Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Wild Idea

Home, home on the range. Where the deer and the elephants play...

This may not be "news" to most conservation biologists, but I am going to assume that the majority of the American public missed the wild idea put forth by a group of scientists nearly six years ago. The idea: to "re-wild" North America with the big mammals that once roamed much of the continent before humans set up camp roughly 13,000 years ago, a time known as the late Pleistocene.

Well, the idea was not to try to resurrect now-extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, camelop, and American lion (yes, we once had our own lion), but rather to introduce their closest living relatives, borrowed from Africa and Asia. (Although, there is a team of Japanese and Russian researchers that recently announced they hope to bring back the mammoth through cloning in five years time).

Not surprisingly, the idea sparked heated debate among conservation biologists, a debate that continues today, at least in some academic circles and graduate student seminars. While it is questionable whether Pleistocene re-wilding could work as intended, and whether conservation biologists should spend their energy and resources on the strategy, this post does not delve into the pros and cons of re-introducing lions, cheetahs, elephants, camels, etc. to American wildlands (I suggest reading the linked articles for such information).

Instead, the reason I bring it up here is the value of the idea as a stab at a more optimistic approach to conservation. Even its authors presented it as an "optimistic alternative" to the dominant conservation paradigm, which they perceive as a "hands-off approach to wilderness preservation." And sometimes you just need a wild idea to get the conversation going.

I am not promoting re-wilding North America with Pleistocene animal relatives, but one of the promises of re-wilding with existing native fauna is its demand for more proactivity and participation in ecological restoration.

Already there are examples of re-wilding attempts. In Chile's Patagonia region, Kris and Doug Thompson are re-wilding almost two million acres of land damaged by a century of sheep farming, restoring it back to a healthy grassland teeming with native herbivores, such as the endangered guanaco. In an interview with conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, Kris emphasized the driving force of passion and the power of getting involved in protecting a place that is special to you.

While not everyone is capable of restoring land in the same capacity as the Thompsons, any kind of active involvement on a broader scale, including involvement by people other than conservation biologists, can help to create a culture that is passionate about restoring ecosystems and protecting wild places. Participation begets investment, and investment begets real, positive change.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Time for hope

Environmentalists have a publicity problem.

The “problem” I am referring to is the doom and gloom that many perceive as pervading the language of environmentalism. People don’t like doom and gloom. It’s scary and turns them off. It is also one reason environmentalists aren’t quite reaching as diverse and broad an audience as they would like.

I don’t mean to imply environmentalists should push the doom and gloom under a rug to be ignored. It is real, and humanity must come to terms with and address it at a much quicker pace than it does currently. But, if environmentalists want to engage a wider audience in their call to action, alternative approaches must be taken and different stories need to be told.

I admit that I consider myself an “environmentalist,” if I am to pick my own label (though I am somewhat ambivalent about the term). So I too am guilty of getting caught up in the doom and gloom rhetoric.

And I don’t claim to be the first to notice “my people’s” handicap, nor am I the first to call for a change in how we frame our messages. I am certainly among a growing number of people—those who identify as environmentalists and those who don’t—to complain or worry about the negativity plaguing environmental discourse.

To briefly hand the soapbox to someone who has more eloquently said what I’m getting at, Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai said in her 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, "In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now."

And so, with this blog, I set out to tell the stories of hope.

Perhaps I was being contradictory to begin a blog about hope by stating a problem. But doesn’t hope sometimes begin with a problem—a problem we want to and think we can fix? Collectively, we can’t ignore the drivers of the doom and gloom, but we can prevent paralyzing ourselves with fear or complacency. Hope provides the inspiration we need to find effective solutions to stave off the doom and gloom, so that we may weaken or prevent the seemingly overwhelming ecological predicaments of the present and future.

What do I mean by stories of hope? I envision a couple directions this blog will explore, and likely more will surface as I go along.

First, I’ll seek out stories of individuals, organizations, and communities that are undertaking innovative and successful efforts to address environmental problems and concerns. While perhaps not conveyed in the mainstream media, these stories will nonetheless be worth telling for their inspiration potential.

Second, I’ll explore new and existing-but-unconventional ways of viewing our relationship with the environment, which could facilitate a positive shift in consciousness. These ideas may challenge existing paradigms that I perceive as preventing a real transformation in how we view and undertake our roles in caring for the earth. My hope is they will broaden readers’ thinking and potentially create pathways to connect with diverse audiences.

By strengthening the presence of these stories in everyday discourse, our collective narrative could become one of inspiration and empowerment. My overarching dream is that everyone becomes and remains engaged in our shared responsibility to care for our home in the universe. There is hope on this earth, and I want to believe there is hope for life on this earth.