Conservation Prejudice in a Connected World

What does it mean to be prejudiced? Prejudice is often imagined as being for or against something in an unfair way. Webster’s Dictionary says it’s “an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge.”

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We are living in an expanding world on a finite planet. There are more and more of us. And what we do can effect many others. Our activities are changing the global commons – air, water and land. We have triggered the 6th extinction. In response, famed American ecologist Dr. E.O. Wilson called for setting aside half of the planet for biodiversity conservation. This message resonates with many conservationists where the cultural norm has been to set aside lands as forests, parks and refuges.

half-earth-book-logo-170x248Before we rush to implement this recommendation it’s important to think things through. What’s the root cause of the 6th extinction? Is setting aside large tracts of land and minimizing people’s actions within those areas a quick fix with unintended consequences? What might affected people think of such ideas?

As I have written before, affluent people represent approximately 20% of the population but consume about 80% of global resources. The ecological footprint of a typical American conservationist dwarfs the impacts of many people that would be affected by Wilson’s idea.

And this is where prejudice comes in. While Wilson’s idea seems like the right thing to do, what might a poor person in Pakistan think of it? Would she agree? What might her impression of conservationists be afterwards.

Trishant Simlai and Raza Kazmi published an essay on November 13, 2017 a conservationist concerned about biodiversity might read. They share unintended consequences that parks are having on ethnic minorities in India.

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Manas Rhino National Park, India

Conservation stories come into my inbox everyday from around the world. Some remind me of two statements I heard recently at a national gathering of conservationists. One person opined that conservation isn’t going to get done on an empty stomach. In contrast another stated that conservationists can’t solve world hunger. 

What do we do with these conflictual opinions? While affluent conservationists aren’t solely responsible for such problems, do we own a piece of the mess? Perhaps such issues should be discussed and prejudices challenged if the work of conservation is to remain relevant.

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Social Tipping Point?

From time to time I come across an essay worth sharing. Akshat Rathi’s contribution in Quartz on April 21, 2018 and posted below, summarizes concerns I have tried to raise in this blog. Rathi is much more eloquent and effective. Enjoy, ponder and share.

On the first Earth Day in April 1970, millions took to the streets to demand environmental protection. Nearly half a century later, things may not seem much better.

Nearly 80% of our energy still comes from fossil fuels—a figure that hasn’t changed since the first Earth Day. The atmosphere now has more carbon dioxide than any time in the past 800,000 years. The oceans are heating up, corals are dying, and natural disasters keep causing more damage. Oil and gas companies continue to be some of the most valuable in the world, and the warnings scientists give about climate catastrophe keep getting more urgent.

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But all signs suggest the scale of the environmental movement has crossed a tipping point. It’s no longer just the woman on the street who seeks environmental justice. Instead, the movement now includes wealthy investors and powerful governments.

In the past year alone, activist shareholders, including trillion-dollar investors like BlackRock and Vanguard, have forced fossil-fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum to reveal the risks to their investments from climate change. In the face of Donald Trump’s retreat from the Paris climate accords, local governments have become stewards of the environment. Just this week, two counties in Colorado filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy, seeking compensation for damages caused by wildfires, droughts, and storms on infrastructure, agriculture, and tourism.

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There is good news from other corners, too. Government investment and regulations in developing and deploying clean energy have scaled well. In many parts of the world, it is cheaper to build renewable-energy projects than fossil-fuel power plants. This week, the UK went 55 hours without burning coal, which hasn’t happened since before the Industrial Revolution. Portugal produced more renewable energy in March than energy it consumed.

To top it all off, poor countries are investing billions more in renewable energy than rich ones. Though Tesla may be suffering another episode of hiccups, forecasters keep revising electric-vehicles sales figures upwards. Even technologies that were considered fanciful, such as carbon capture, are making a comeback. Progress is all around us. We don’t breathe the same dirty air or drink the same polluted water that we did back in the 1960s.

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Still, it’s not enough. The time is ticking on how fast we can make the transition to a low-carbon world. Thus, the importance of the protester on Earth Day has never been greater.—Akshat Rathi

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Reasons for Hope in 2018!

If one gets to thinking about human health and the lands and waters that sustain us, it’s easy to see problems – we’re wired that way! It’s important to look for good news and positive action too. Here’s a number of reasons for hope.

 

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More and more humans agree we’re facing a huge, wicked problem.

  • The Global Footprint Network describes the problem in a way that is compelling to a growing number of people around the world.
  • Participants of the 2017 World Economic Forum declared the health of our home – not cyber crime or chemical warfare – as the most likely threat facing humanity.
  • Sustainable uses of the planet have become a high-priority for nations around the world.
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Image courtesy of Global Footprint Network.

More and more humans see, touch and feel the problem.

  • We evolved to react to in-your-face kind of threats. Thankfully surveys show a majority of Americans believe climate change is happening because they can “see, touch and feel” the problem.
  • Coastal dead zones caused by water pollution and warming are negatively impacting local economies and this gets peoples’ attention.
  • Pollution of air, water and land is now understood to be the largest cause of premature death in the world.
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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

More and more humans are diagnosing the problem.

  • Neighbors in communities across the US are exploring the problem, from the tiny town of Pattonsburg, Missouri to Washington, DC.
  • CEOs around the world are seeing relationships between short-term thinking and threats to humanity. BlackRock the largest asset manager in the world put businesses on notice that they need to demonstrate progress on climate change and diversify their boardrooms.
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Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock. Image courtesy of Harvard Business Review.

More and more humans are experimenting to make progress.

 

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In messy challenges diagnosing the problem requires smart communication. Fortunately there’s great advice at our disposal. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, author of best-seller, Nonviolent Communication, has helped people around the world talk productively as he describes in this short video. The principles can  improve any courageous conversation.

Making progress on big, adaptive challenges also requires energizing and motivating others. Social psychologist and author, Jonathan Haidt, discusses how a divided America can heal in this TED event. One scientist is sharing ways Americans can find common ground on climate change. And group discussions about climate change between Clinton democrats and Trump republicans came up with shared recommendations too.

I could list many more reasons for hope. But I’d like to hear from you. What gives you reason for hope in 2018? Help yourself and others by sharing one word, article, talk, video, book, etc. Thank you I look forward to benefitting from your optimism!

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Our Oldest Task

In 1938 the father of Nature conservation, Aldo Leopold, put his finger on a problem I’d like to discuss with you today. He wrote: “Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history – to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

Since Leopold’s warning 80 years have gone by and human population has almost tripled. And millions around the world are joining folks like you and me in consuming more and more and more stuff. Experts are alarmed. They say our growing appetite for land, water and minerals threatens not just Nature but us and our peace and prosperity.

Take for instance our smart phones. There are more of these on the planet today than people. A typical device may contain over 60 different types of Earth metals. The extraction,  manufacturing and transportation of these metals for just one iPhone is estimated to crisscross the planet a half a million miles – polluting air and water, destroying farm land, and fueling conflict and death in developing nations. Once in our hands charging them emits megatons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. And if we toss them into the trash later we create another set of problems.

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Traffic of just 11% of over 30,000 merchant ships sailing in 2005 (Credit: NOAA)

At the global scale participants of the recent 2017 World Economic Forum suggest the most likely risks to humanity aren’t from cyber crime, chemical warfare or other things we might fear. But from a sick planet. Our home. Our grocery store. Our water well.

So how do all 7 billion of us – soon to be 9 billion – live on this planet without spoiling it? Without spoiling our chances to survive and thrive? Well, the good news is Aldo Leopold was right. We are clever. We can grow food without soil. We can engineer animal and plant DNA. We can even fly around the world on solar-power wings.

Why then are we failing our oldest task? I don’t believe it’s because we don’t have the technology. I believe it’s because we don’t use our brains and just adapt. Instead we continue to pursue unlimited economic growth on a finite planet. We choose not to reduce the footprint of our lifestyle. We choose not to buy less, eat less, or travel less. But we could. We could live on this planet without spoiling it. We could live, not as cave people, but as sustainable people.

I believe we can solve this problem because we are clever. Not only can we innovate and solve complex problems. But just as importantly we’re learning how our greatest tool – the human brain, works too. Emerging research in this field gives me hope. I believe we can learn to make sustainable choices. We can choose to be healthier and happier while protecting the planet. And we can get others to join us too. What I’ve learned isn’t rocket science. It’s much easier than that. Using what we know about our brains we can do two very, very important things: manage ourselves and skillfully engage others.

Science has shown we aren’t wired well for the challenge before us. We evolved to respond to here and now, in-your-face kind of threats like lions, tigers and bears not invisible threats that slowly turn into dangerous things like cancer, obesity or even climate change.

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Sabertooth cat chases an early human (Credit: Maurico Anton, Artist)

That’s why we arm ourselves against the slightest risks like an airplane crash or terrorist attack but just can’t seem to grasp the dangers of inhaling smoke, eating too much sugar or burning fossil fuels. Ironically we resist making the very changes we need.

So how do we overcome such resistance? First, we own it. We own the fact that we react to far off, invisible threats with indifference. Faced with what seems a distant problem we dwell on any costs that might come with change while ignoring possible benefits. Convinced losses will outweigh gains we stick with the status quo usually until its too late.

This loss aversion bias has kept me from making important changes in my life. But like others I’ve found that if I can stop and mentally get up into the bleachers and look down and see the whole field of life it’s a game-changer. This perspective helps us see distant seemingly invisible threats are real and dangerous. With our brains liberated we can respond logically.

So how do we skillfully engage others? How do we move the community forward? To build this capacity I suggest three things we can all do on a daily basis: appeal to emotions, show respect, and show rewards.

“To build this capacity…appeal to emotions, show respect, and show rewards.”

When engaging others remember emotions trump facts. Let go of the notion that facts alone change a person’s mind. Studies show countering someone with facts may even backfire. Instead find ways to connect with someone or something the person cares about. For me it’s seeing friends and loved ones devastated by obesity. It’s going back to the forests of my youth and finding only stumps, cattle and an empty stream.

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Stream in Wayne County, Missouri

Second. Show respect. Don’t strive to be heard, strive to listen. When you find yourself angry when responding to someone’s email or Facebook post stop and imagine he or she’s in the room with you. When we engage respectfully we can touch on tough topics with most anyone. And we leave the door open for future conversations.

Last and perhaps most important. Show the rewards of sustainable living. Show you’re happy, healthy, and debt-free. Help others see a life of less is so much more. Your life, like the life of Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus or others can be a model. And remember, research has shown that people trust people that practice what they preach.

I’ve made a number of changes in my life recently. And I follow in the footsteps of many, many others. I believe if we’re smart, if we use our tools and our brains, we’ll finish our oldest task. We’ll live on this planet without spoiling it. It won’t be easy. But it’s our task. And it’s a duty we owe not just ourselves but future generations.

(Note: this post is script that guided a TEDx presentation I delivered on April 9th 2017.)

 

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As you read the latest from Lakoff below ask yourself what reframing should conservationists work on?

Source: Karen Handel’s “I Am Not a Crook Moment”: “I Do Not Support a Livable Wage!”

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From George Lakoff: Disaster Branding: The Importance of Naming

Source: Disaster Branding: The Importance of Naming

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Success!

George Lakoff

Normally I would never post a link to a story in Reason, a right-wing magazine. But I consider this particular story a tribute to the power of your voices and your actions.

The writer of this piece is upset that we are reframing regulations as protections. He’s upset because he even sees regulations being framed as protections in the pages of the newspapers.

He attributes this to the work we have done to raise awareness among journalists, elected officials, and our fellow citizens that, from the Public viewpoint, regulations are protections. And most regulations come into existence to protect the public from harm by irresponsible or unscrupulous corporations.

Specifically, the author references an essay I posted in January — aptly titled “Regulations Are Protections.” He does a great job of repeating all of our arguments in an effort to negate them. In other words, he’s saying: Don’t think of protections!

Please read…

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