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How the National Geographic Society Has Rebooted to Help Restore Earth’s Natural Equilibrium

For close on 130 years the National Geographic Society has been helping understand cultural diversity, connecting people and connecting us with nature. But the world is now a very different place. When National Geographic started in 1888 there were 1.5 billion people on the planet, now there are more than 7 billion people. This has created great challenges for the world’s species and ecosystems, and for humanity itself Jonathan Baillie, National Geographic Society chief scientist

If we look at the ecological footprint, we can see that we are currently using 1.5 times the amount of resources that the planet can generate on its own, Jonathan Baillie, National Geographic Society chief scientist, said at the opening of the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. this week. “By 2050 we will have over 9 billion people on the planet and we will be using the resources of almost three planets — more people using more resources, a completely unsustainable trajectory,” he told hundreds of explorers and staff gathered at the Society’s headquarters. [Read the science behind this: Earth Overshoot Day Arrives Earlier Than Ever]

Six months into his new position as National Geographic chief scientist, the former conservation programmes director of the Zoological Society of London outlined his “scientific vision” for how the National Geographic Society would work to help create a a planet that’s going to provide for 9 billion people — and all forms of other life. “How do we do this with 9 billion people on the planet? This is the great challenge we all face. National Geographic now needs to think about its unique role helping us face this challenge,” Baillie told hundreds of National Geographic explorers and staff gathered at the Society’s headquarters for the week-long festival.

Photograph by Randall Scott/NGS.

Baillie outlined three major areas where National Geographic could make a major contribution.

“The first is thinking about how we value cultural diversity and biological diversity. We have been doing this effectively for many years, so we have a strong role in helping people understand about the importance of the natural world and understanding each other going forward.

“We have an important role in driving innovation; many of you are innovators. We need to support that and come up with solutions that will help us survive on a planet of 9 billion people.

“And we have to figure out how to maintain the heart and the lungs and the arteries of the planet so that it can continue to generate the resources that we all need.”

Photograph by Randall Scott/NGS.

Community of Change-makers

The way way to do this was to support a community of change-makers, Baillie explained. “We are going to continue to invest in science and exploration, push the boundaries of science, create new discoveries. We’re going to inspire the next generation. We’re going to focus on youth, on classrooms around the world and help them understand the importance of cultural diversity and the importance of biological diversity. We’re going to inspire a generation that really starts in this room here. And finally we are going to show that impact is really possible on a massive scale.”

Photograph by Randall Scott/NGS.

The central engine of the National Geographic Society organization was the grants program, Baillie said. “We want to help people get their careers started, keep going, and then invest in their bold idea. Our grants system will really be generating ideas, identifying leaders of the future, and once people move through the system, they will break out into our major programs.”

National Geographic considers awarding grants through three lenses:

The Human Journey: Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk, a multiyear, 21,000-mile storytelling odyssey across the globe in the footsteps of our ancestors, and Lee Berger‘s discovery of a new species of early human are examples of big investments by the Society.

Wildlife and Wild Places: Joel Sartore‘s Photo Ark and Dereck and Beverley Joubert‘s Big Cats Initiative.

Our Changing Planet, with a focus on large landscale projects: Okavango Wilderness Project, Pristine Seas and  Yellowstone.

Launch of National Geographic Labs

“We want to do more than just give grants and support programs,” Baillie added. “We want to build you as a community and we want to build our partners and help bring their activities to scale. And to do this we are launching four labs.

“The first is building out the work of the engineers, new technology to revolutionize the way we do monitoring, surveillance and public engagement. Things like new tracking tools, new monitoring tools, new ways like robots at the bottom of the ocean to help us visualize the world in a different way. [Exploration Technology Lab]

“Our second lab focuses on citizen science, which is going to bring a whole new community into National Geographic. It’s going to make anyone who has curiosity realize that they can be a scientist. And we also want to focus on our digital learning platforms, so we can provide leadership courses for the explorers and the general community to be more effective and to communicate nature and to protect the world’s species. [Digital Exploration Lab]

“For years we have been known for our infographics. We are masters at taking complex data and visualizing it in a very simple way. We want to continue to pull that information in and help people see in a very simple way using Geographic images how the world is changing in terms of diversity, the ecosystems, and culture. [Geographic Visualization Lab]

“And finally, we have been telling the story of nature and culture diversity for generations quite effectively. But now there’s so much more data. There’s Instagram. We can tell if people really like an image or if they don’t respond to it at all. There’s no way of looking at the brain and seeing how we respond to an image of the natural world. There’s a whole science of storytelling, of communicating, and we want to build on that science and work with our partners so they can better tell the stories of nature and of cultural diversity.” [Science of Storytelling Lab]

Photograph by Randall Scott/NGS.

What Success Looks Like

We have these grants, programs and labs, so what does success look like, Baillie asked.

“Success is a community of leaders. Basically, this is the nucleus, but it has to be a thousand-fold. We have to really build a community around the world, and we’re doing just that.

“We need a society that values nature; we need to redefine our cultural relationship with the natural world. We need to appreciate the value of different cultures. If we don’t do this, fundamentally we are not going to make progress.

“We need to accelerate innovation. In the past it was a kind of luxury to have better innovation and better technology. Now we need it for our very survival.

“And we need to maintain the heart and the lungs of the planet. We need to map out the world and understand where we can still protect these amazing wild spaces. We have to do what Enric [Sala] has done in the oceans in the terrestrial world as well.

“We have to measure impact as we go along and be honest with ourselves about what’s working and what’s not. We need to replicate success and share success or failure with the broader community.”

Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.

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