The Field Naturalist Program got to spend an hour yesterday morning with Norman Myers, a legendary elder in the conservation world. Some nuggets from our conversation:
–Biodiversity extinction is an “irreversible” environmental problem. You can pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, you can remove and sequester heavy metals from the soil and water, you can break down hydrocarbon pollutants, you can reforest deserts and restore rivers and wetlands, but you can’t bring back extinct species. Scary! (And to add to that, the potential runaway feedback loops from climate change, like release of tundra methane or ocean plankton dieoff, are probably irreversible in a practical sense as well, at least within a human lifetime.)
–Norman spoke about the “biodiversity hotspots” concept that he introduced decades ago. I was impressed by the realism of its triage approach, understanding that some landscapes are higher-leverage than others in terms of biodiversity conservation. He said that this concept and all the work associated with it have raised and moved over $1 billion for conservation in his lifetime.
–He posed a hypothetical: if Obama asked the conservationists for their well-developed blueprint for ending the mass extinction crisis, and they reached into the bottom drawer to take out the blueprint they’d been preparing and saving for that moment, “I suspect the bottom drawer would be empty”. He said that very few conservationists have been thinking in the specific (and in my mind, largely social/cultural/political) terms that are necessary to change the way that the earth’s resources are being used. I have more thoughts on this, incidentally – I think there’s an “epistemic closure” situation to some degree in the traditional conservation world that sees only “preservation” and “stopping bad things from happening” as the solutions. But those solutions so often lack a specific path forward that address’s people real economic needs.
–“We are so fortunate to be alive at this time, when there’s a huge cataclysm taking place and a huge opportunity to do something that no human generation has done before.” – i.e., to save species from extinction by the thousands or even millions.
–Norman was 5 years old in England when WWII broke out, and he described how in the early years of the war it seemed to many people as though Nazi Germany was certainly going to win, and that England would be invaded and occupied. He said that Winston Churchill got on the broadcast radio over and over again insisting that it wasn’t too late, that if they could hold out long enough the Allies would prevail – even though Churchill may well have believed that there was little actual hope for that outcome. But his saying that effectively and clearly helped people hold out long enough for the tide to turn and for the Allies to win. This is an intense (if simplified) leadership story, and it points to some subtle realities about what motivates people. It’s not always incongruous with “reality” to tell a one-sided story that gives people hope. It’s not always about “facts” and data, but also about speaking to peoples’ hearts.
–Hope vs. fear as motivators – they’re different and both powerful. Fear is sometimes the more powerful one though! The hopeful visions conservationists offer often aren’t all that meaningful to most people. (How about regenerating the planet and rebuilding viable local economies? That gets me a lot more excited than “preservation”.)
–In 1989, VERY few people thought the USSR was about to fall apart or South African apartheid was about to end. No one thought that a majority of US smokers would quit during the 1990’s. Big-scale change is possible under the right conditions and with the right leadership and movement-building. He mentioned great leaders like Wangaari Maathi and Nelson Mandela who’ve built and led whole social movements that have changed the planet for the better on a huge scale.
Cool stuff. Lots more to chew on around it all. But it was a great hour with Dr. Myers.