An interview with Elliot Connor, a young conservationist from Australia, and the founder of global ENGO Human Nature Projects.
by Laura Bandila Goldberger
“We need to change. My goal is to reframe the human relationship with nature; to try to shift it.”
How did I get to know Elliot? He reached out to KidHouseProduction, looking for someone to understand, appreciate, and promote his many undertakings. So ultimately, he found what he needed, because his words convinced us that what he does is far from ordinary, and meriting more attention.
It was immediately clear to me that Elliot is an exceptional young adult with a big impact on humans and nature irrespective of his age. You might ask, who is Elliot Connor? He is a 17 year old living in Sydney, Australia, though coming from a British background. A nature lover, passionate about the animal world, Elliot is fascinated by conservation, natural history, philosophy, and anthropology amongst many other things.
He is working on a book about his ‘Human Nature’ worldview, and how accepting our place on this planet, seeing ourselves amongst other animals can revolutionize our relationship with the natural world. It’s a powerful subject, and one that he approaches with a refreshing degree of maturity and compassion.
Elliot is most known as the founder of a charity – Human Nature Projects – promoting environmental volunteering all over the world and reimagining conservation as a community practice across 105 countries. Elliot also produces the Human Nature podcast through this group, interviewing a public figure each week about a favourite animal of theirs, followed by a 10-question game show round. Currently he is angling towards a career in natural history filmmaking, rapidly acquiring experience and skills to set him up on this journey.
To find out more about his story, we interviewed Elliot in his natural habitat- at his desk at home- earlier this year. Here’s how it went…
How are you Elliot?
Elliot Connor: I’m very well, thanks. Life in spite of COVID is slowly returning to normal, so that’s a plus. And with the Human Nature podcast just launched, I’ve been chatting with all sorts of interesting people- an astronaut trainer, a comedian, a paralympic swimmer, a national geographic explorer… quite the smorgasbord. In short, plenty to get on with- lots of different bits and pieces from all sorts of projects, which adds some interest in the day.
So, on the whole, keeping yourself busy. Did you finish school?
Elliot Connor: No- not yet at least. I’m in my final year of high school, studying at Manly Selective Campus on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I’m also a fan of online learning, so pursuing studies on social entrepreneurship with the Clinton Global Initiative University, and upskilling on podcasting as well- of course- at the moment. I’ll be graduating mid-November, so there should be a bit more time on my hands after that.
I try to envision myself in your world to see how it looks like. What is the time there right now?
Elliot Connor: Just past six, in the morning.
Is it hard to get up at this time? Not too early?
Elliot Connor: Haha- well, usually I’m up at about half-past four in the mornings to start my daily routine. I’m an early riser, so morning calls aren’t much of a worry for me. It’s the late evenings and midnight webinars that I find most trying.
How is the weather today?
Elliot Connor: I think it is going to be a beautiful day. It always is in Sydney. Even now- in Winter – the sun’s out, the sky is blue, and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I’m really blessed to be living here; it’s such a serene spot, with an abundance of wildlife.
That’s wonderful. Okay, so I know that you were born in England. When did you move to Australia?
Elliot Connor: Twelve years ago, when I was five. I guess my parents chose to move for a lifestyle change. My father runs his own business in leadership coaching and my mother works for the business. It’s been sold off now, but at the time both had the freedom to live and work as they liked.
Have your parents nurtured your interest in nature?
Elliot Connor: They have some interest in nature, of course. They appreciate what I do. I think they’re certainly learning on this journey alongside me. But yes, they’ve definitely helped to set me on this path. With family safari holidays, amateur birdwatching and hikes, I was brought up in a culture of nature appreciation. And then I’ve been very fortunate with some of the experiences and opportunities I’ve had- building relationships with other animals, seeing them in their natural habitat and such.
How did you conclude that we need a new book about human nature?
Elliot Connor: It’s been knocking about my mind for a long time. So I saw the COVID lockdown as a chance to finally get some of my ideas down on paper. Ultimately the philosophy and much of the writing itself stems from my own learnings picked up from research in the field, and all the many organizations I’ve worked within the space. Much of the technical side of things is cutting-edge knowledge, so undoubtedly a decade will see the ideas evolve, but especially in the current climate, we need to have a long hard look at ourselves as humans and the impact we’re having on the planet. Human Nature needs to change.
So what do you try to say with your book?
Elliot Connor: The central message is that we are all animals. Once we accept that, everything changes. This Human Nature worldview which I discuss allows us to treat other animals with respect, with dignity, with appreciation, and with compassion. Recently I found out there was a concert for plants that took place in Europe, at the Barcelona Opera. I think that’s a beautiful idea. And you can do those sorts of things as a publicity stunt, being quite silly and quite fun. But they are also meaningful and symbolic at the same time. Switzerland has a sentence in their constitution about treating plants with dignity. So, yes, that is what Human Nature is all about.
What are you more interested in: the environment or human nature?
Elliot Connor: “Human Nature” (note the capitals) is my term for what I do, for the philosophy that I hold. But for me, that means respecting this planet. It is having nature thrive alongside humanity. We have got many challenges that we face under the status quo: climate change, overpopulation, disease and famine. All of these are obstacles to overcome, but the solutions need to come just as much from nature as from ourselves.
Elliot, you claim that your perspective on the world is slightly different from other environmentalists. In what way?
Elliot Connor: Environmentalism is a broad range of pursuits, and full of diverse perspectives, but yes- I think there are some differences to note. First, I think we need to recognize humans as part of natural systems. And work with nature, not against it. Secondly, we need people to become part of the solution, instead of just hearing about it. Many of the larger figurehead NGOs in the space are intent on increasing populations of endangered species. That’s all well and good, but it neglects to address the root cause of these issues. So my goal is to reframe the human relationship with nature; to try to shift it.
How can we do that?
Elliot Connor: In many ways. Looking at the bright side of the current situation could certainly help. We can’t fall into a negative mindset: something which is quite dominant in the field and in media portrayals. Providing opportunities for people to connect with nature is another way. If we can have young adults such as myself building bonds with animals from an early age, then that almost predestines them to follow a path into environmentalism, or at least to become sensitized to these issues. People become more aware and more willing to act if they love the nature that’s being lost- they suddenly realize that life is at stake.
You say the environmental theories are anachronistic. You also write in your book, that while checking on the activity of 200 nonprofit organizations, you found them outdated. What arguments do you have?
Elliot Connor: Again, it’s hard to generalize, but having worked with many organizations great and small, and as you say, having conducted a large amount of research I have found several things to be lacking. The major factor that I found was they could not adequately engage volunteers. Many are struggling to reach out to the public at large, to communicate their actions and intentions beyond this echo chamber of committed environmentalists. Obviously, that’s quite easy to see from the way they frame their work, and the metrics they use to define success. Recently I was looking at the Human Development Index and its correlation with environmental indicators: the ratio of protected areas in a country, or proportion of threatened species, say. Almost without exception, there was no correlation- so countries that are better off don’t make any extra effort to protect their natural places- at least nothing that pays off. And an educated, active populus is the only way that is going to change.
Investing in protecting the environment is quite a recent concept for countries, right?
Elliot Connor: Definitely. A poor country, let’s say, Lesotho, could be doing as well as the most developed countries such as the U.S.A for that very reason. Affluence just doesn’t equate to effective custodianship of this planet of ours. The U.S.A and Australia, in spite of their advancement, have the second and the third most threatened species in the world. We need to work toward repositioning ourselves, re-evaluating how we measure success. If we are working towards being more developed as societies, then that has to include environmental aspects as well.
Is the world ready to embrace new changes? We have serious problems now with this pandemic. Your cause is reasonable, but at the same time, people are more inclined to look for an immediate result- something that could change their lives now, not in the future. How will you convince people to pay more attention to the relationship that humans have with nature?
Elliot Connor: I think COVID has introduced some interesting new variables into these questions. But as you mentioned, moving into 2021, and the decade after that even, there will be a very different world. Even if we want to stick to our old ways, we have to rethink many aspects of how we run our lives, our businesses, the global community. For me, that is an opportunity to influence discussions to bring about some significant changes. That is a chance to step into these circles and create some new means of engaging the public in these environmental debates. It is a new world! 2020 was meant to be “Biodiversity Super Year.” A lot of major conferences should have taken place, lots of big gatherings, stakeholder meetings, agreements, and so on. They have almost entirely been canceled due to COVID-19. We can only hope that momentum will be maintained for 2021 and thereafter.
But the most basic answer I could give to that question of yours is that everything is connected. COVID itself is a zoonotic disease, which means it came from other animals: in this case, into the wet markets of China from the illegal wildlife trade. If we can more strongly see the links between our human wellbeing, our human health or economic success and nature, then that is as good an incentive as you could hope for. Natural services prove 40% of our global GDP, and halting biodiversity loss is essential for 80% of the Sustainable Development Goals. These aren’t small effects we’re talking about. Nature runs all our lives, whether we like it or not. Thus, part of what I am trying to change with my philosophy is to make people realize that nature is always around us.
I live in Sydney. It is a major world city, with a large population and still plenty of green areas. We are lucky, but the majority of the community here certainly would not see, appreciate, or recognize nature in their everyday lives when it’s all around them. I’m an animal rescuer. I get dozens of call-outs a day to care for and rehabilitate injured wildlife just from local neighborhoods. That is an easy way of seeing the diversity of life that is out there, but anyone can find a wealth of interest in nature if they only look. And I’m sure it’s the same in every city. From my travels, I found there’s no place you can go where nature is not present.
Your book will be an educational tool for helping alert people to the danger that we face if we ignore nature. Do you think that COVID could be a consequence of our lack of respect for nature?
Elliot Connor: Oh yes, very much so. I’m not aware if they’ve worked out for sure yet the route of transmission for the disease passing from animals to humans. I have heard bats implicated, and likely even pangolins emerging from the African or Asian markets in the illegal wildlife trade. So if we had embraced this Human Nature a year ago, if we had changed how we do business and how we think about ourselves, a situation like this could and would never have emerged.
I think it has been a fundamental realization for the global community that this huge event, this catastrophe for humanity, has originated from our treatment of other animals. So, yes, It has been a wake-up call. China’s wet markets have shut down completely. Related trades are slowly being restricted further, having to shrink and move even further under cover. This is excellent news. Across the globe, where certain human impacts have been stalled, especially as we entered into lockdown, animals and nature places are rebounding. Even in these short timescales. So again, that’s another lesson- about resilience.
Is your perspective optimistic?
Elliot Connor: I was reading recently that New Zealand has changed its legislation to recognize animals as sentient creatures. That is a real step forward. I mentioned earlier about Switzerland that they have legally binding measures in place to ensure that animals and plants are treated with dignity. So that’s another wonderful concept. If we can introduce more things like that, more trailblazing statements into not only our constitutions but our psychology, then it would be a real positive outcome.
But, Elliot, here and there, even people are not treated with dignity.
Elliot Connor: There will be flaws. Science tells us that there’s no such thing as a perfect system. Yet with that said, there remains a large gap between how we treat other human beings and the 99.999999999% of other lifeforms that we share this planet with. What I am aiming towards is to give animals as close to an equal standing with humans as possible. If we did that, then it would be a vastly different situation for animals than the one there is currently.
Do you have pets at home?
Elliot Connor: Yes, all sorts. I’ve got three pygmy bearded dragon lizards which are currently bruminating- like hibernating for lizards. Over the years, I’ve raised all kinds of insects: assassin bugs, fig tree leaf beetles, and a pair of stick insects amongst others, but they don’t stick around for long (excuse the pun), and if they’re wild then I release them as soon as they’re ready. Usually I have a small menagerie of creatures out the back from my animal rescues, but at the moment it’s only a Tawny Frogmouth- similar to an owl- called Bach. We name all of these after classical composers; it helps to have a system, and the names suit them well.
Okay, back to your book. You compare your text with other notable, very known books, books of high caliber, I would say. Do you have feedback from environmentalists or other supporters? What makes you so confident?
Elliot Connor: It has been a quite brief, but successful trajectory that I’ve had for the past 12 months. I started up my charity, Human Nature Projects, which has become a global phenomenon. And this February I was speaking on the TEDx stage in Sydney, the script from my talk forming a loose backbone part of the final chapter of my book. Only last week I was on a webinar with Jane Goodall, hearing her echo sentiments very similar to some of my own, and exploring these subjects with her in some depth. So I have been very fortunate to hear my beliefs affirmed and supported by others, with my environmental work testament to the strength of the Human Nature worldview. These past months with my starting up my podcast, I’ve seen further dimensions added to the picture, and also come to appreciate the universal significance of nature across all boundaries. So I certainly don’t claim that the book is any great work of literature, but the thoughts it expresses are well worth listening to, and I certainly endeavour to present them in an engaging manner.
That’s interesting. The podcast could be a valuable acquisition for your marketing plan in promoting the book. Who do you think will be the readers of “Human Nature”?
Elliot Connor: I’m hoping to angle it towards a growing body of concerned global citizens who might not be especially knowledgeable about nature or the state of our environment, but who are seeking to learn more about it never-the-less. Increasingly, I have found that there is a knowledge gap preventing people from appreciating animals and from helping to protect them. I recently surveyed 1000 people about some basic facts from the field: for example, have rhino numbers doubled, halved or remained the same across South Africa in the past 5 years? And do richer or poorer countries have more threatened species on average? The respondents managed to score worse than random chance across eight multiple-choice questions. Meaning there is plenty to learn. I am hoping that I can fill in some of those gaps. Teaching people about animals, about the wonder of nature that surrounds us, is such a beautiful and useful activity. 500 million people is the ballpark figure for the number of self-proclaimed ‘nature enthusiasts’ out there, but far more than half the world knows that there are environmental problems to be solved. It is the great issue of our day, and the younger generations in particular are increasingly sensitized. So I would love to reach that audience as well, with the flexible mindset of the under 35s.
So, again, what do you want to prove with this book? How is it set out?
Elliot Connor: The book is trying to redefine humanity itself. That is the end goal, where all the chapters are leading towards. It’s about us learning to be better animals, and taking tips from the end products of 4 billion years of evolution which is nature all around us. Each chapter approaches this in a subtly different manner. For example, chapter three is about what is currently being done in conservation- the good and the bad, and how it might be improved. Chapters four is looking at the emerging field of research into animal cognition, and our growing body of knowledge pertaining to how these creatures think and feel. As an example, there was some recent research which showed that slime mould – a collection of tiny, brainless organisms- can map out Tokyo’s train routes and the UK’s major highways simply by finding the most efficient routes connecting major population centers. It is a puzzle of shocking complexity. Yet they do it better than humans, even. So, if they can do that, it begs the question: how can we claim that our intelligence is superior? So, chapter five is directly challenging some of these long-held beliefs in terms of what defines humanity. Is it culture? Is it language and communication? Is it our flexible cooperation over global scales? In the end, I come to the conclusion that humans are simply opportunistic ecosystem engineers. Like certain animals, we modify our environments, and like others, we thrive off new niches in these modified areas. Just a bit of this, that and the other which makes Homo sapiens ‘human.’ Animals possess these same traits, but as Darwin once said: “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals… certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”
It is a fantastic world that we still do not know very much about. Maybe we shouldn’t talk in terms of superiority. Perhaps we should speak in terms of differences. So what makes us different?
Elliot Connor: As I say, it’s this combination of traits which sets us apart in some ways. We are opportunistic. We’re like rats in our ability to thrive in new modified environments. We can adapt our behavior very rapidly to live, as we do, all across the world from Antarctica to the North Pole. It’s a very effective survival strategy that has allowed us to move very rapidly across the globe. Other animals have done likewise. So the brown rat, for example, has an unbroken distribution worldwide except for Alberta in Canada, I believe. And that’s only because of a permanent border guard to prevent their entrance. When you combine our opportunism with our ability to change our environment- as ‘ecosystem engineers’- you arrive at a very potent combination.
It is interesting to reflect on how we have changed our environment throughout history. In my book, you can read about the wolves of Yellowstone. It comes up in the first chapter, actually. I explain how in the mid 20th century, they killed all the wolves in Yellowstone, a huge national park in the U. S. A. These predators were seen as pests, and so hunted to local extinction. But once they did that, everything changed: the elk population boomed, doubling, tripling, quadrupling; the low-lying vegetation they grazed on withered, and they become bolder, browsing by open riversides instead of more secure valleys. Soon enough, the watercourses themselves changed, alongside the abundance of every other animal in that ecosystem. Increasingly we have come to see over the past few years that all of life is very strongly interconnected… humans included. If we could only recognize the role we play as ecosystem engineers, and as opportunists, as well, then we can better embrace our role in global ecosystems and learn to mitigate any harmful impacts we might have.
Human beings are “predators” as well, and yet you say that people and animals should make a deal, a peaceful contract. How do you see the future of humanity?
Elliot Connor: Haha- that’s a new one for me. Yes, I guess humans are predators of sorts, though omnivores not carnivores in a stricter sense. And we’ve changed the planet enough already that our prior hunter-gatherer lifestyle holds a much lesser significance. We have the luxury of choosing the future we want to create. And of course, it’s hard to predict the future, is it not? We have been through century upon century of existing at odds with nature. Now all of that is being challenged very suddenly. This modern movement of environmentalism is barely 70 years old, however plenty has been achieved in even that short space of time. We’ve seen 15% of Earth’s lands and oceans protected, a widespread environmental literacy developed and a host of animal rights granted to prevent exploitative practices. If you extrapolate that to 2050 or 2100, then we can expect some major changes to take place in the world. Environmentalism is the issue of my generation, and I’m confident it’s not one we’ll have to pass on.
Here is where we ended our discussion, not before a short quiz on Elliot’s preferences:
What’s your favorite book?
Elliot Connor: Recently, I re-read Lawrence Anthony’s The Elephant Whisperer. That one’s certainly up there. Also, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals– a classic.
What’s your favorite color?
Elliot Connor: Green, I would say. I’ve never seen quite so many shades of a colour as I have seen variants of green in nature. Green is the colour of life.
No surprises there. What’s your favorite song?
Elliot Connor: The Circle of Life, I would say, from The Lion King. It’s rare that you get a catchy tune and insightful lyrics in the same song.
Who do you most look up to most in the environmental field?
Elliot Connor: There are many people I admire. Dr. Goodall, I have mentioned; likewise Anthony and Durrell. But when it comes to sheer persona and impact made to the space, then David Attenborough is very hard to match. Those are some big footsteps to fill, that’s for sure.
I would say that. What is your preferred animal?
Elliot Connor: It’s hard to choose, with millions of species thus far described. But I think for now at least that title would have to go to the African elephant. They are highly intelligent creatures, with complex social lives and a communication system we’re still scrambling to decode. I also recently spent six weeks filming them and other animals in South Africa, which may have biased my opinion somewhat!
Elliot Connor: I’ve never been asked that before. I love it here in Australia. I think Australia’s a wonderful country. New Zealand as well, though. Both are fascinating places.
How did you find us?
Elliot Connor: It must have been through Facebook, though I’m not big on all the socials. I’m a huge advocate for having youth voices heard and empowering tomorrow’s leaders, so I was very much taken by what I saw at KidHouseProduction.
Great minds think alike, as they say. Young people need a space where they can utter what they think, dream, or want to change. A place where they can make their voices be heard. We created this space here, at KidHouseProduction.