Conservation 2.0

“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers

One of the biggest problems we have with conservation is that all our efforts are based on a principle of knowledge. We firmly believe that yesterday’s abuses were done because of a lack of understanding. The extermination of buffalos and wolves happened because we didn’t understand their crucial role in their surrounding ecosystems. The decimation of whales and seals in the 17th century was accomplished because we didn’t know there were not unlimited numbers of them. Since we consider ourselves the smartest species that ever existed, superior to the natural world precisely because of our ability and capacity for knowledge, we have come to the conclusion that our destruction of the environment was simply due to not understanding it. Therefore, in an attempt to change the individual’s behavior, conservation organizations have for decades based their strategy on amassing huge amounts of data on which they rely to promote their agendas. This concept might have been justified in the past but it is greatly outdated.

Our laws are based on values which our culture has deemed imperative to achieve a moral society. No one is allowed to kill. Child labor is forbidden. Rape is not accepted. Cheating is punishable. Stealing is condemnable, etc. All these moral values exist because they are within a value system that we have chosen, fought for, and voted upon. And most of them, if not all, have their roots in religion, not in science.

Technology has expanded our knowledge to such an extent, that we now count on it to solve absolutely everything. Combined with our belief that because we are so knowledgeable, we won’t be repeating the same mistakes again, we have blinded ourselves to the root of the problem. Knowledge is the Achilles’ heel of today’s culture.

For thousands of years, the natural world has either been seen as a giant basket of resources, or a savage world unfit for human society. It has become secular and empty of any sacredness. It has had no value besides being a means to feeding ourselves. We see the human species independent of all the others, at the top of the chain with only one purpose, to consume. Unfortunately, monotheism is greatly responsible for this. The idea that humans are a divine creation set the stage to a systemic problem. By putting Earth under our dominion, given to us by the Almighty, we see nature as a balance sheet. How can we maximize its output? The more we know, the more we will be able to reap from the natural world. While it is true that we must create a sustainable system where resources can be allowed to replenish themselves, for our society to change its perception of nature, the debate on conservation will have to stop focusing on information and data and make values its primary target. But how can we achieve such a thing?

The dialogue is extremely similar to Alain de Botton’s recent TED speech and in his new book Atheism 2.0. We know there is no God, that is alright, but we must aim for something better than a simple status quo on spirituality. In terms of conservation, we know our lifestyle has been absolutely unsustainable. We know the facts and have all the necessary data. Every new study always points out the obvious. But now we must progress to a new and more enlightened debate.

Conservation organizations have a lot to learn from religious institutions. Both are promoting their particular philosophy on life. Both are trying to convince people of a certain set of values. Religious groups have had tremendous success, while conservation organizations have been beating the stick for as long as we can remember. So what is the big difference? De Botton is quite right in explaining why this has happened. Religion starts with the belief that you are en eternal child, in constant need of reinforcement, with daily, weekly and annual rituals. Repetition is the key and messages are constantly repeated. Science and the conservation community, on the other hand believe that you simply have to publish a report and people will remember it forever. They believe that you only need to show the problems for the system to correct itself. They think of humans as rational beings capable of constantly making objective choices based on the information they have been given. In other words, Religion understands that we are emotional beings made of flesh and blood, while the other camp appear to believe we are walking brains.

In our modern society, consumerism and entertainment are the main religion. Why? Because all our rituals celebrate these two. We sit in front of tv together, we eat in front of tv together, we go shopping with each other, and the value of our economy is based on our purchasing power. We consume relationships “online” in the same way we consume food: fast, much of it, and easily. We are obsessed with our gadgets and possessions. And this is, what our children learn. As they spend so much time in front of the television, they understand from an early age what our priorities are. Advertising simply reinforces this dogma.

Where is nature in all this? It is certainly not sacred. It is certainly not spiritual. It is something less and less experienced. Where are our rituals with nature? At schools? I don’t recall being nature savvy a high priority on the curriculum. At home? When was last time you went camping or hiked through the wilderness? Instead, nature has come to be a battlefield, a distant and disconnected ideology, filled with data and information, under the blanket of more knowledge and better technology. And this is where most of the conservation organizations have decided to conduct their campaigns. People have become environmentalists rather than being naturalists.

With millions poured into conservation each year, we have to reassess the priorities. We need to invest in children, but not to make them aware of all the “nasty and bad” things humans are doing, but rather to help them experience and connect with nature, the wilderness, the untrodden path. We must make ecology mandatory in high school. We must develop some kind of dialogue where the sacredness of nature is developed and taught. Not as a beautified concept, where everything is rosy, but rather as the complex and dynamic system where each living being is interconnected with another and with the environment. If we want to alter the perspective children have of nature today, then we will have to put in place rituals in which they can feel nature as well as being constantly reminded of it.

“All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than animals that know nothing.” Maurice Maeterlinck

Nature is not in your computer!

“Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.” Richard Louv

The United Nations predicts that by 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. By then, in the U.K., city dwellers will represents 92% of the population. It is quite a sharp contrast to back in 1950, when the world’s urban population represented only 30%. While this new reality clearly shows a growing physical disconnection with nature, another reality, much more subtle, is making people believe otherwise.

When I grew up, there were people who spent a lot of time in nature, and there were people who simply did not. The “outdoor” people were usually fishermen, hunters, campers, hikers, etc. They cared about nature because they spent time in it. The people who rarely ventured away from the asphalt, were, with no shame, just not concerned with the wild world. The environment was not really a debate, but rather a destination. What we learned in school about nature was more scientific, like ecology and biology, alongside geography and history. On television, you had Jacques Cousteau, Jim Fowler, David Suzuki, and David Attenborough. Each was a nature journalist, reporting on the wilderness, out there and out of reach. They showed us wild worlds with amazing animals, feeding our growing appetite for adventure. Back in those days, loving nature didn’t equate with being a vegetarian, or to campaign against animal cruelty. In fact, all the television personalities mentioned above fished or even hunted.

Today, the picture could not be more different. Technology has totally transformed our perception of the wild word.  While nowadays we rarely spend time in nature, people are constantly made aware of it. Discovery and National Geographic stream 24 hour/day entertainment shows. Social media makes it possible for anyone to care about environmental causes, anywhere, independently if they are well informed or affected by it. The Internet allows any individual to post anything they want without any particular context or further explanation.  Not one day goes by without seeing a photo of a baby panda, a dolphin, a shark being butchered or a dead seal entangled in a fishing net. Nature has become an ideology people are fighting for. It is no longer a destination but rather the emotionally charged and personified notion of an animal’s struggle to survive, whether it is the “march of the emperor penguin” or the “fate of the polar bears”. We now live in a world where natural realities are being blown out of proportion and every minute struggle in an animal’s life is over empathized for. Living in cities, feeding ourselves from grocery stores and spending our weekends in the park around the corner, the natural world has become a beautified concept, a Disney story and a pretty picture on the wall. Anything that contradicts this notion is deemed anti-nature or anti-animals. Animal welfare organizations, based in cities, are raging wars against society and anyone who doesn’t agree with their belief that any creature has a soul and humans have no right to take it away. In their view, plastic, genetically created meat, and soy-everything, is the way for the future. A meat eater, a fish eater, or a person wearing leather or fur, independently where and how it was processed, is targeted as cruel and against the natural world. For the indigenous people, who have lived off the land and the sea for millennia, with sustainable practices and honoring their connection with the earth, this intrusion from people who know nothing about their lifestyle and culture is seen as extremely hypocritical and shallow.

Worse, Google Earth and sites like theBlu are advertising themselves as places where one can “explore” the world. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times stated: “It’s a living, breathing ocean that you can “dive into,” exploring underwater habitats from the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Cortez while encountering thousands of fish — as they swim across your computer screen.” The computer screen is nothing like being out in the wilderness. It is nothing like exploring other countries for real or mingling with other cultures. Pressing keys on the keyboard does not make you an explorer nor and adventurer, and even less a naturalist or an environmentalist. Clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook Cause does not mean you care or simply understand what you clicked for. Watching Blue Planet on BBC doesn’t mean you love the ocean. What you love is being entertained by something beautiful. But the natural world is not just a cute teddy bear that you can spend your nights cuddling with. Nature is a raw chaotic world where each creature competes with each other, culminating in a very complex, intertwined balance that took millions of years to create, and CONTINUES to evolve .

By being so physically disconnected from it, we have totally forgotten what nature really is all about. We even go as far as to personalizing it, characterizing it as a female, “Mother Nature”. This concept of singularity simply doesn’t exist. In the natural world, both constructive and destructive forces are essential. Both the attack and the defense are crucial for survival. What is motherly? Volcanoes, hurricanes, droughts? Hyenas eating an antelope alive? A pod of orcas drowning a whale calf?

We have to be careful because our lack of relationship with nature and our disconnection from its dynamics and forces, can have grave consequences. As the Arctic is being developed, westernized countries and their mediatically-sensitized populations will most likely clash with indigenous people and their culture, as it just happened in Greenland. The Inuit have been hunting seals for as long as they can remember. And looking at the number of seals, they have done quite a good job at making sure that their hunt was sustainable. Compared to the western world which has had a reputation of decimating everything it goes for, from whales to fur seals, from wolves to buffalos, from tuna to mackerel.  Because we have done such a bad job with the planet’s resources, or such a good job of exterminating them, we now project our guilt onto others. The EU ban on seal products has created devastating effects on the Inuit’s culture and economy. The ban came after emotionally charged media campaigns, portraying fluffy white baby seals being clubbed to death and skinned. In the name of animal welfare, the EU decided to impose the ban. What people didn’t know was that the Inuit have an ancestral right to hunt. The ban didn’t reduce the number of seals hunted every year in Greenland. What it did, was strip away the right of the Inuit to make a living. Consequently, there are over 300,000 skins in stock in Greenland worth millions for the Inuit. Most likely, the skins will be destroyed, taking away with them the welfare of several communities.

It is crucial to do everything possible to take children outside of the cities, away from the computer and television. They need to experience the real natural world, not the urban or virtual version of it. Tim Kasser, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College, correctly points out in his report: “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability

“While not typically seen as an “environmental issue,” those concerned about the environment should be sobered by the increasing commercialization of childhood, as the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction… What’s more, recent research shows that the materialistic values encouraged by advertising messages are also quite problematic for environmental outcomes. For example, studies around the world make it clear that the more people care about money, wealth, and possessions, the less they value protecting the environment and the less concerned they are about how environmental damage affects other humans, future generations, and non-human life. Other research shows that materialistic values negatively correlate with how frequently adults and children engage in pro-environmental behaviors such as commuting by bicycle, reusing paper, buying secondhand, and recycling.”

Furthermore, We also have to be careful with what we promote and how we promote it. Social media and the Internet won’t make people change their daily routines. It might inform them, make them aware of something, but it is certainly not enough to change them. Writing “Cigarettes will kill you” on a pack doesn’t make someone stop smoking, but paying close to $10 for a pack might.

We might have the knowledge, but we greatly struggle with applying it. Social media, the Internet, computers and television are not a replacement for true wilderness, traveling, or exploring. We must be careful of the pretentious western environmental imperialism we so easily practice. Lets change our own tragically unsustainable culture first. Lets put in place the right legislations, lets decrease our production of garbage, lets reduce our consumption, lets show our children that there is more to life than cities and technology, let ourselves first reconnect with the natural environment and its realities, before telling others, who might be living off the land and sea and have done so in a sustainable way for generations, what they should do.

“We have two kinds of morality side by side:  one which we preach but do not practice and another which we practice but seldom preach. “  Bertrand Russell

Humble enough to listen and tough enough to decide

In the 1960’s during a plague of Crown of Thorns starfishes on the Great Barrier Reef, in the waters of Australia, people decided to counter attack by slicing them into pieces. Whether it is true or not, according to certain reports, their numbers then doubled or quadrupled when each piece of starfish regenerated itself into a full new one.

In 1584, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, a Spanish sailor, established a settlement at Buena Bay (locally known as Mansa Bay) on the west side of the Strait of Magellan, near Punta Arenas in Chile. In less than a couple of years, all 300 plus settlers died of starvation. The unfortunate location is known today as Puerto Hambre or Port Famine (Port Hunger in english!)

In 1819 Sir John Franklin led an expedition in the Canadian Arctic. Of his original crew of 20, 11 died of starvation. Again, in 1845, his famous Northwest Passage expedition got lost and all of his 129 men, himself included, died.

What do those three seemingly unrelated events have in common?

The Crown of Thorns is known to the Fijians as “Na’Bula”, meaning living or alive, reflecting the regenerating power of the starfish. Puerto Hambre is located in an area where the Alacaluf, a Fuegian tribe, had lived for hundreds of years. Franklin’s doomed expedition perished in a place where Inuit had been living for thousands of years.

Each case represents a total lack of consideration for the precious knowledge held by the indigenous people. For the “White Man”, coming from civilized countries, these “people” were considered savage and primitive. Not only were their beliefs in nature seen as a flagrant obstacle to progress, but it was ridiculous to admit that they could know more on how to survive in these remote places than a highly decorated naval officer.

While the natives saw themselves as part of Nature and understood the delicate balance that needed to be respected, the “White Man”, supported by his belief that God had created the earth for him only, plundered the resources as if there would be no tomorrow. Anything found in the way was destroyed. His motto has always been “Act Now, Think Later”. He wants something, he gets it, then deals with the consequences later. He decimated the buffalos, the wolves and the whales. On the Pribilof islands in the Bering Sea, he succeeded in reducing to almost zero a population of fur seals that was considered limitless. When the resources were gone, he simply moved to another location and proceeded again. Where the indigenous people managed to live off nature for centuries, the “White Man” only took decades to destroy everything.

Not much has changed today. Reading recently about the incredible and fast decline of stock of Mackerels off the coast of Chile, we don’t seem to have learned anything. We keep repeating the same pattern over and over. The only difference is that today with our technology, we do it much faster.

The natives have warned us since the beginning that our lives were unsustainable. That our lifestyle and values would destroy the earth’s resources. We laughed at them and told them that we had amazing technology that would fix everything.

…overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms. And so, Icarus fell into the sea…

This Greek myth is a premonition about our culture of consumption. Obsessed by satisfying our desires and pleasures we have forgone common sense and wisdom. We have lost the ability to limit ourselves. Blind to any consequences, we plunge into our ego centered lives and quietly hope for salvation. We take pride in our intelligence, bragging about our inventions and technology, believing that only WE have the power to save the world. But are we really that smart or simply extremely arrogant? One thing for sure is that we are not a mature civilization. Mature is by definition something that is based on slow and careful consideration. Which lies at the total opposite spectrum of how we operate.

And in those moments, when everything around us is crumbling, we look at our leaders for guidance and courage. But unfortunately, as Margaret Thatcher said: “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.” Will our world find the humility to listen to the indigenous tribes and have the courage and strength to take the necessary decisions to move towards a sustainable growth? Will the Arctic become the stage for a new kind of development or sadly be an “Encore” of a very bad show? A dialogue like the one recently put forward by Prince Charles is a good step in the right direction. The only thing it takes is people that are willing to make the right decisions rather than wanting to please everyone.

“In the distant past, scientists often ignored and even made fun of the knowledge of indigenous people. But we now recognize that people who live off the land for generations know more than researchers will discover with years of investigation.” Smithsonian Blog

The Future of the Arctic

Welcome to the Extreme & Polar Islands Conservation (E.P.I.C.) blog. Weekly posts will explore conservation issues that pertain mainly to the Polar regions: their oceans and their remote islands.

The Future of the Arctic

For anyone involved in oil, mining, gas or conservation, it is no secret by now that the North is where most of the attention will be locked for the next decade. It is extremely ironic that the consequences of our lifestyle on the planet’s ecosystem have opened a once-inaccessible and pristine region for development, giving our industrial world a much needed life line. The timing could have not been more perfect for some, and the worst for others. The pressures on the planet’s resources have never been so high, ever. Living off nature is nothing new, at the end we are an earth species living in a complex web of dependencies. What is different today is the scale of our consumption and the role human has taken in the food chain as both the predator and the grazer.

A predator is a constructive element in the food chain. Its goal is to keep in check the numbers of more invasive species. These species, if not controlled have the power to eradicate the resources. The grazers in return help keeping a balance in the plant wold. Nature is this amazing relationship-based system, where each living organism plays its part for the planet’s equilibrium. In fact, without these dynamic “boundaries”, each would have the potential to destroy its own environment.

The problem today is that we hunt like predators and consume and reproduce like grazers. In other words, we consume the resources from both ends, without a care in the world, thinking that this candle will just keep burning forever. While at the same time populating the earth at a rate that any virus would envy.

What will happen to the Arctic? We have just passed the 7 billion mark in population. We have eaten our way through the Pacific and the Atlantic. We have used most of the oil from the fields so far discovered. And we have cut down pretty much everything. The Arctic is offering new waters to fish, new minerals to extract, new oil fields to drill, new forests to cut and new land to built cities. Worse, our past record in managing new resources is nothing to be proud of. We decimate before we care. The pressure to deliver “cheap” material and “cheap” food for this ever increasing world does not help any conservation matters. So what to do?

The complexity of the situation is not to be taken lightly. At one extreme, you have the people who simply want the entire north to stay off-limit: no development, nothing. At the other end, you have the people for whom this new territory is just another dot on the map with precious and extremely valuable resources. You also have the native communities, who for many years, have been kept quiet by subsidies. They now find themselves at the frontline of a new gold rush and they want to be included. Some countries are drooling over the rewards the Arctic could reap, while others, already exhausted over interior issues and financial realities can’t seem to know what foot to dance on. Finally you have everything in between. In this “open internet sensationalized media world” everyone has a right for its opinion and a platform to share it.

Politicians, independently of what they will do or decide, will be screamed at and vilified. If it is not the fishermen angry for not being able to make a living, it will the conservationists, the public, the corporations, the native communities – there won’t be anywhere where governments can hide. Still, they have to make decisions. And their decisions are most of the time based on what will bring them reelected next year. If that was not enough, we live in a world where no one pays the real price for its lifestyle. And no one wants to pay more. We want cheap food, cheap electronics and cheap energy.

The development of the Arctic will go on, whether we want it or not. The question is: How will it go? In 1996 the Arctic Council was formed precisely to look over the process. Formed by the delimiting countries: Canada, USA, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, it mission is to:

To provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Also at the Council table are France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. Although their role, is to observe and suggest but not to participate in the decision making. In recents years, other countries, such as China, Brazil, India, Japan and the EU have clearly lobbied for a right to be involved. In their views, what happens in the North, happens everywhere. The world is so global, that no one has the luxury to ride without the others. In the extreme scenario where much of the Arctic disappears, these waters will be international and free for all to navigate.

The challenge will be to manage on a sustainable level this eager group of developers. Playing the NO card is not a wise strategy. In fact, it would absolutely be counter productive. The corporations have the funds and the political will (lets not forget also the reality that the world demands their products!) to exploit as much as they can first and deal with the consequences later. So to simply oppose to their power and fight fire with fire, would accomplish nothing. It would be a waste of people’s money, but more importantly it would erase any chance of working with these companies at guiding them in their developing process. Everyone involved will need to be pragmatic. Conservation groups need to understand the economical realities we face and the corporations need to accept their responsibilities towards the environment.

Instead of pretending that nothing will happen, that no accidents will occur, or that no one will ever drill in the Arctic, what must be achieved is a constructive discussion where everyone is enticed at working to avoid and prepare for the worst. Like a teen coming of age of driving, there is no point to prohibit the inevitable. What you can do is guide, instruct and prepare so that when something bad happens (and it will!) it doesn’t come as a surprise and the mechanisms to repair are already in place.