Under The Spotlight: Tom Quigley

Tom Quigley, Digital Strategist & Community Manager at Conservation X Labs tells us about his experiences working on the Great Barrier Reef and how our current idea of capitalism needs a complete rethink.

Tom Quigley
Digital Makerspace Community Manager
Conservation X Labs

Washington DC

In this weeks edition of Under The Spotlight we talk with another good friend of Conservation Guide, Tom Quigley. Tom currently works for the organisation Conservation X Labs as the Community Manager for their Digital Makerspace. Tom's conservation work has taken him from Australia to Madagascar to the Cayman Islands, working in marsupial rehabilitation, coral reef research, and ocean science education.

Lets see what Tom had to say as he went, under the spotlight...🔦

What inspired you to get involved in conservation and the environment?

I grew up on a farm in North Carolina and had a few acres of land. This was before the internet, video games, and smartphones, and I spent most of my time outside in the creeks and forests, coming back to the house only at sunset. So I've always been a wildling, and my hobbies followed in stride: by middle school I had hiked many sections of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire and had done canoeing trips throughout Algonquin National Park, then discovered skiing in high school, then rock climbing in college.

I had two "oh, duh" moments. One was at my family's rustic cabin in Virginia, looking out over a sunrise on the New River valley from a mountaintop, and I made a very simple connection: fulfilling work should be an extension of your life, that the natural environment was what I loved, so the most fulfilling thing I could possibly do with my life was to work to protect the natural world. The second "oh, duh" moment was my first time snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef during a summer abroad, and I was hypnotized. From that point forward, my fate was sealed.

Justin Troiano - Tom Quigley freediving

If you could change one thing to make a huge impact on the planet, what would it be?

If I'm wishing big, I have to say that we need a complete re-upholstering of our idea of capitalism. I'm torn about saying this, because I recognize that it's capitalism that has driven the greatest technological and medical advances in the world today, but the externalities are extraordinary and the environment is what suffers the tragedy of the commons. Capitalism has raised the quality of life for millions of people, but it has done so at the expense of the quality of life of millions of others. When corporations make choices for their bottom line and don't focus on the impact of their actions, that impact ripples out across millions of consumers worldwide.

We know what the problems in conservation are: wildlife trafficking, ocean acidification, a warming climate, deforestation, on and on. We also know the drivers, a step up: black market demand, greenhouse gases, CO2, wasteful consumerism. If we can address these drivers, we can have an exponential, outsize effect on conservation. But to me, these drivers only exist because of something far more existential and difficult to change: our entire capitalism-based global economy.

We need a global economy that includes a measurement of externalities, that values circular economy or closed-loop supply chain management, that uses market forces to dis-incentivize bad behavior and incentive the good, and that includes ecosystem services in its valuations.

How would you convince the Donald Trumps of this world that biodiversity is important?

Here's the psychological quirk that many don't understand: people NEVER change their opinions simply by gaining new information. People shape their opinions based on what they feel and believe, then they find whatever facts will back that up. Opinions aren't based on facts, they are based on emotions. So, arguing with facts is useless. You have to change what they believe.

Don't push your points - listen to theirs. Find something that you both agree on and work backwards from there. Find what's important to them. Money, family, and land are all good starting points. Most importantly: you CANNOT preach. You have to learn to realize when you're preaching (it's probably more often than you think) and learn instead how to build a bridge of trust on something that you both value.

To me, some of the most successful conservationists are the ones who work with ranchers out in deep red states - or the ones who convince conservative Republican voters that climate change is a non-partisan issue - or the ones who convince companies that it benefits their brand (and sometimes their bottom line) to make investments into sustainability, carbon neutrality, closed loop supply chain, and the like. They're the real heroes of conservation.

What is your most memorable encounter with an animal or nature?

I was working on the Great Barrier Reef as a Divemaster and assisting a marine researcher based out of JCU. We had just spent the night out on a pontoon on the GBR, and woke up with the sun to do a transect dive. We were in the water by 6am and it was gorgeous - we were the only ones in an eternity of ocean, no land in sight, and beneath the surface the reef was teeming on a site we called Pressure Point, where the tides brought in nutrients and every fish on the reef gathered to feed. Thousands of fusiliers, hundreds of unicornfish, tens of giant trevallies, and every dive you were nearly guaranteed a few sharks, Napolean wrasse, and oceanic trout. That morning, the reef was putting on an incredible display.

My friend was filming schools of snapper and emperor watching for spawning behavior, and I dropped down to a bommie I called Shark House. Good days you'd find a shark there, napping with its bullet-shaped nose into the current. Today, no sharks, just a deep serenity as I sat at 16m alone, the sun cutting shards down through the surface above. A school of bumphead parrotfish soared overhead on fins like wings. Then something roved into my peripheral vision: something very big, and very, very close. My brain registered it as something scary (tiger shark? bull?) before I whipped my head around, but no - it was a lone dolphin, 2m long, barely an arms length away, come to see me. We looked at each other as he hovered there for what felt like a minute, and then he pumped his tail twice, effortlessly, and disappeared into the ocean.

Christian Black - Freediving

Who is your conservation role model?

Alfred Russel Wallace. The co-founder of evolution who to this day gets nearly no credit for his discovery, who was not blessed with Darwin's family comforts and opportunities but who went to Brazil anyway as a naturalist and then lost everything when his ship sank in the Atlantic - then survived and spent the next decade in the Coral Triangle, discovering thousands of new species while facing incredible disease and hardship. They don't make 'em like they used to.


Linkedin -Tom Quigley

Insta: @t.quigley

Twitter: @tommquigley

Banner Image Credit: Christian Black

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