“We’re facing a global storm, and the question is, is our boat ready?” Mathis Wackernagel asked the crowd gathered at the Japan Pavilion at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro Sunday.
Wackernagel, who hails from Switzerland and is president of the Global Footprint Network, was being honored with a 2012 Blue Planet Prize, along with William Rees and Thomas Lovejoy. Rees, a Canadian, is a professor at the University of British Columbia, and Lovejoy, an American, is a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, as well as a fellow at National Geographic.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the annual Blue Planet Prize, which is given by Japan’s Asahi Glass Foundation to recognize leaders who make a difference in safeguarding biodiversity. This year’s winners join a veritable who’s who in the conservation world, with past winners that include Lester Brown, James Lovelock, David Brower, Paul Ehrlich, Theo Colborn, Gustave Speth, Amory Lovins, and James Hansen. A handful of organizations have also been recognized by the prize, including IUCN and Conservation International.
“What an extraordinary humbling event to be asked to join such distinguished colleagues,” Lovejoy told the audience. “It’s a very special group indeed.”
Lovejoy added that much of his conservation work was actually a team effort. He named Russell Mittermeier of Conservation International, who was sitting in the first row, as well as Angel Cabrera, the new president of George Mason University, “who is deeply committed to sustainability,” said Lovejoy.
“I am most honored by the recognition that this prize gives to biodiversity,” Lovejoy continued. “This is a living planet that nourishes us. It is extraordinarily beautiful and wondrous, and as far as we know without any parallel in the universe.”
The world’s understanding of the importance of biodiversity is built in no small part upon Lovejoy’s ideas, which sprang from years of fieldwork in the Amazon rainforest. Lovejoy was the first to show how human-caused habitat fragmentation leads to species decline, and he was the first to publish a projection of species extinction. That work still helps shape policy today.
In Rio, Lovejoy added, “I think it is very much the role of scientists to think how their work will impact policy. They can’t just sit in an ivory tower.”
Rees and Wackernagel were recognized in part for their work on developing Ecological Footprint accounting, which is designed to compare human demand for the services biologically productive ecosystems provide (food, water filtering, air quality improvement, etc.) and how much is available – a kind of “fuel gauge” of natural power. The scientists warn that most nations are now in “overshoot,” and that it takes the planet one year and six months to replenish what people use up annually.
Answering a follow-up question on next steps from this reporter, Rees said, “The biggest problem is not technological, but political.” He went on to say that in many circles, climate change is “now hard to discuss,” and achieving the bold transformative steps that are needed is often stymied because “the political will isn’t there.”
Taking a philosophical view, Wackernagel said, “Luckily, many obstacles are misconceptions.” He added that, historically, many harmful institutions, like slavery and suppression of civil rights, failed not just because of moral outrage, but also because they no longer made sense economically.
“We are at the same place with the environment,” said Wackernagel. “True economy is on our side, it just takes a little bit of catalytic force to get us on the right track.”
In response to a question about the role of industry in protecting the environment, Lovejoy said, “There is no solution without the private sector, it is so much bigger than anything else.”
Giving a long view, Rees added, “New information doesn’t necessarily change behavior. But people remember it, and when there are the right signals they move forward. When change comes from new policy, they understand why, and then they change.” Rees said this process is called social conversion, and it can take 30 to 40 years.
Rees added that his hope is that a country will soon step up, recognize that our current business as usual is not sustainable, and enact a strong course correction. When that happens, not only will the citizens of that nation fall in line, but other countries will soon follow, in a kind of Green Domino Effect.
“We are moving toward that tipping point,” said Rees.
Check out this original video of Thomas Lovejoy on accepting his award:
Brian Clark Howard is on location at Rio+20. Follow updates here.
Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.