Quick: look out the window.
Is the world still there?
Got some trees? A couple of birds? A few puffy clouds?
Good. Now sit for a minute and enjoy it.
People of every generation and especially over the past few decades have made efforts large and small to ensure the continued presence and health of nature in and around the human-constructed environment. As the sun rises on another Earth Day this Saturday, thousands of scientists and conservationists are gathering in Washington, D.C. for the March for Science as well as the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit—an opportunity to share stories of success, and to spread inspiration and encouragement for those working in the field of conservation.
Legendary biologist Tom Lovejoy is serving as the Chair of the Board of Advisors for the Summit. In the 1960s he began his career studying the Amazon. In the 1980s he was designing the PBS series Nature, promoting the new idea of valuing “biological diversity,” and heading up the World Wildlife Fund’s efforts to protect the disappearing rain forests. Books, articles, government appointments, awards, and conservation success have kept him pretty busy since then.
He still managed to find time to talk with us this week about why we should be optimistic about Earth’s future. “No organism exists without affecting its environment,” he said. “So our choice is not whether we affect it our not, it’s how and in what ways.”
Read on for our full conversation.
Tom, you’ve been in conservation a long time. What are the biggest changes or advancements you’ve seen?
TL: In the early ’70s, the challenges were very impressive, but in one sense they seemed easily solved. Basically everybody was for the environment already and we just had been asleep at the switch. At the same time, no one was actually seeing some of the coming challenges. Everything’s gotten bigger in scale and more urgent and more complicated.
It’s very, very easy to focus on the challenges and not look back and see what you’ve actually achieved. The first time I did that about the Amazon, I was actually staggered by the amount of progress that had been made. In the early ’90s, maybe 15 percent of the Amazon was under some sort of conservation, and that was just a staggering number. To even dream that there might have been a time when you could imagine 20 percent … I think people would have questioned your sanity. Today it’s like 50 percent. [The Amazon] is an area equivalent to the 48 states. Can you imagine half of the 48 states in conservation?
That is very impressive, but how well can that large of an area actually be “protected”?
TL: Half [of these areas] are indigenous areas, while the other half are in various forms of protection. And a lot of those are what some people dismiss as “paper parks.” I never dismiss a paper park, because I see it as just a stage in the development of proper protection.
Once something is on the map, then it’s incumbent upon us to take it the rest of the way.
So it’s important to take those first steps, just to keep things from disappearing entirely?
TL: Once something’s gone, it’s gone. So if it’s still around, it’s potentially conservable or fixable.
How much should humans try to engineer that recovery, and how much should we just get out of nature’s way?
TL: I think our biggest challenge is going to be around climate change, but I also believe that you can make significant progress by restoring the incredible array of destroyed and degraded ecosystems in the planet—because as they’re restored they pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Once that becomes more widely appreciated, it’s actually going to change how people think about the planet. It’s going to bring them to realize it’s actually a linked physical and biological system. And the minute you start thinking of it as a living planet, it kindles a much greater understanding and respect for natural systems.
There’s a lot of anticipation about the impact of large-scale government programs and regulations and international agreements. Where can people turn if those don’t happen or aren’t implemented or enforced?
TL: Restoring ecosystems is something that individuals can contribute to. So suddenly climate change transforms from “something which is so enormous that what can I possibly do?” to “Oh I can plant a tree. We could do this in our entire neighborhood. We can work on restoring a wetland,” and many of those are things we want to do anyway because there are immediate benefits in addition to combating climate change.
Like stopping littering? It amazes me that people still throw trash out the car window.
TL: It’s a really bad problem in a lot of parts of the world, and I don’t get it, in the sense that it’s so easy not to do that. And it’s so fundamentally self-centered to do it. You’d think there’d be a lot of parents out there who are saying things to their kids when they do it, right?
Is the problem that people think being good to nature is too difficult, or requires us to sacrifice too much?
TL: A really important piece of this is people figuring out that you can have a pretty pleasant existence leading a more sustainable lifestyle.
There’s a lesson here for us all from my parents’ generation, which emerged from the war years and rationing with a fundamental sense of frugality, which in no sense spoiled their quality of life.
I think back to growing up in an apartment in Manhattan in the late ’40s and aluminum foil arrives and it’s this wonderful new thing—but we used it and we washed it, and we used it and we washed it, until finally it fell apart. There’s nothing mind-shattering about that, it’s just thinking differently about how our behavior affects the planet. It’s not “Don’t use aluminum foil,” it’s “Use it frugally.”
When you think of frugality being part of the key to conservation, that goes hand-in-glove with really traditional American values. We don’t often think of it that way, but it’s deeply ingrained in the culture here. The environment can often divide the U.S. politically, but it actually presents a lot of common ground.
TL: [A few years ago] I got to go all over Cyprus, north and south, and pretty quickly I realized that they had a terrible groundwater problem. Well, you can’t solve it unless north and south Cyprus work together. I gave a Fullbright lecture in the demilitarized zone, and there was a potluck dinner afterwards. You would have thought the north Cypriots would sit together and the southern ones would sit together, but no—everyone mixed because they were all interested in talking about the environment together.
Very often when a country is beginning to move beyond conflict, the first acceptable form of civil discourse is around the environment, and it’s not seen as ideological. [Here in the U.S.] to this day, it’s a matter of great surprise to a lot of Republicans to discover that the Nixon-Ford years are the key years in environmental laws and institutions, and that [conservation] is basically a thoughtful conservative’s issue.
It’s like how hunters are often deeply engaged with viewing and protecting the ecosystem as a whole. That can surprise people on both sides of the issues.
TL: Why are hunters so good at this? It’s because they have to really understand what the individual animal is actually doing and how its relating to its environment. So they have to get immersed in the natural history of the actual animal. So I’ve never been judgmental about hunters or fishermen, because I started with the premise that no organism exists without affecting its environment. So our choice is not whether we affect it our not, it’s how and in what ways.
We often talk about how exciting it is to see the promise of the next generation. That’s great, but what about everybody else? What cause for optimism do we see in all the other generations?
TL: I think this is for children of all ages. People sometimes make incredible contributions in the last years of their lives. Sometimes that builds on a lifetime of achievement, other times it’s a sudden realization that there is something different in their life that they can make a difference about. And so I think we need everybody. Absolutely everybody.
Is there anyone you’ve interacted with lately that comes to mind?
TL: My friend David Attenborough is about to turn 91. And he’s still 14 years old inside.
Nature is kind of eternally young like that too, right? An area that was heavily farmed and given up as degraded will reforest itself really quickly if you let it.
TL: The great thing about living things is they like to make more of themselves. So if you give nature half a chance, it’s amazing what can happen.
Learn more at earthoptimism.si.edu and continue the conversation all weekend long on social media using #EarthOptimismSummit.