17 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: Caring, or A New Conservation Ethic

My son Jasper tagging a saltwater croc,
Mexico, January 2005. Photo by the author.

This post originally appeared on The Green Skeptic in October 2005. It clearly demonstrates my concerns about the disconnect between people and conservation and articulates my view of the need for a new conservation ethic.

Over the past several weeks, in the conference centers of Monterey, the wilderness of Yosemite, and the halls of my company's offices in suburban Washington, our talk has been about drawing a closer connection between conservation and people.

We've come a long way, but still have miles to go before we can say we've expanded the boundaries of our own conservation ethic.

I've been thinking a lot lately about conservation ethic. One phrase that keeps coming back to me is Robert Michael Pyle's statement that "People who care conserve, people who don't know don't care." It's a powerful truism and one to which we should pay heed.

Our movement is often accused of being elitist and defeatist and, frankly, those criticisms are far too often accurate. Beautiful photos of pristine places beg the question, "What about the people?"

(Pyle's words came back to me during tonight's playoff battle of the Sox. It was late in the game, my beloved Red Sox had bases loaded and blew several chances to tie the game or take the lead. Johnny Damon was up, surely ready to play the hero. My nine-year old son, who learned to care about baseball -- and my team -- during the 2003 ALCS, was on tenterhooks: would Damon do it? When the Caveman struck out, stranding three base runners and turning the BoSox into WoeSox once again, my son was apoplectic. "Now I know you are a true fan," I told him. "You really cared." I haven't seen him that upset since he learned that polar bears were losing habitat to global warming!)

We need a new conservation ethic that clearly redefines the human + nature equation: that human beings are not apart from, but rather a part of nature. We need to articulate the real connections between conservation and restoration of the earth's natural functions -- also known as ecosystem services -- and their real implications for the people of the earth.

Moreover, that we care about people as much as the earth's other species. Without this, we will sink in a downward spiral of our own making.

Whether we're talking about food, fuel, fiber for clothing or paper or a myriad of other goods and services nature provides, we need to stop "seeing the natural world as a resource for the economy," as James Gustave Speth writes in his book, Red Sky at Morning, "rather than seeing the economy as nested in the natural world."

We have obligations to the world that go beyond our self-interest, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, and until we own up to this our conservation ethic will ring false for the majority of the world's people. Our new conservation ethic must be as inclusive as it is pragmatic, and as interconnected to the other issues of our time -- poverty alleviation, terrorism, AIDS/HIV -- as to the natural world we hold dear.

We need to remember this whether we're on higher ground in one of this nation's important National Parks, the sterile corridors of an office in northern Virginia, or the cozy confines of that little bandbox of a ballpark that is Fenway.

15 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: What We Talk About When We Talk About Protecting and Saving

This post originally appeared on The Green Skeptic in March 2008, when I was about to speak at the Aspen Environment Forum. It was a pivotal time for conservation and I think some of the strides that my former organization, The Nature Conservancy, and others in conservation have made are reflective of some of my espoused views. There's more progress that can be made, but it's a start.

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Village children on Batanta Island, Indonesia. Photo by the author.
Everything we think about saving or protecting ecosystems and habitats is wrong.

This week, I'm at the Aspen Environment Forum, where tomorrow morning I'll be on a Panel called "Nature's Place: Saving Ecosystems and Habitats."

For the better part of 15 years I worked with The Nature Conservancy to save some of the world's "Last Great Places" around the world (I left in August; see my posts reflecting on my career at TNC
and here.

I consider myself a conservationist, not an environmentalist. What I mean by that is a conservative and prudent approach to our use of resources that requires us to manage them for the long-term -- for the benefit of people today and for future generations.

The Green Skeptic grew out of an increasing concern about our relationship to the natural world and how we protect it. I am a skeptic in the sense that I believe we need to constantly challenge the assumptions we have about "saving ecosystems and habitats."

In my view, we operate under four basic assumptions:

1. We can continue to "save" or "protect" ecosystems and habitats from harm in perpetuity;
2. We can ignore basic human needs and treat poverty alleviation as a separate issue from the environment;
3. We can entrust protection to governments and corporate NGOs;
4. We can't trust human ingenuity and community to manage its own resources.

First, I need to step back and look at the words we use. (I am a poet, so words matter to me.) Specifically, "protecting" and "saving."

Both imply we need to keep ecosystems and habitats from something. The American Heritage Dictionary defines protecting as "To keep from being damaged, attacked, stolen, or injured; guard." When we use the word protecting in terms of ecosystems and habitats, we are guarding nature from something or someone, presumably humans.

Saving is a little less problematic, as it implies a conservative approach to the future (as in saving seed corn for next year's sowing). Still, the AHD's first definition is "To rescue from harm, danger, or loss." It's not until definition number three that we get to the conservative impulse: "To avoid spending (e.g. money) so as to keep or accumulate it."

The question is not about what we should save, but how and for what purpose.

Is it hubris to assume we have protected or saved anything? We promote the fact that percentages of ecosystems or habitats are protected, but they continue to be encroached upon -- see the Amazon Rainforest for example.

What have we really saved if massive changes from climate change or the drive for much-needed economic development will have significant impact on the future status and makeup of places, habitats, and ecosystems?

Climate change will disrupt many ecosystems that exist today -- much as the Internet disrupted print media, the travel industry, TV, bookstores, you name it. It will change everything.

So the question is what are we really protecting when we talk about protecting ecosystems and habitat? Will the places we select for protection today be the same 10-20 years from now? Probably not.

Ecosystems are constantly changing, either from "external" (human) or "internal" (natural) forces. Change is inevitable and could, in the face of global warming, be dramatic.

Shouldn't we be preparing for the changes and begin to think about how we adapt to some of the most likely changes, those brought on by climate change or economic development or basic human needs, such as for food and energy?

Demand for energy and food will drive economic development for years to come and we can't continue to ignore these drivers to "save" the natural, non-human world.

This leads me to assumption two, which is about ignoring basic human needs. It's irrational for us to think that people in developing countries, many of whose basic human needs are not being met, will care deeply about the non-human natural world.

Yet, we continue to have blind faith in our cause and ignore the needs of real people.

I recently returned from India where the extreme poverty is evident almost everywhere you look. Also evident is a growing middle class that strives for the kind of lifestyle we have here in the west, specifically the US, with its inherent accelerated pace and impacts.

Who are we to say that people in developing countries have no right to the kind of lifestyle we have exported for decades? We can not convince, persuade or cajole or even pay people -- Americans as much as people in developing nations -- to "come around to our way of thinking," and yet this is what I hear whenever I talk to environmentalists.

And we can't ask poor people around the world to forgo the comforts of the lifestyle we have been living, and which they wish to copy, "for the sake of the planet" or to set aside their habitats and ecosystems for the sake of humanity. No country wants to become an ecological reserve for the world, especially if it means it cannot pursue economic prosperity.

Try floating this idea with people who go hungry every night for lack of food or money to buy food and see what kind of reaction you get.

In the end, poor people matter. And the governments of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and African countries must be concerned first and foremost with the well-being of their people. I'm not saying that human well-being isn't tied to ecosystem health; I'm a strong believer that economic growth is tied to those resources.

I believe we can no longer separate the issue of economic development and poverty alleviation from ecosystem health. We also can't expect that governments whose people aren't meeting basic needs to protect their habitats over the economic well-being of their people.

Which leads me to assumption three: increasingly, we are entrusting protection of habitats and ecosystems with the wrong people. Governments have a mandate to improve the economic health of their country and people.

Yet we continue to have faith that these governments will "do the right thing" and enforce laws protecting their forests or other ecosystems in the face of seemingly insurmountable economic obstacles.

Why do we think that is a good strategy? What indicators do we have that tell us this strategy will succeed where it hasn't in the past? Why do we think that the World Bank program to pay countries to "avoid deforestation" will be any more successful than their previous grand plans?

The same goes for NGOs. NGOs are basically corporations that serve a set of shareholders (donors in this case) who subscribe to a specific idea of Nature and a specific set of outcomes, outcomes that may not necessarily be shared by all stakeholders.

This idea of Nature has for a long time discounted the needs of people both today and in the future. To illustrate this, one only need look at the environmental community's approach to government debt.

Conservation groups (my old employers among them) have promoted using a country's debt as leverage to gain conservation protection. The debt-for-nature swap was an innovation of the past couple of decades and a noble one. But it was also painfully ignorant of the true nature of that debt -- in many cases "dictator debt" incurred by regimes that did not have its people's best interests in mind.

Now that we have a more clear understanding of how that debt was derived, and can no longer ignore its immoral origins, we need to give up or adjust the debt-for-nature swap concept and join the call for debt forgiveness. That will free some countries from having to exploit their natural resources to pay down that debt.

Yet, many in the environmental community continue to push the debt-for-nature strategy, because they can't let go of a good thing that advances their agenda.

How is this different from any corporation -- a sector many environmentalists attack -- that advances its agenda at the expense of people here and abroad? Can we really trust ecosystems and habitats to big government or big international non-governmental corporations?

In the end, wouldn't a better approach be to put our trust in the people and the communities where these ecosystems and habitats are found? They have the most at stake in managing these resources, as their needs and livelihoods are most closely tied to the lands and waters.

I believe human beings are basically good. I also believe that, given the opportunity, communities will manage their common interests and keep each other in check. This is the open-source community approach one finds in social networks and in business models such as eBay.

I also believe that human beings are the most creative and adaptable species on the planet -- just look at the variety of habitats, climates, and conditions we inhabit. Our resilience as a species is astounding. I argue that we need to embrace this resourcefulness and apply it to overcoming ecological shifts, climate change, and loss of ecosystems and habitats.

We need to unleash the power of human creativity to find new ways to "save" those places for future use by both human and non-human species.

Unleashing this human capacity will require suspending our assumptions. We will need to focus more on community-based or "commons-based" management (as Jonathan Rowe of the West Marin Commons in California calls it in a recent essay in The State of the World 2008).

We need a people-centered conservation that addresses the real needs of real people, and to empower individual entrepreneurs and communities to manage their resources cooperatively rather than impose grand plans from Washington.

We need to clearly draw the lines connecting economic prosperity with ecological health and human well-being.

And, finally, we need to unleash human creativity to find new technological solutions as well as new ways of living with nature.

This may, in the end, be our only hope to really save habitat and ecosystems – and, ultimately, to save ourselves.

10 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: The Coming Disruption - Lead It or Lose It

Back in 2011, disruption was very much on my mind -- personally, professionally, and economically. Reading that post now -- in the wake of the current social unrest and new revelations about the banking system -- I wonder if plummeting down the same cliff. The questions I ask in this post still seem relevant and worth asking. The answers, alas, are still a way off. The disruption, I suspect, has already begun. Here is my post from October 2011 on "The Coming Disruption":

I feel like our economy -- our very way of life -- is in a simultaneous state of suspended animation and free fall.  Like a cartoon character that has run off a cliff and hasn't yet realized there is no ground beneath it.

As I said in my talk at SXSW ECO a couple of weeks ago, I don't know whether we're going to go all the way down or we're going to catch ourselves and scramble back up top.

It seems clear we're headed for a major disruption. The question is, will we instigate that disruption or will we let it happen to us?

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests are indicative of this coming disruption. In many ways, it's a welcome and refreshing sign that Americans are no longer complacent, apathetic, hedonists whose sole purpose is to consume.

My fear is that OWS gets co-opted and becomes a kind of anti-Tea Party movement for the left. I fear that when I see folks like MoveOn.org, the unions, and extreme environmentalists jumping on board and trying to grab the reins.

Partisan ideology on both sides is getting in the way of facing the systemic problems of our way of life.

Our country is failing because we reward people who fail, cheat, and game the system. We bail out institutions that fail to add value to the world. And we let others create the world they want for us.

It's a perfect storm of deeply entrenched special interests, leadership incompetence, and redistribution of wealth. (Yes, that's right, I'm against redistributing wealth -- to either the one percent or the 99 percent. Wealth needs to be earned the old-fashioned way: by creating value and hard work.)

Some are calling for stronger regulation, which would inhibit financial institutions being innovative. Meanwhile, banks sit on their money and make big payouts to incompetent managers who are asked to leave and start charging fees for purchases made with debit cards to squeeze more revenue from customers.

How is that going to grow our economy?

Unfortunately, innovation in financial services is getting a bad name. The innovations of the past decade or so -- much of what got us in the mess we're in -- were driven by regulatory or credit ratings arbitrage, and were increasingly complex, opaque, and focused on quarterly results or success for those who could manipulate the game.

Now it's time for financial innovation that is conducive to sustaining economies – to value creation rather than value destruction, and that drives a new kind of prosperity.

I've been thinking about financial services as an engine of change because we're not going to make real and lasting change – or build a new economy – if money can’t be made while doing it. Altruism is great, but it won't trump greed.

So what if financial services firms clearly demonstrated their community, social and environmental impacts?

What if banks told their customers what they did with their money?

What if customers were rewarded for making sustainable choices?

What if there was a greater connection between money and values, and management was compensated for maintaining or growing that connection?

What if profit and purpose were more equitably connected?

What if sustainability wasn't an add-on, but was part of the DNA of our enterprises?

What if, instead of a triple bottom line, we talked about a single, redefined bottom line that encompasses all three: profitability, environmental health, and social well-being?

Is it even possible for us to make this shift without regulation or with better regulation or, better yet, with self-regulation?

Whatever the answer to the above questions, it's clear a disruption is coming.  We need to decide whether we will lead it or lose it.

 

08 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: IMAGINE The Man Who Cared, John Lennon

It was 34 years ago today John Lennon was shot to death outside his home on West 72nd Street and Central Park West in New York. Here's a post that I wrote on the 25th Anniversary of that horrible event in 2005:


John Lennon watercolored by the author.
I was hundreds of miles away when I heard about John Lennon's death from Howard Cosell. He announced the news during the New England Patriots game on Monday Night Football. I had just picked up John's "comeback" interview in Playboy, which had just come out earlier that day.

My stepmother Sandi called me as soon as she heard the news and we both cried into the phone. John's death struck home for a couple of reasons.

One, because John Lennon was a boyhood idol of mine and another because I was supposed to be there, in the apartment I shared on 72nd Street, a half a block west towards Columbus Avenue. I missed my ride back to New York that Saturday night. It was probably a gig or a concert that kept me away. No matter.

Had I been there, I might have been taking my usual night walk around the block at the precise moment John and Yoko were returning from the recording studio to meet their fate.

Could I have prevented it somehow if I had been there? The thought haunts me to this day.

There were always a number of faithful fans gathered outside the Dakota to catch a glimpse of John. They were nice folks and I would chat-up whoever was there, knew many of the regulars on a first-name basis, even brought them coffee from the Argos Restaurant up on the Columbus Avenue corner.

I remember one guy, a photographer named Michel from Montreal, whose pictures later showed up in one of the posthumous collections of images that appeared after Lennon’s death. He was a regular, whenever he was down from Canada, and had even managed to get some of his photographs in to John via the doorman; he showed me some of the images, mostly candid snapshots of the family taking a stroll.

John and Yoko liked to stroll around and in the Park – "It's John Lennon, I can’t believe it," he would say if he caught you staring at him. Michel was a real fan, not like the evil-doer-who-shall-not-be-named who took John down.

John & Yoko in Central Park, 1980;
altered by the author.
John and Yoko frequented Café La Fortuna on 71st, where I used to hang out writing poems and drawing. You could see the back patio from my building.

Across the hall from me was Benny Fine and his roommate Max, a doorman who used to play in The Circle (they had a hit in the Sixties with "Red Rubber Ball"). Benny used to point out the café from their window, mostly to complain about the smell of coffee waste in the garbage cans out back.

That night could have been different; John could have lingered in the neighborhood, gone around for a late night espresso. La Fortuna was an opera hangout, full of old opera buffs and ballet dancers drinking coffee and smoking Nat Shermans, most of whom didn't care much for Lennon's music.

Nobody bothered John there, it was an unspoken rule, but sprinkled among the photographs and album covers of famous opera singers on the walls, was a fair number of signed pictures and LPs from the famous couple.

But they didn't get a coffee that night; they went straight home, John still clutching the last recordings he made.

That was "the day the music died," as the old song goes, but it was more than that for those of us to whom John was more than his music. His was an example of what one could do with art, music, and fame beyond the art: he cared. And he taught me to care.

To a boy growing up in the shadow of the Nixon, John was like a beacon of hope. He stood for things. He wasn't afraid to play the fool. He spoke out – whether you liked what he said or not – and spoke up.

In the entire hullabaloo around Bono's promotion to end poverty and AIDS, has anyone noticed that "One" is a derivative of John's "Bag One"; his efforts of the late sixties-early seventies?

John climbed in bed for peace and was ridiculed, but brought attention to his cause. He zipped himself and his bride into a bag for peace, returned his MBE for peace, planted acorns for peace, and other silly acts of caring.

Even the white of the wristbands and t-shirts used to promote the One Campaign is reminiscent of the white clothes, balloons, and "WAR IS OVER" billboards John used for his cause.

"Imagine" at Strawberry Fields in Central Park;
photo by the author.
I can trace my caring to three people. Three people who shaped my ethos of caring and helped make me who I am today, who led me to do the work I do, and write what I write here on this blog and in my poetry: John Lennon, Roberto Clemente, and Gladys Taylor. (More on the other two later.)

John was an icon. He was also a fragile, insecure man – could even be an asshole, according to many reports and biographies. Nevertheless, he wasn't afraid to care. And caring is what it's all about.

IMAGINE that.

05 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: Falling Up --The Choices We Make May Be Our Own

Letchworth Gorge by J. Stephen Conn, used by permission
.
Back in November 2011 I posted about the need for change in our economy and the way we approach that change. Here is my post "Falling Up -- The Choices We Make May Be Our Own":



When I was 15 years old I was hiking in Letchworth Gorge in upstate New York. (Here is a picture of the gorge, left.) A beautiful place.

Despite the warnings or perhaps because of them -- I was a teenager after all -- I got too close to the edge. And I fell. I fell for what seemed like a long way and a long time, but in reality it was perhaps just a matter of seconds.

Time dragged, however, like a cartoon character falling off a cliff – think of Bugs Bunny falling, eating a carrot, reading War and Peace, and filing his nails. I was remarkably calm, at peace, really. One with the fall, it was a true Buddhist moment.

And then it was over. Somehow there was a branch or root and my arm reached out to grab it – I remember the jerking feeling like a parachute opening…I was safe. I'd fallen but I didn't die. I had a second chance. 

After a few seconds of stunned silence, I climbed back up to the top of the gorge.

That memory has been haunting me lately.  I shared this story in my talk at SXSW last month and again with a group of leaders at a retreat last week.

Why am I reminded of this story now?  Well, as I wrote in an earlier post on this blog, I think our economy is in free-fall and we seriously need to change.  

The latest example of a society in free-fall is the news of a "celebrity marriage" failing after 72 days.  

According to Twitter sources that include some celebrities allegedly close to the situation, the wedding earned the bride $17.9 million.  Really?  $17.9 million for a marriage that lasted 72 days? 

No wonder people like Lawrence Lessig think our society could fall like Rome.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can change the outcome. We can adopt a new game plan. 

But we can't change the world if we aren't first prepared to change within ourselves and live the lives we know we can live, be the people we know we can be, and take the actions we are compelled to take.

The choice is ours, but we must be conscious as we make our choices. We need to stop compromising in our lives, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And we need to deliver lasting value, to innovate, and finally, to inspire and be inspired.

When you're free-falling, you have two choices: keep falling to the bottom or grab the first available branch, scamper back up to the top and create a new path forward. Call it "falling up."

Which do you choose? And what are you waiting for?

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03 December 2014

10 Favs; 10 Years: "What Keeps You Up at Night?"

Back in November 2009, Lou Rappaport of Blank Rome asked me a disturbing question at the MAC Alliance Conference in Philadelphia.

Here's the post I wrote in response to his question:


On the face of it, Lou's question was a simple one:

"What keeps you up at night?"

We were interrupted before I could answer, but Lou's question lingered with me.

In fact, it kept me up the past couple of nights.

By way of an answer now, here are seven things that keep me up at night:

1.) We will fail to embrace change and tackle the new green economy.

2.) We are so deeply entrenched in partisan politics that we will blow this opportunity to lead in a sector (alternative energy) that we invented.

3.) The Dems have made climate and energy a "left" issue and the right has ceded it to them. Where is the GOP leadership stepping up to fill the void on these issues?*

4.) Enviros and NIMBYs will kill the energy economy transformation by blocking efforts on clean coal, nuclear, natural gas exploration, and the new electric grid just as they did with wind farms and offshore drilling.

5.) We don't have time to dither, yet we are a nation of inveterate ditherers.

6.) While we dither and dawdle, China is ready to seize the day.

7.) I don't know Mandarin.

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*(Note: This is deeply disappointing for the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, which once led on issues now considered clean and green – and that now seems blind to this incredible opportunity for wealth generation.)