The Problem With Facts

The New Yorker recently published a blog by Maria Konnikova that serious conservationists ought to read. “I Don’t Want to Be Right” shares results of recent neuroscience studies and discussions with the researchers. In one study the investigator tested whether facts, science, emotions or stories would change the minds of parents that believed vaccines cause autism. The results were discouraging. The parents who originally believed vaccines cause autism actually became even more convinced they were right when presented with scientific facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. Images and stories were even less successful in swaying parents to reconsider their stance.

One of my favorite conservationists and mentor, Missouri Department of Conservation Agent, Mic Plunkett, taught me a great phrase, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, I already have my mind made up.” That simple sentence sums up the challenge we often face in conservation. How many times have you or your agency presented facts yet public attitudes remained unchanged or even more opposed?

Neuroscience is showing us that the likelihood of acceptance of a fact is based upon how it aligns with a person’s personal values, attitudes or beliefs. For example, a person with no connection or notions about ranching may quite readily trust your scientific statements about ranching and wildlife. On the contrary, a fourth-generation rancher is very likely to mistrust those same statements if they conflict with her views of being a good rancher.

Interestingly one researcher has found when people feel good about themselves they become more open to changing their misperceptions or behaviors. This theory makes some sense to me. I can recall when reluctance to changing my mind wasn’t so much about change but admitting I was wrong and that I may seem ignorant, insensitive, greedy…in essence a bad person. Letting go of these fears has become easier as I have realized that I’m not alone – that many others, good ,well-intended people, make mistakes in judgment too. Freeing one’s self from the fear of ridicule opens the door to diagnostic thinking and shifting positions as more information becomes available.

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Landowner and USFWS Biologist

As I have written before, conservationists must acknowledge facts alone won’t lead to changes in people’s perceptions or behaviors. It seems as though all the money and data in the world won’t necessarily solve an issue if the information and conclusions threaten people’s sense of self. If you’ve been in the profession for long you know this is generally true. In trying to preempt later collisions between science and personal values, we share our knowledge of the natural world with those who have little to no bias – children. But what to do about the adults that refuse to believe us?

If emerging theories in neuroscience are correct how might we use this information to gain public acceptance and behavioral changes more quickly with those that already oppose us? I have a few thoughts I’ll describe briefly.

Be dispassionate. Check your passions at the door. Expressing strong feelings (verbally or non-verbally) can actually come across as a wish to insult your opposition’s intelligence or self-worth just to prove that you are right. Instead, be dispassionate about the issue and the data at hand. Begin by explaining why you or your agency must be involved, that to do otherwise would be irresponsible and dishonorable. Explain that your only “agenda” is to share the results of your agency’s information gathering.

Be humble. Expressing sincere humility sends a signal that you care more about the facts than a position or predetermined outcome. Admitting uncertainty about what to do with the science signals honesty. With a sense of honesty, trust opens the door to connecting and getting to solutions.

Be generous. If you’re really serious, the opposition will have reasons to like you despite the facts and/or your agency’s position. Leave the aspirations of your opposition intact. It’s likely you would have a similar position if you were in their shoes. Find and point out the good they do. Acknowledge the positive and downplay the negative. Honor their intentions and thank them for demonstrating how democracy and natural resource policy works.

When confronted with opposition to scientific facts I believe we would do well to remember that talking more or waving more data around isn’t going to change hearts and minds. Flooding opponents with facts has shown to actually backfire and move them further from acceptance or behavioral change. Instead, listen to them and get to know them. To move people to informed consent with you or your agency help them see the disagreement isn’t personal. Show you respect them. Work to keep their aspirations intact. Finding good in our stakeholders and encouraging their input will signal to others that you care and can be trusted…that, not facts, will help them change their minds.

What do you think? Have you successfully brought about behavioral changes of stakeholders? If so, how?

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Doing Leadership: An Act not a Static Characteristic or Position

A local acquaintance, no stranger to acts of leadership, posted an interesting article in our local newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner (www.newsminer.com). Kathryn Dodge references several leadership authorities in making a valuable point for a community trying to enact change: leadership is an activity and following someone can be an act of leadership. With permission, I’m sharing the article. Enjoy!

In America, we talk a lot about leaders. Our language implies that a person is a leader — as if it is a part of who they are, rather than the actions that they take. Marty Linsky suggests humans are not really “leaders,” but sometimes we engage in leadership acts — or “do leadership.” Further, he proposes that when we are engaging in actions that are expected of us based on our job description, we are not doing leadership — we are doing what we are authorized by others to do.

However, when we step outside our area of authority and into an area beyond our authorization, we then are “doing leadership.” This implies most of us are not leaders, rather sometimes we engage in leadership behavior. Why does acting outside our area of authority constitute leadership? When we act outside our authority, because it is the right thing to do, which is how Peter F. Drucker defines leadership, it allows us to be seen as leaders.

If we are just slightly outside our area of authority, we are leading a little bit; the further we venture from the area in which we are authorized to operate, the more we are engaging in leadership, and the riskier our actions become. I agree with Linsky that when we step into that space, when we say, “look, this is what we (community, organizations, friends) need to do,” that is when we are leading.

Citizens for Clean Air march in Fairbanks on October 4th, 2014

John Davies and fellow Citizens for Clean Air march in Fairbanks on October 4th, 2014

In his Ted Talk, Derek Sivers suggests leaders need followers, and the first person who follows what a “leader” is doing or saying is also engaging in leadership. In this example, we see someone taking a risk, associating themselves with someone doing something they are not yet authorized to do, endorsing the leader and joining them in the nether space of leadership that is outside their area of authorized action.

This is referred to as a “movement.” Sivers argues the leader embracing the first follower as an equal is important to this process. The second and third person to join the “movement” begin to normalize the act, transforming it into something that the majority, by their agreement and support, will norm into the leader’s purview.

What does this mean to us as community members, employees, parents, etc.? It allows people who don’t feel or look like “leaders” to understand that leadership isn’t a quality a person has, but an act a person takes. One does leadership by stepping a little outside their comfort zone and say, “Let’s do it a different way.” Then by enrolling a few followers, who also may bring others into the mix, the new action or idea becomes apart of everyday life.

This, friends, is truly leading the way — It’s that simple.

Kathryn Dodge is on the Northern Leadership Center Advisory Committee and is an Assistant Professor with the School of Natural Resources and Extension and Statewide Extension at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Kathryn Dodge is on the Northern Leadership Center Advisory Committee and is an Assistant Professor with the School of Natural Resources and Extension and Statewide Extension at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Leadership Lessons from a Zombie Apocalyspe (no, really!)

What a great summer! As fall arrives expect to see more posts. This guest contribution comes from a friend and colleague. Rollie White lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two teenage daughters. Rollie is a student of leadership philosophy and works darn hard in government. When not commuting on his bike or fishing, Rollie enjoys cooking with his wife and traveling. We hope you enjoy his observations on leadership!

Leadership lessons can come from just about anywhere. My favorite recent example came from a Hollywood blockbuster starring Brad Pitt called “World War Z.” In the movie, a virus that turns people into crazed, flesh-eating Zombies is spreading around the world. Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, is a family man who clearly has some sort of CIA/James Bond/special agent past. Lane is sent by what is left of the government to find a way to stop the virus. He eventually arrives in Jerusalem, where the Israelis have built a 10-meter high wall around the City just days before the Zombies arrive. Gerry Lane (Pitt) wants to know how the Israelis knew. From the script:

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Gerry Lane: How did Israel know?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: We intercepted a communique from an Indian general, saying they were fighting the “rakshasa.. Translation, “zombies.” Technically, undead.
Gerry Lane: Jurgen Warmbrunn, high-ranking official in the Mossad. Described as sober, efficient, not terribly imaginative, and yet, you build a wall because you read a communique that mentions the word “zombie”?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: Well, if you put it like that, I’d be skeptical as well. In the ’30s, Jews refused to believe they could be sent to concentration camps. In ’72, we refused to believe we could be massacred in the Olympics. In the month before October 1973 we saw Arab troop movements, and we unanimously agreed that they didn’t pose a threat. Then, a month later, the Arab attack almost drove us into the sea. So, we decided to make a change.
Gerry Lane: A change?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: “The tenth man.” If nine of us with the same information arrived at the exact same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start thinking with the assumption that the other nine were wrong.
Gerry Lane: And you were that tenth man?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: Precisely. Since everyone assumed that this talk of zombies was cover for something else, I began my investigation on the assumption, that when they said, zombies they meant zombies.

The “10th Man”, or better yet, the “10th Person”, is not actually a real tenet of the Israeli intelligence operations. The idea is based, however, on a real approach the Israelis use: the Office of the Devil’s Advocate. Regardless of one’s views of the politics of Israel and the Middle East, it makes sense that the Israeli government feels it can ill afford to miss or underestimate any risk to its well-being – every threat must be assessed, and you can’t assess or defend against threats you don’t see. So the Israelis rely on the Devil’s Advocate’s Office to constructively criticize the rest of the Israeli intelligence operation, to ask “what if,” to think outside the box, to detect a threat that “Group Think” or complacency might miss.

Fortunately, so far in my Conservation Career, I have yet to have to deal with any Zombie Apocalypses. But time spent challenging old assumptions, thinking outside the box, or playing Devil’s Advocate has proved immensely valuable. Sometimes, this kind of thinking allows you to see a path to success when you have otherwise not seen one. Sometimes, you see a risk inherent in an approach you might have taken that can easily be inoculated against. Most often, the value comes from deliberately asking if the decision you just made was the right one – this is especially true if the decision made was a unanimous one.

The value in these cases comes later in time, when the going gets tough, or big challenges come up, and some on the team start to question the original decision. To be able to remind your team that “we asked that very question back when we made our decision, and we made the decision in full understanding of the consequences” is very valuable. As just one example, I served as a foreman on a jury in a civil case where a man had been injured and was suing his employer. When the jury ultimately found in favor of the employer, I asked the jurors to each offer up one idea or fact that would have made them find in the plaintiff’s favor. Most complied, and we discussed each briefly – did we miss that in testimony? Could it have happened? At the end, we were even more certain we had the right decisions. When I walked out of the jury room, I was very glad we had done so, as I watched the plaintiff sitting on a bench, sobbing his eyes out. While I certainly felt for the man, I never doubted the jury’s decision.

So you may be thinking that it is all fine and dandy for me to spout off about playing Devil’s advocate – my boss doesn’t like to be challenged and will never let us criticize management ideas. Fair enough – some people don’t like to be challenged and would perceive this kind of thinking as undermining their authority. By way of response, I’d suggest you model your own willingness to have someone tear apart your own ideas. Share this with the boss, and bring in the co-worker that “scrubbed” your idea. Model how an idea or decision can be strengthened by testing it, by doubting it, and by trying to bust it with a strong challenge. Sometimes, fearlessness can be infectious.

And please pass the popcorn – I have some more leadership lessons to find!

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Have you ever worked with a “devil’s advocate?” Are they under appreciated in the workplace? What do you think? Rollie and I would like to hear from you.

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Leadership lessons in Memphis.

I recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee with some friends and family. My guide that day was a dear friend, Dr. Gloria Baxter. Dr. Baxter has vivid memories of growing up in a segregated Memphis. As we absorbed the exhibits she would recall childhood memories that made the museum’s stories all the more real for me. For example, she recalled a black woman who her mother hired to iron their laundry once per week. Dr. Baxter, who is white, enjoyed playing with this woman’s children. As we read about Rosa Parks’ courageous stand on a bus in Montgomery, Dr. Baxter recalled riding a segregated bus in Memphis with her black playmates and their mother – in the back section for blacks – and refusing to sit with white strangers.

Dr. Baxter and me and Ms. Parks' bus.

Dr. Baxter and me with a bus similar to the one Rosa Parks rode.

Acts of leadership are all around us. From the simple, innocent and courageous acts of a girl to the calculated risks undertaken by a president, it takes all of us to make the world a better place. And that is one of the lessons I learned from my museum visit.

Obviously President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr played pivotal roles in the movement to end segregation but there were others. Take for example, Reverend Frank Dukes. Mr. Dukes was a student at Miles College in Alabama in the early 60s and led a boycott of segregated businesses in Birmingham. I’ve included a photograph of a museum panel that captures a statement he made recalling the struggle. His statement succinctly demonstrates core principles of leadership – removing self from role to develop relationships with others.

A statement from Frank Dukes

A statement from Frank Dukes underscoring the power of removing self from role.

Leading others through particularly difficult issues requires interactions and developing relationships, particularly with those resistant to change and probably you and who you represent. Rev. Dukes had the courage to remove self from role – to view the racial slurs as data that indicated where the “white power structure” men were at. He didn’t take the insults personally. He seemed to have confidence he could help whites embrace desegregation if he was patient, persistent and gracious in the face of hatred and resistance to change. He kept his eye on the goal and was able to endure the racial slurs. And it worked. Slowly but surely his relationships with the whites strengthened, which opened doors to social adaptation and helped the later efforts of Dr. King.

There are no national holidays that remind us to reflect upon Reverend Frank Duke’s role in the war on hatred. But without him and the leadership of others the equality we enjoy today would not exist. As we think about the immense challenges facing the planet let us remember those that led in the fight for race equality. Let us remember that tackling tough adaptive challenges may require one or two Dr. Kings but most certainly many Dr. Baxters and Rev. Dukes – all kinds of people dancing on the edge of their formal or informal authority for the greater good.

 

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What Would Aldo Leopold Do?

It’s a fair question for a conservationist or really any person concerned with the future. After all, the man and his wise counsel are increasingly revered not only in the USA but around the world. He was innovative, passionate, and persuasive. His impact on how humans relate to the Earth is, in my opinion, a signature event in the history of humanity. If he were alive today I bet he would be doing many great things to advance a land ethic. And who doesn’t see the need for such an ethic today?

Currently we Americans are consuming more of the Earth than is sustainable. People in developing countries aren’t far behind in their pursuit to enjoy the comforts we’ve enjoyed for decades. Climate change is the recognized universal symbol of the problem. Yet, experts are documenting  more anthropogenic-driven changes endangering the planet’s biological, chemical and geological cycles.

Faced with such huge problems it is natural to search for a technical fix, but such thoughts are only a fool’s hope. Leopold recognized long ago the solution would come through an unwritten moral code that compels us to keep, conserve and restore the health of our planet. He recognized an ethic cannot be written by one person if it is to be embraced by all. He realized people with the problem have to be part of the solution, and correctly understood social change develops in the minds of a thinking community.

So what would Leopold do were he alive today? Perhaps he would ask us to continue the conversation – to work with him to enlarge the thinking community until our societies treat the land and its inhabitants not just as useful servants. What does that work look like? Can we do what he did?

Leopold deep in thought

Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, http://www.aldoleopold.org

We need to lead others through the tough conversations about the problem and possible solutions. In adopting an Earth ethic, many people will realize the need to shed a part of their cultural DNA – the cultural norms of a society with an unsustainable ecological footprint. Helping others through this change (and surviving it yourself) will require lots of interactions and development of strong relationships with many others. That work, done well, is known today as adaptive leadership

History helps to ground us and, if we are willing, can set us in the right direction in our journey. We can learn much about addressing this problem from the brilliant yet humble Leopold. He was a practitioner of adaptive leadership before it had a name. With no  training, he diagnosed and mobilized the social system, viewed himself as a system, and survived and thrived through the challenges. His values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors can guide our steps forward. We can also learn how to affect social change from modern adaptive leadership scholars like Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz. What might we conservationists learn about leading others through change if we listened and learned from them all?

In search of an answer to that question, join Leopold scholars Drs. Curt Meine and Julianne Warren and me as we discuss Leopold’s life and work through the lens of adaptive leadership on Tuesday, April 8th from 10-11:30 am Alaska Standard Time/2-3:30 pm Eastern Standard Time in a Webinar sponsored by the Management Assistance Team, a program of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

For a more in-depth exploration of how to be more Leopoldian, check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s excellent two-day Land Ethic Leaders workshop designed to “equip participants with tools to both introduce Leopold’s land ethic to a wider audience and also to deepen understanding and engagement through dialog about the meaning and value of conservation.”

As always, I look forward to your comments, questions and observations. If you have believe these conversations are important, I encourage you to subscribe, engage and share.

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Monarchs, milkweed and the spirit of Rachel Carson

The piece below was featured as an op-ed by Gary Paul Nabhan in latimes.com on February 23, 2014. I share it with you because Mr. Nabhan speaks so eloquently on leadership and why it is needed in conservation today. Rachel Carson remains one of our profession’s legends. With no authority she challenged things as they are and risked much for some higher purpose. We can profit by her example.
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To save the monarch butterfly, we have to be as strategic and courageous as the author of ‘The Silent Spring.’

“But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force.”

— Rachel Carson, in a letter to Dorothy Freeman, Sept. 10, 1963.

After news broke recently that the number of migratory monarch butterflies that had arrived to winter in Mexico was the lowest since reliable records began, I went on the road on behalf of the Make Way for Monarchs initiative. This solutions-oriented collaboration is working to place millions of additional milkweeds in toxin-free habitats this next year. Why? Monarchs cannot live without milkweeds, and milkweeds are disappearing.

In Pittsburgh, after the crowd listened to me outline the problem and the solution (restoring milkweeds and other wildflowers in healthy farm-scapes), a quiet man approached me with a smile. He wished to remind me that today’s struggle to help monarchs has deep precedents.

“I’m sure you know that Rachel Carson’s birthplace is just down the road from Pittsburgh at Springdale,” he said, “and that she went to school at Chatham just a few blocks from here when it was called Pennsylvania Female College. If it wasn’t for her, so many other lives would have already vanished from this Earth.”

I thought to myself, “Of course: One more for Rachel.”

Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” didn’t just kick-start the modern environmental movement, it also suggested that better protection for pollinators and plant life was required for healthy people and healthy agriculture. Without her intelligence and eloquence, we would already be living in a world of unspeakable impoverishment, one with silent springs and fruitless falls.

Illustration by Anthony Russo / For The Times.

Illustration by Anthony Russo / For The Times.

Carson was a quiet, unerringly private, modest person. And yet, as a moral voice and a skilled scientist, she challenged U.S. agriculture to confront its devastating addiction to the pesticide DDT.

Carson meticulously documented the consequences of untargeted chemical use on pollinators, songbirds and humans. She made giant waves, catalyzing changes in agricultural practices and government oversight that fostered greater social responsibility.

When the giants of the pesticide industry dismissed evidence that their chemicals caused harm, she stood her ground and shot holes in their stories. When the industry ruthlessly attacked her science and her character, Carson did not flinch.

Carson refused to bring her own breast cancer into the discussion, for fear that she would be disregarded as having “subjective motives.” Whether or not her cancer was related to environmental contaminants, she was sure that the damage done to so many other lives was ample enough for requesting changes in agribusiness-as-usual.

Now consider today’s risks to monarchs and farmers. Millions of acres are planted in corn and soybean crops bred for herbicide tolerance, which allows a glyphosate weedkiller to be applied wholesale. Weeds, including milkweeds, are indeed suppressed, but the untargeted use of such blunt tools can do more harm than good. A dozen herbicide-tolerant superweeds (none of them milkweeds) are surviving, which puts financial pressure on farmers to spray five times more weedkiller than a decade ago.

The collateral damage is that Midwestern farmlands suffered a 58% decline in milkweeds — and an 81% decline in monarchs from 1999 to 2012.

There is a better way. Farmers like Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm, in Sebastapol, Calif.; Richard Rant in West Olive, Mich.; and John and Nancy Hayden of the Farm Between in Jeffersonville, Vt., are creating abundant habitat for pollinators in concert with their crops, planting green “filter strips” and hedgerows next to their high-quality fruits and vegetables. Other farmers concede that where herbicides are necessary, they can be used in more targeted ways.

“Saving monarchs is about more than monarchs,” says Chip Taylor, the executive director of Monarch Watch based at the University of Kansas. “It’s saving all the species with whom they share the same habitats, especially the pollinators whose service provides the food for other species.”

We will need more than just a few pollinator-friendly farms. Milkweed habitat must be restored across entire corridors, from the Midwest to central Mexico, and from the inter-mountain West to coastal California, where this year’s monarch numbers are up slightly but far lower than a decade ago.

Last week, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to work together toward monarch recovery. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s party introduced a bill in the Mexican Senate to create a tri-national toxin-free corridor; similar legislation is being prepared in the U.S.

This spring, conservation organizations such as Monarch Watch, the Xerces Society, Cal Poly’s Monarch Alert and the Southwest Monarch Study will put out millions of milkweed seedlings — along roads, on railroad and transmission-line right-of-ways and in school gardens, farms and yards across the U.S. You can join with other citizen-scientists by planting native milkweeds and counting monarch larvae on them this summer, or by tagging adult monarchs into the fall.

Collectively, we must be as strategic and courageous as Carson was in the 1960s. We must inspire farmers and policymakers to curb the extinction of monarchs, whose endangered migration is of epic proportions.

It is a notion that Carson herself fully understood: We can no longer afford the further loss of ecological interactions that underlie the health of our food system and our communities.

Gary Paul Nabhan is an orchard keeper, pollination ecologist, and a Franciscan brother. His latest book is “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land.” http://www.makewayformonarchs.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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Do We Have the Courage to Put the 800-lb Gorilla On the Table?

The planet’s ability to provide useful materials and absorb wastes (its biocapacity) is deemed essential to sustain human life. Yet, the rate those useful materials are consumed (our ecological footprint) per person is rising at an alarming and unsustainable rate. According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity currently uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets worth of biocapacity per year. Stated another way, it takes the Earth 1.5 years to regenerate what we use and waste in a year. Here in the USA the average person’s ecological footprint in 2010 was approximately 8 soccer fields per person per year – the largest of any nation – while the global capacity in the same year was estimated to be about 2 per person. What this tells us is we Americans are not living within our means. In addition to deficit spending we are, in fact, deficit living. And other countries are not far behind.

Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint

Our ecological footprint – which path will we take?

Today this reality is a conundrum for anyone with an ecological conscious, particularly an American in the field of conservation. Current production and consumption of energy (for our bodies and machines) directly and indirectly create a suite of problems from loss of habitat to pollution. For conservationists, the 800-lb gorilla in the room is our society’s pursuit of economic growth fueled by conspicuous consumption. Quite simply our country’s Gross Domestic Product serves as a self-evident indicator for loss of nature and liquidation of our shrinking resource base. As conservationists, we need to place this gorilla on the table and help friends and neighbors understand the problem. It’s time to have frank conversations with the public about the need for intelligent consumption, recycling and reusing, and stabilizing human population.

Some will say this is too radical and not an issue a conservationist should be wading into. I would argue nothing is more important or in need of leadership. In the past Olaus Murie, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson spoke to the matter. In 1948, articulating the need for a land ethic, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” Approximately ten years later, Olaus Murie pressed for the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and believed it was emblematic of, “The real problem of what the human species is to do with this Earth.”

Today, Dr. Curt Meine (author of Correction Lines), Dr. Julianne Warren (author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey), and Dr. Brian Czech (author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train and Supply Shock – Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) are Americans in the field of science writing and speaking passionately about the real problem. I encourage you to follow their work. If reading books isn’t your cup of tea or you’re short of time, check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s documentary, Green Fire, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s call for a steady state economy, Enough is Enough or if you’re into Hollywood entertainment, watch Wall-E with the kids for an exploration of where we could be headed.

Of course, there are critics inside and outside the conservation community.  The status quo is tenacious. Calling for change is uncomfortable. We have to be prepared for the allegations. Like Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to abolish slavery while being a slave owner, we have to acknowledge we own a piece of this mess while we move humanity forward. We must admit we conservationists are contributing to the problem with every aerial survey, vehicle, item of clothing, glass of wine, or electronic device we buy (even the six-year old MacBook Pro I’m using to write this post). Acknowledging our contribution to the problem isn’t enough – otherwise it’s just rhetoric. We must act and model the behavior we hope for ourselves and others. Consider these three broad actions to get started:

Break the problem down. Become familiar with what contributes to the problem of an oversized ecological footprint. There is a mountain of literature on the unsustainability of human population growth and consumption of natural resources. Figure out the myriad connections between the nation’s pursuit of higher GDP and the conservation challenges we face today.

Identify solutions. There are so many ways we can lessen our ecological footprint from the individual level to the national pursuit of a steady state economy. Start at home and the workplace. Make an inventory of the wasteful practices and figure out how to make life and work more sustainable. Don’t overlook local, state, national and international solutions that could use our support and advocacy.

Exhibit leadership. The solution to this problem will require all of us to adapt. There are no technical fixes that will save us, no easy remedies and no authority figures leading the way. Solutions will be found through our interactions and relationships with others. Find the courage to share your concerns about the current reality and speak passionately about your aspirations. Talk about what we can do to close the gap between our unsustainable lifestyle and a sustainable one – and do it.

I realize this issue isn’t much fun to think or talk about. It’s personal. It calls into question what we do and our devotion to nature. It forces us to think about how our actions today will negatively affect future generations. As a conservationist, it’s much easier and more socially acceptable to treat the injury than call for a cure. We can busy ourselves with species protections and habitat restoration. But if we value nature – if we value humanity – business as usual is unacceptable. As conservationists we are documenting the outfall of the problem and have a moral obligation to sound the alarm. Ask yourself, would Rachel Carson ignore the gorilla in the room were she alive today? Ask yourself, if we won’t act, why should we expect anyone to? Now is the time for leadership. Leadership means having the courage to address the ultimate source of our conservation problems.

Putting this 800-lb gorilla on the table in a public forum isn’t easy. But like most hard work, it’s useful. I encourage you to take a moment and post your thoughts as a member of a thinking community. If you like what you’re reading and believe the conversation is important, follow this blog and share with others.

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