Cultivating Creativity in Conservation Science
CLARE E. ASLAN,∗MALIN L. PINSKY,† MAUREEN E. RYAN,‡§∗∗ SARA SOUTHER,††
AND KIMBERLY A. TERRELL‡‡
∗Conservation Education and Science Department, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ 85743, U.S.A.
†Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, U.S.A.
‡School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, U.S.A.
§Earth 2 Ocean Research Group, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada
∗∗Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA 98225, U.S.A.
††Botany Department, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, U.S.A.
‡‡National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, DC 20013, U.S.A.
Abstract: Conservation practitioners and scientists are often faced with seemingly intractable problems in
which traditional approaches fail. While other sectors (e.g., business) frequently emphasize creative thinking
to overcome complex challenges, creativity is rarely identified as an essential skill for conservationists. Yet
more creative approaches are urgently needed in the effort to sustain Earth’s biodiversity. We identified 4
strategies to develop skills in creative thinking and discuss underlying research and examples supporting
each strategy. First, by breaking down barriers between disciplines and surrounding oneself with unfamiliar
people, concepts, and perspectives, one can expand base knowledge and experiences and increase the potential
for new combinations of ideas. Second, by meeting people where they are (both literally and figuratively),
one exposes oneself to new environments and perspectives, which again broadens experiences and increases
ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders. Third, by embracing risk responsibly, one is more likely
to develop new, nontraditional solutions and be open to high-impact outcomes. Finally, by following a cycle of
learning, struggle, and reflection, one can trigger neurophysiological changes that allow the brain to become
more creative. Creativity is a learned trait, rather than an innate skill. It can be actively developed at both
the individual and institutional levels, and learning to navigate the relevant social and practical barriers is
key to the process. To maximize the success of conservation in the face of escalating challenges, one must take
advantage of what has been learned from other disciplines and foster creativity as both a professional skill
and an essential component of career training and individual development.
Keywords: creative, creativity training, effective conservation, innovative, strategic
Cultivando la Creatividad en la Ciencia de la Conservaci´
Resumen: Los practicantes de la conservaci´
on y los cient´
ıficos frecuentemente se enfrentan a problemas
aparentemente intratables en los cuales los acercamientos tradicionales fallan. Mientras otros sectores (p.
ej.: empresarial) enfatizan frecuentemente el pensamiento creativo para sobreponerse a retos complejos, la
creatividad rara vez se identifica como una habilidad esencial para los conservacionistas. A pesar de esto
se necesitan urgentemente m´
as acercamientos creativos en el esfuerzo de mantener la biodiversidad de la
Tierra. Identificamos 4 estrategias para desarrollar habilidades en el pensamiento creativo y discutir investi-
gaciones subyacentes y ejemplos que apoyan cada estrategia. Primero, al romper barreras entre disciplinas
andose de gente, conceptos y perspectivas desconocidas, uno puede expandir el conocimiento b´
y las experiencias; e incrementar el potencial de combinaciones nuevas de estas ideas. Segundo, al conocer
en donde est´
an (tanto literal como figurativamente), uno se expone a nuevos ambientes y perspectivas,
∗∗∗All authors contributed equally to this manuscript.
Paper submitted December 7, 2012; revised manuscript accepted June 16, 2013.
Conservation Biology, Volume 28, No. 2, 345–353
2013 Society for Conservation Biology
346 Creativity in Conservation Science
lo que tambi´
ıa las experiencias e incrementa la habilidad de comunicarse efectivamente con las
partes interesadas. Tercero, al aceptar responsablemente el riesgo, es m´
as probable desarrollar soluciones
nuevas y no-tradicionales y estar m´
as abierto a resultados de alto impacto. Finalmente, al seguir un ciclo de
aprendizaje, lucha y reflexi´
on, uno puede disparar cambios neurofisiol´
ogicos que permiten al cerebro volverse
as creativo. La creatividad es una habilidad aprendida y no una innata. Puede desarrollarse activamente
tanto en el nivel individual como en el institucional y aprender a navegar las barreras sociales y pr´
relevantes es clave en este proceso. Para maximizar el ´
exito de la conservaci´
on frente a retos crecientes,
uno debe tomar ventaja de lo que se ha aprendido de otras disciplinas y cultivar la creatividad como una
habilidad profesional y un componente esencial del entrenamiento en la carrera y el desarrollo individual.
Palabras Clave: conservaci´
on efectiva, Creativo, entrenamiento en la creatividad, estrat´
Conservation professionals face enormous challenges
and unexpected opportunities in a rapidly changing
world. Extinction risk has been evaluated for less than
4% of the estimated 1.7 million animal and plant species,
and ∼30% of assessed species are considered threatened
(IUCN 2012). Broad-scale and complex threats such as
climate change, habitat fragmentation, and infectious dis-
ease are playing larger roles in biodiversity loss (Homer-
Dixon 2000). Most conservation challenges elude a quick
and easy solution, in part because lack of knowledge is
not the primary barrier to success (Fischer et al. 2012a).
Rather, the most intractable problems usually stem from
the need to change social norms or human behavior.
Often overlooked in the discussion of conservation and
human behavior is creativity, a quintessential human trait.
By cultivating this quality in conservation professionals,
we can work with human nature to help sustain Earth’s
Individuals working across many fields have proven
that even persistent, pervasive challenges can be over-
come by creative problem solving. In conservation, a
number of creative, seemingly bizarre ideas have helped
sustain species diversity. In the early 1970s, a “sperm
helmet” was developed to collect semen from captive
Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) by soliciting male
birds to mate with the helmet, worn on a human head
(Enderson 2005). In the 1980s, biologists from the Inter-
national Crane Foundation donned full-length costumes
and pioneered “isolation rearing” to prevent chicks from
imprinting on humans (Nagendran & Horwich 1992).
Today, U.S. National Park Service rangers are implanting
microchips into developing ginseng roots to catch would-
be poachers (Janiskee 2008). In Cameroon conservation
practitioners use soccer games to build a network of re-
lationships between National Park rangers, local hunters,
and community members (e.g., Diotoh, personal com-
munication). In Zimbabwe, land managers use rotational
grazing as a means of reversing desertification and seques-
tering carbon (Sullivan 2013). Creative solutions with the
largest conservation effects are also likely to be those that
drive social innovation. These solutions will cross social
and organizational boundaries to achieve lasting change
(Westley & Antadze 2010).
Where do creative ideas originate? How can we gener-
ate them more often? We define creativity as the abil-
ity to transcend traditional beliefs or practices to de-
velop useful new ideas, strategies, and techniques to
more effectively sustain Earth’s biodiversity. This defi-
nition is intentionally broad (within a conservation con-
text) and could include creative approaches to research,
public policy, education, and outreach or on-the-ground
projects. Among the obstacles to cultivating creativity
in conservation practice is the notion that creativity is
limited to rare, eureka-type moments in which entirely
new ideas emerge. On the contrary, creative solutions
most frequently arise from the hybridization of exist-
ing ideas and synergies involving many sources (Loehle
1990). Routine cross-disciplinary brainstorming can help
to avoid “incorrect herding,” where experts are biased
against external ideas (Gunderson & Holling 2002). A
vivid example of the value of cross-disciplinary idea ex-
change is the influence of Freudian theory on Arthur
Tansley’s ecosystem concept. During World War I, an
unusual dream prompted Tansley to seek psychoanalysis
from Sigmund Freud (Cameron & Forrester 1999). As
Tansley learned about Freud’s theories of brain networks,
he began to see parallels with the organization of the
natural world. From this transfer of ideas emerged the
first concept of the ecosystem (Anker 2002)—an idea
that dramatically affected the emerging field of ecology
and ultimately helped spark the modern environmental
movement (Worster 1994).
Creativity is evident in past conservation successes, yet
we generally do not make a conscious effort to foster this
trait in our training, research, or practice. Here, we high-
light 4 strategies from psychological, neurological, and
social-science research on creative thinking that, if priori-
tized, could increase our individual and collective abilities
to address conservation challenges. These strategies are:
surround oneself with unfamiliar people, concepts, and
Volume 28, No. 2, 2014
points of view; meet people where they are; embrace
risk; and value the cycle of learning, struggle, and reflec-
tion. Many of us engage in these practices to some extent,
but we could do more as individuals and organizations to
foster creativity. This list of strategies is not meant to
be exhaustive, but it is intended to spark a broader con-
versation about creative practices in our field. Our goals
here were to explicitly articulate the value of cultivating
creativity in conservation; highlight research that reveals
the importance of creativity for strategic problem solving;
and draw attention to the untapped potential of creative
thinking in conservation training, practice, and research.
Surrounding Oneself with Familiar People, Concepts, and
Points of View
The scientific community generally recognizes the ben-
efits of specialists from different disciplines working
together. Yet, although programs within major fund-
ing agencies encourage interdisciplinary approaches
(e.g., National Science Foundation’s IGERT program),
academia has been slower to embrace these innova-
tions (Campbell 2005). The field of conservation biology
emerged from the understanding that interdisciplinary
collaboration could generate creative solutions to sustain-
ing biodiversity (Meine et al. 2006) and that conservation
itself was part science and part art (Soul´
e 1985). A fun-
damental advantage of interdisciplinary research is that
new combinations of ideas can kindle creativity and re-
sult in novel solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
This principle applies not only to science, but also to
conservation education and practice.
A well-developed body of literature indicates that ex-
posure to novel concepts or points of view enhances cre-
ativity across multiple scales, from the individual to large
corporations (West 2002; Leung et al. 2008). Groups of in-
dividuals with varied professional or cultural and socioe-
conomic background have a broader knowledge base and
a greater capacity for generating ideas relative to homoge-
nous counterparts (West 2002). Diversity of thoughts
and opinions expressed during group brainstorming ses-
sions promotes constructive conflict and piggybacking
on the ideas of others, processes that lead to idea gen-
eration (West 2002). This concept is creatively explored
in the emerging field of ArtScience (Root-Bernstein et al.
2011) and in the purposeful convening of scientists and
nonscientists within rapidly growing fields such as the
new discipline of climate-change adaptation (Hansen &
At the individual level, variety in pastimes, life expe-
riences, and personal relationships may foster creativity
in an analogous way—the diverse individual can draw
from a broad range of experiences to creatively resolve
conflicts with opposing pieces of information (Leung
et al. 2008). Even brief multicultural experiences (e.g.,
45 min viewing foreign media) can facilitate creative
story writing and idea generation (Leung et al. 2008). In
the business world, diverse viewpoints provide a source
of novel ideas, and continuous integration of novelty is
essential for businesses to remain innovative and resilient
(Westley & Antadze 2010). In the design of Pixar Ani-
mation Studios, Steve Jobs placed the bathrooms in the
geographical center of his business operation, a seem-
ingly inconvenient layout that fostered interactions and
new ideas among employees from different work teams
(Catmull 2008). Many Pixar employees have stories of cre-
ative insights sparked by a chance encounter on their way
to the toilet (Catmull 2008). Conservation professionals
can learn from business strategies that were developed
to enhance creativity and that reveal how exposure to
diversity is profitable even when it depletes total work
hours and compromises traditional forms of productivity
(Fischer et al. 2012b).
To build creativity, space for novel experiences in
one’s personal life and workplace needs to be created;
thus, hobbies, artistic pursuits, or side interests become
potential keys to problem solving in all areas of conserva-
tion (Loehle 1990). We recently (March 2011) convened
a panel of 5 successful leaders from business, education,
philanthropy, community organizing, and juvenile jus-
tice. Our goal was to identify key lessons applicable to
our own work by engaging with unfamiliar people, dis-
ciplines, and concepts. From the discussion emerged the
fundamental themes in this essay.
Meeting People Where They Are
Creative insights can emerge by meeting people where
they are. We define meeting people where they are as un-
derstanding an audience’s perspective, tailoring actions
and messaging to the audience’s values and needs, and
bringing one’s efforts to the audience’s physical location.
For example, recognizing that the growth of protected
areas (from <10,000 to >200,000 sites over the past 50
years) has outpaced capacity for conservation training,
the Global Partnership for Professionalizing Protected
Area Management (GPPPAM) developed an innovative
program to rapidly train reserve managers. The program
combines the power of networks—the internet, open-
source curricula, and peer-support systems—to provide
low-cost, high-quality education to large numbers of stu-
dents from around the world who would otherwise have
no access to training (Muller 2013).
The need to meet people where they are is partic-
ularly acute for traditionally marginalized populations.
Unfortunately, some conservation efforts have disenfran-
chised indigenous populations (e.g., Caic¸aras in Brazil-
ian rainforests, Bedouin in Syrian rangelands, and Native
Americans throughout the western United States
[Anderson & Berglund 2003; Brockington et al. 2008]).
Engagement, collaboration, and learning from local com-
munities may improve outcomes for both people and
Volume 28, No. 2, 2014
348 Creativity in Conservation Science
conservation (Barrett et al. 2011). In efforts to meet
people where they are, conservationists can also gain
insight from social theorists, environmental anthropolo-
gists, and ethnographers who work at the interface be-
tween ecological and social sustainability to understand
the full scope of human needs. These connections also
provide a source of diversity, an essential resource for cre-
ativity (Westley & Antadze 2010). A culturally informed
approach can also help identify the emotional factors that
motivate people to act—an important consideration for
inspiring behavioral change (Heath & Heath 2010).
Rather than a barrier to success, the need to under-
stand other perspectives can become an impetus for
creativity. For example, K. Terrell asked middle school
teachers at a science workshop to write down what they
knew and what they wanted to know about climate
change. She summarized this information with Wordle
(www.wordle.net). The resulting images (Fig. 1a & 1b)
illustrated 3 key points; the teachers believed climate
change was a real and important problem, were not skep-
tical or biased by misinformation, and mainly wanted to
know how much humans affect the climate. Terrell used
this information to focus her subsequent presentation
on human causes and local effects of climate change,
rather than correcting nonexistent misconceptions. The
teachers created a final Wordle to illustrate what they had
learned about climate change (Fig. 1c). Compared with
the first 2 Wordle images, the third one was more com-
prehensive, specific, and locally relevant (and therefore
more likely to be effective for students). As this exam-
ple illustrates, one can give educators greater capacity
to promote biodiversity conservation by understanding
their viewpoints before one decides what information
Obviously, meeting people where they are is more
challenging when a hostile audience or high-stakes issue
is involved. In the late 1990s, U.S. Forest Service Chief
Michael Dombeck worked to promote the Roadless Rule,
legislation that would protect vast areas of old-growth for-
est from road construction. Dombeck strategically framed
his argument in economic terms: securing Clinton Admin-
istration support required understanding the priorities of
federal stakeholders, and in this case an economic ap-
proach emphasizing the cost of building and maintaining
roads was more politically defensible than emphasizing
the inherent value of old-growth forest (Dombeck et al.
2003). Since its passage, the Roadless Rule has protected
23.7 million ha (58.5 million acres) of U.S. forests and
over 280 species of conservation concern (Dombeck
et al. 2003).
Embracing and Managing Risk
Given the consequences of failure, it is understandable
that taking risks by attempting new approaches or en-
tertaining new ideas in conservation research and ap-
plications is minimized. Yet, avoiding such risk can sti-
fle creativity (Sternberg & Kaufman 2010) and preclude
the generation of truly novel, untried solutions. Einstein
said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is
no hope for it” (MacHale 2002). The key is to manage
risk appropriately so that creative ideas can be tried
and allowed to fail without imperiling a project or its
Embracing risk means first creating an atmosphere in
which novel ideas are entertained by the group. Social sci-
e Brown advocates “leaning into discomfort”
when sharing ideas as a way of building tolerance for risk
and enhancing individual creativity (Brown 2007). An or-
ganization’s receptivity to risky ideas can influence both
institutional and individual creativity. Because individual
creativity is dependent on context and group dynamics,
the broader workplace culture also has a direct effect
on fostering creative solutions (Catmull 2008). Individ-
uals demonstrate greater creativity when motivated to
achieve positive outcomes, rather than when motivated
to avoid failure (Amabile & Khaire 2008). Creativity can
be encouraged by allowing employees to focus on topics
of personal interest, by promoting constructive conflict,
and by maintaining a positive environment that relies
on rewards to motivate behavior (Nemeth et al. 2004;
Catmull 2008). In the business sector, companies such as
Google invest in creativity by giving employees 20% of
their time to devote to projects of interest, rather than
assigned work (Mediratta 2007). What would happen if
conservation organizations did the same?
Fear of risk stems from fear of failure. In the busi-
ness sector, failure is accepted as an integral part of the
process of creative experimentation (Amabile & Khaire
2008). Using a portfolio approach (wherein risks and
returns are balanced overall), businesses combine ac-
tivities to yield a high chance of success even though
individual components may fail. Similarly, government
agencies and conservation nongovernmental organiza-
tions balance broad educational programs to influence
the behavior of private landowners (e.g., Plant Conser-
vation Alliance) against smaller scale but more reliable
efforts to buy high-value conservation easements (Dore-
mus 2003). An experimental prototyping approach al-
lows failing ideas to be reworked or pruned judiciously
(i.e., “failing often to succeed sooner” [Catmull 2008]).
For example, the International Smart Gear Competition
(www.smartgear.org) provides a venue for small-scale tri-
als in pursuit of large-scale success. Fishers submit ideas
on new technologies to reduce fisheries bycatch (inci-
dental capture of nontarget species) for a relatively mod-
est top prize of $30,000 (Bazilchuck 2005). The prize is
substantially cheaper than penalty-driven enforcement of
bycatch regulations, and the 2011 winner was a Japanese
fisher whose invention reduced seabird bycatch by nearly
90%. Ideas from the competition provide rich material for
further testing of the technologies at larger scales.
Volume 28, No. 2, 2014
Figure 1. Wordle images created from written statements by middle school teachers describing what they (a)
already knew, (b) what they wanted to know, and (c) what they learned about climate change during a
climate-change science workshop. The words climate and change are omitted and suffixes are standardized to
help visualize common themes.
Crucially, risk is perceived differently by different
stakeholders. For example, ecotourism programs may be
promoted to bolster species persistence, but local com-
munities asked to transform their means of livelihoods
(from, say, hunting to guiding) risk loss of income and
food security if the ecotourism attempt fails (Coria &
Calfucura 2012). By meeting people where they are, con-
servationists can identify a level of risk that is acceptable
to all stakeholders and an approach that meets both bio-
logical and cultural needs.
The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes)isapower-
ful example of conservation success that resulted from
taking an extreme risk: managers captured the entire re-
maining wild population (18 individuals) and initiated a
breeding program in 1987. This was a high-risk strategy.
Two years earlier, an epizootic of canine distemper virus
decimated the wild population (Howard et al. 2003), and
previous attempts at captive breeding had failed (Hillman
& Carpenter 1983). Efforts to precondition captive-bred
ferrets for release into the wild included offbeat strategies
such as using a motorized badger to teach predator avoid-
ance. The species recovery plan focused on minimizing
risk where possible by, for example, distributing ferrets
among multiple breeding institutions and reintroduction
sites to protect against future epizootics (Howard et al.
2003). Today, there are ∼1000 black-footed ferrets in the
wild, and the species has been rescued from the brink of
extinction (Lockhart et al. 2005).
Cycle of Learning, Struggle, and Reﬂection
Individual creativity can also be cultivated by chang-
ing one’s mindset. One opens the door for creative
insights when one works through a repeated cycle of
focused learning, struggling with a problem, and reflec-
tion (Fig. 2). Neurological research indicates that each
step of this process is essential to fueling creativity. Fo-
cused learning allows the brain to repress inhibitions and
provides freedom for creative ideas to emerge (Limb &
Braun 2008). Sudden insights occur following a sequence
Volume 28, No. 2, 2014
350 Creativity in Conservation Science
Figure 2. Artist’s interpretation of Arthur Tansley engaging in the cycle of learning, struggle, and reflection.
Tansley delves into the (a) ecological thinking of his time, (b) consults Freud about a strange dream while
grappling to understand the natural world, and (c) during a period of relaxation has a sudden insight that leads
to the ecosystem concept. Drawings by Peter Trenham.
of neural changes as the individual struggles with
and reframes the problem (Loehle 1990; Sandk¨
Bhattacharya 2008). Relaxed reflection (i.e., stepping
away from the problem) promotes creative insights by
facilitating interhemispheric brain connectivity which
illuminates hidden relationships (Carlsson et al. 2000;
Dietrich & Kanso 2010). Thus, in its most fundamental
sense, cultivating creativity involves altering one’s own
neural physiology to perceive the world in new ways.
Collectively, these observations highlight the funda-
mental importance of 3 familiar elements of the conser-
vation experience: cultivation of expertise, frustrating
search for solutions, and the need to periodically take
a break. As conservationists, under the pressure of ur-
gency, a common pattern is to focus on the first, bemoan
the second, and jettison the last. The above research sug-
gests that all 3 are needed. Because reward systems that
focus on numeric productivity can discourage reflection
and creative thinking, the pressure from some academic
institutions to prioritize publication quantity over quality
represents a barrier to creativity (Fischer et al. 2012b).
Regardless of one’s work environment, one must inten-
tionally reframe challenges and value time for relaxed
thought. In turn, the delight and surprise inherent in
creative discovery provide motivation to stay engaged in
the long run.
Barriers to Creativity
Part of the creative process is learning to navigate so-
cial barriers, misaligned incentives, and systemic traps
(e.g., institutional ruts) that impede the generation, test-
ing, and implementation of creative ideas (Rogers 1995;
Volume 28, No. 2, 2014
Gunderson & Holling 2002; Westley & Antadze 2010).
Social barriers among individuals include defensiveness,
feared rejection, conflict avoidance, self-interest, and
stereotypes (Morris & Su 1999; Heifetz et al. 2009).
Within groups, individuals communicate more effectively
when they share beliefs, language, educational back-
ground, or other characteristics (Rogers 1995). It is there-
fore an ethical and creative necessity that conservation-
ists understand different perceptions, view disagreement
as constructive, and become skilled in recognizing and
overcoming social barriers, especially those with poten-
tial to reinforce existing inequities (Rogers 1995; Dryzek
2005; Hulme 2009). Barriers to creativity are also con-
structed by those who actively stifle new ideas, including
narrowly focused academics, agencies trapped by special
interests, and powerful social or political hierarchies. Al-
though essential to creative solutions, human foresight
can create intentional barriers, especially when financial
or social capital is at stake (Gunderson & Holling 2002).
Misaligned incentives such as perverse subsidies (i.e.,
subsidies that are harmful to both the economy and the
environment) can create significant financial, political,
and institutional barriers to new and creative approaches
(Myers & Kent 2001). Perverse subsidies occur among
a wide range of conservation-related sectors, including
agriculture (e.g., U.S. Farm Bill), energy (e.g., in the
United States, subsidies favoring fossil fuels over renew-
able energy development), infrastructure, water manage-
ment, fisheries, and forestry (Myers & Kent 2001). Mis-
aligned incentives in universities and other social-learning
institutions (e.g., academia’s dominant focus on publica-
tion rate) result in lost opportunities for risk-taking ex-
perimentation and creative breakthroughs. Conversely,
by allocating more time and resources to creative ac-
tivities, institutions could become powerful vehicles for
systemic change (Carpenter & Folke 2006; Fazey et al.
2007; Fischer et al. 2012c).
Systemic traps occur across multiple scales, from small
organizations to international agencies, and can impede
creativity through several mechanisms (Gunderson &
Holling 2002). Experts focused primarily on improving
their own competencies rather than exploring orthogo-
nal ways of thinking or untested approaches are caught
within a “competency trap” (Gunderson & Holling 2002).
A key strategy for avoiding this pitfall is to vary the way
one’s craft is practiced, while valuing humility, diverse
pastimes, and multidisciplinary exchange (Gunderson &
Holling 2002; Fazey et al. 2007). In the classic “rigidity
trap,” an organization or system loses capacity to be cre-
ative and instead perpetuates the status quo (Gunderson
& Holling 2002). Teams of experts, academic disciplines,
and technical bureaucracies are particularly susceptible
to both competency and rigidity traps (Gunderson &
A more insidious example of a systemic trap occurs
when political or economic systems generate reinforc-
ing cycles of poverty and biodiversity loss (Gunderson
& Holling 2002; Barrett et al. 2011). In “poverty traps,”
creative ideas may arise rapidly, but lack the means to
move forward (Fazey et al. 2007; Barrett et al. 2011). The
linkages between biodiversity loss and extreme poverty
are evidenced by the 2-fold greater rate of species decline
in poorer regions of the world (Barrett et al. 2011). Cor-
ruption, weak governance, lax enforcement of existing
conservation protections, and economic manipulations
often undermine creative conservation efforts and com-
munity well being (Laurance et al. 2011). For example, in
efforts to preserve its rich biological heritage, Papua New
Guinea helped develop the REDD (Reducing Emissions
from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program to
link international forest conservation to carbon trading
(Laurance et al. 2011). However, its citizens and ecosys-
tems have been unable to fully realize the benefits of
this program because of government and industry cor-
ruption (Laurance et al. 2011). In May 2010, the nation’s
parliament stripped communal groups of traditional land-
rights protections “in an effort to increase certainty for
resource developers by minimizing project delays from
court injunctions” (Laurance et al. 2011). As a result,
local communities cannot stop environmentally destruc-
tive projects, and human welfare is deteriorating along
with ecosystems (Laurance et al. 2011). Conservation
can be impeded by poverty, but it can also help alle-
viate poverty, particularly among communities that are
strongly dependent on natural resources (Barrett et al.
2011). The observed relation between poverty and bio-
diversity loss is driving new and creative efforts, such as
the development of economic instruments to encourage
human–carnivore coexistence (Dickman et al. 2011) and
to ensure economic and ecological well being in regions
prone to natural disasters (Chantarat et al. 2011).
Collectively, social and institutional barriers may seem
overwhelming, but the potential for societies to over-
come these barriers and achieve creative solutions ul-
timately depends on the individual (Fazey et al. 2007).
Effective response to global challenges such as climate
change—currently hindered by all 3 systemic traps—
will demand personal and institutional transformation
and some degree of “creative destruction” in gridlocked
systems (Fazey et al. 2007; Hansen & Hoffman 2011). Our
list of barriers to creativity is not exhaustive, and other
ecological, social, or technological factors—including
path dependence, cognitive biases, and exploitation–
exploration trade-offs—may limit the potential for dis-
covery or application of creative solutions.
Not all creative ideas are necessarily good: many geo-
engineering solutions to climate change are creative, but
are they worth the risk to natural processes? Similar ques-
tions appear in the current debate over deextinction, the
proposal to reverse extinctions either via direct resurrec-
tion of extinct species with biotechnology or via rehabil-
itation of extinct processes and functions, as in rewilding
Volume 28, No. 2, 2014
352 Creativity in Conservation Science
or taxon substitution (Donlan 2005). Proponents of such
actions argue that humans are morally obligated to re-
verse their environmental effects by any means necessary
and that deextinction will help prevent future extinctions
by maintaining taxa that support essential ecological pro-
cesses. Opponents of deextinction, by contrast, contend
that a focus on deextinction will shift critical resources
from extant species protection to an uncertain “fantasy”
(Pimm 2013) and ignore socioeconomic realities (Toledo
et al. 2011). The argument is likely to escalate as new
technologies become available, additional ideas are pro-
posed, and the extinction crisis deepens. We see this
discussion as inherently healthy and important: having
to weigh the benefits and risks of many creative options
would be a welcome problem.
Successful new approaches to biodiversity conservation
will require a collective effort to enhance creativity in
the field (Loehle 1990; Homer-Dixon 2000). Conserva-
tion professionals can do a better job of creating an
environment that generates fresh insights by explicitly
incorporating creativity training in the professional de-
velopment of conservation scientists and practitioners.
The value of this skill has been recognized in the business
sector for over a decade (Driver 2001), and courses on
creativity are offered in an increasing number of univer-
sities, primarily within business, education, psychology,
and engineering programs (Xu et al. 2005). Nourishing
creativity in conservation also requires stepping outside
of our professional comfort zones, taking the time to
recognize the views of diverse communities, engaging
responsibly in higher risk projects, and valuing time for
reflection and fun along with hard work. Each of these
behaviors seems to contradict our instinctual response to
a biological crisis. Investment in creativity, a perceived
threat to short-term productivity, may itself appear risky.
Yet the alternative—to expend our collective energy and
talent by trudging along in a losing race—carries an even
larger risk in the long term. We vote for the creative path.
After all, it is a lot more fun. And, it just may be essential.
We thank the following individuals for sharing their wis-
dom and experience: M. Dombeck, Jordan Fischer, M.
Hammer, L. Hattendorf, M. Rist, and C. Rose. We also
thank Joern Fischer, B. Gratwicke, M. McCarthy, W.
Palen, D.E. Wildt, and an anonymous reviewer for in-
sightful comments that improved this manuscript. We are
grateful to P. Trenham for his creative artwork (Fig. 2) and
to S. Foster for logistical support during the panel discus-
sion and throughout many conversations. We also thank
the following teachers from Carencro Middle School for
their enthusiasm and participation in the climate-change
discussion: L. Angelle, P. Guidry, B. Welch, S. Thomas, L.
Kidder, T. Williams, S. Goodrich, N. Lalonde, A. Duhon,
T. Elliott, and A. Roger. Additionally, we thank W. Mertes,
M. Haddon, and A. Chavenson for organizing the teacher
workshop and for introducing us to Wordle. All authors
were supported by David H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow-
ships, funded by the Cedar Tree Foundation and admin-
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