements. Around the world, enduring inequalities have drawn many Indigenous leaders into active deployment of the politics of patronage and the mirage of partnership in resource extraction and commodification. In this dirty fluidity there is a strengthened tendency to use the label Indigenous as an entitlement to rights with little reference to cultural values of responsibility, accountability and wider relationships with other beings or living territories. This complex context is why attention to expanding rights needs direct connection to re-building the attendant responsibilities, because, as the Native American thinker Vine Deloria always said, it is in a “rights society” that we have the problems of the modern world. This splintering in the Indigenous world is being mirrored in the once dominant groups. Great numbers of pale earthlings once stamped “fully colonized and now colonizing”, are now leaving that discomforted world with deeply-stirred hearts, and making profound efforts to “become native to this place”, as Wes Jackson has put it. Most significant, to my mind, is how many are not only or mainly doing this to live off the land, and neither to assert an Indigenous identity usurped from others. Instead, I am interested to see them seeking fresh kinds of environmentally regenerative and circular economies and societies that are simply flatter and more intimate with place and soil.
It will not be all roses. In fact, there won’t be many roses at all. The upcoming battles and love-ins on the intersection of conservation and Indigenous rights will be played out in the midst of planetary crises, unraveling and bitter division in times of anger, blame and despair. Post-modernism has become post-everything; science has rather allowed itself to become cornered and pilloried as a technocratic conspiracy; what is now called for are prophetic voices and broad-based movements to restore societal ability to co-establish truths. A strong slice of the vision and energy for this voice is already coming from Indigenous Peoples’ movements in the necessary convergence across social forces and agendas. At that nexus, and directly involved in new meaning-making, is a good spot for the “conservationists” of the future, many of whom, in a previous generation, would have become scientists institutionalized in universities or conservation agencies.
Meanwhile, for me, the most important technical question for the new generation is how to scale-out all these necessary changes to planetary level, given this rapidly re-fracturing world, while avoiding losing sensitivity to the thousands of story-struggles and local realities. Whenever I hear announced visionary efforts to move this kind of work to scale, I feel them needing most help around how they will connect organically with the levels and people actually holding the initiative in real-life local contexts (for good or ill). That is something experienced philanthropists in particular must attend to, and which will require a co-creative design approach if we are find ways through these poly-crises together, rather than be left to scramble in the accelerating rebounds of collapse and the morass of reactionary populism.