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.

shipping lanes

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.

cat attack

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.

IMG_1996

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.)

 

Advertisements
Posted in Adaptive Leadership, Aldo Leopold, Anthropocene, Conservation, Leadership, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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!”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From George Lakoff: Disaster Branding: The Importance of Naming

Source: Disaster Branding: The Importance of Naming

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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…

View original post 40 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why March for Science?

Science, supported by federal tax dollars and unhindered by federal politicians, helped make America the envy of all nations. George Lakoff’s blog post provides food for thought on this relationship.

George Lakoff

static1.squarespace

The enormous role played by science — especially government-sponsored science — in our everyday lives is barely appreciated.

Start with modern medicine. We, the public, paid for it through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and research universities where the medical researchers, surgeons, doctors and nurses were trained, and where tools like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) developed. Modern drugs were also developed through basic research sponsored by NIH. Modern medicine is the dividend of our investment over decades in medical science.

Next, computers. Computer science didn’t just appear. It was developed through grants from National Science Foundation (NSF) and Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARP). The Internet was developed by the Defense Department. It was originally called the Arpanet. Satellites were developed through NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Defense Department, with vast amount of new science: rocket fuels, physics, new materials for rocket shells, advances…

View original post 407 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Future Work of Conservationists?

What role might conservationists play in the future of humanity?

Conservation is a means to an end. Conservation cannot and is not disconnected from human activities. We conservationists do not ask questions and test assumptions for mere entertainment. There is a purpose for conservation. It is to conserve parts of the planet so that we humans might survive and thrive and all those things we need for our minds and bodies – including those “cogs and wheels” we may not appreciate at the moment.

USFWS_biologist_tags_a_Monarch_butterfly

Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Humans, and in particular, we Americans, are increasingly aware of what’s at risk from human development activities but we seem…understandably…unwilling to connect those pressures to our lives and choices we make each day. In other words, we refuse to own our piece of the mess. Where does conservation and conservationists come into the picture?

Perhaps the future of conservation is informing and inspiring the essential pursuit of sustainable human thriving? If so, we must do so skillfully. “Informing” others is risky. We could harm friendships or future budgets. Our communications would have to be grounded in science. We would use scientific evidence to guide not just our behaviors but our engagement too. Skillful engagement guided by social science is necessary to lead others through adaptations that are required.

What does this look like for conservation professionals? At a coarse level it likely means a shift of budget and effort that maximizes data interpretation and minimizes data collection and mitigation. In short, we’d gather or examine evidence of impacts on flagship fish and wildlife species and their environment. We’d create and share that story with the public. The obvious example is the plight of polar bears. Rather than talk population trends with a quiet mention of sea ice loss, we’d skillfully engage others in discussions not just about polar bears and loss of sea ice, but…most importantly…the cause of sea ice loss. We conservationists would also set an example in our work and life that acknowledges and reduces that cause. We’d seek to reduce the footprint of our work while owning the irony of burning fossil fuels to capture a polar bear.

Polar_bear_with_biologist

Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Just like the resistance to loss we face when contemplating a change in our personal behaviors, conservationists leading this change must consider the resistance fellow conservationists will offer. Changing the traditional model of conservation from primarily scientific exploration to citizen engagement would surely be met with much resistance. History has shown when managers face budget reductions they consider biological capacity as primary and public engagement as optional while ironically the latter is cheaper and most essential for agents of the public.

Perhaps the adaptation required today and in the future mustn’t be viewed by conservationists as the loss of our identity but gaining relevance to our customers and our children. We’d merely let go of a bit of one type of cultural DNA no longer essential to make room for another. This adaptation wouldn’t require letting go of all biologists and data collection but shifting some of that capacity to the interpretation of scientific evidence and skillful engagement of the public.

What do you think?

Posted in Adaptive Leadership, Anthropocene, Conservation, Leadership, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

#ProtectTheTruth

Is conservation communication using the right language? Read this post from George Lakoff and reflect on the messages our profession has used and how we might change.

George Lakoff

Journalists are bravely standing up to Trump’s attacks on the free press, as they should. Yet one way in which they’re expressing their solidarity and resistance shows how little most journalists know about political framing and messaging.

Case in point: Trump has labeled journalists as “enemies.” So, journalists have responded by labeling themselves “#NotTheEnemy.” This hashtag is currently trending on Twitter, which is unfortunate. Adopting this slogan is a big mistake that helps Trump.

Anyone who has read my books or taken my classes at Berkeley will immediately understand why. For those new to political framing and messaging, I’ll explain briefly here.

Quick: Don’t think of an elephant!

Now, what do you see? The bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant. You can’t block the picture – the frame – from being accessed by your unconscious mind. As a professor in the cognitive and brain sciences, this is the…

View original post 262 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment