I am the grandchild of West Virginian coal miners. I am the descendent of generations that toiled underground extracting black coal from a broken Earth in exchange for company scrip and death from blackened lungs. This extractive cycle was broken when my great-grandparents turned their backs on the coal dust hollows of Appalachia and relocated to northeast Ohio.
Here my cousins and I could run free in the sunlit forests and cornfields we called home and the only darkness we knew was starry nights of bonfires and s’mores. The world was limitless—we climbed the tallest trees and dug through the dirt to find tunneling earthworms for bait. We muddied our church clothes and proudly bore the dirt under our fingernails as proof of a day well spent. I wish I could roll back the clock and be that little girl again who cared for the environment selflessly, was not afraid of jumping into a cold creek on the first day of spring and knew how to observe the world around her.
Today that little girl is alternatively lost in a world of computer code and textbooks. She is studying food web dynamics in a lake she has never explored and a fish she has never seen. How can she commit to studying a fish she does not know? Conservation today is not what she imagined it would be while conducting backyard science experiments and nursing injured birds back to health in her mother’s Tupperware bowls. It is business casual. It is coffee breaks in conference center lobbies and imposter syndrome. It is the pursuit of images on a cave wall—mathematical models that attempt to artificially simulate the complexity of the natural irreplicable. We dig and dig, deeper into this intellectual cave dark as coal dust, one we built for ourselves, hoping to find precious diamonds to solve problems that academia has been contributing to—colonialism, capitalism, inequity, endless extraction in a never-ending cycle. As we cloister ourselves in our prestigious institutions, we turn our backs to the world outside. We close our eyes to the light behind us and close our ears to the people calling for us, begging us to turn around. We cannot continue carrying this burden of conservation alone, further into the dark. We must turn around and work as one to weave together the diverse knowledge systems and perspectives of the world’s global community so that we can create an equitable and sustainable future for all.
The future of conservation has always been here, but the voices that should have been at the forefront have been locked out and pushed down by those in power. Conservation does need scientists, but we are only one component of many. I envision a future where everybody has a role to play and instead of constructing towers of ivory, we build bridges of healing. The future of conservation will not be found in colonial spaces ruled by egos and dollar signs, but in community with one another and the world around us. We can feel the walls caving in on us as the clock begins to toll midnight; if only we could all turn around and realize that what we are looking for is not in this self-imposed isolation. It is not too late to fix this, but we need to listen to those that have lived experiences deeper than the pages of our books. If we continue hurtling down the path that has been carved out for environmentalism since the days of John Muir and Madison Grant, we would only be continuing the cycles of harm to Black and Indigenous peoples. It is time to stop digging and turn around with open eyes to acknowledge academia’s past transgressions.
I am the grandchild of West Virginian coal miners that turned their backs on caves dark as coal. They broke the cycle of harmful extraction that bound them in place and forged their own path to a better future. Like my ancestors before me, I too will forge a path to a better future because I am a changemaker in a field that desperately needs changing. I am a part of the future of conservation that will break the cycle, and I am not afraid to get my hands dirty in the process.