Proust Nature Questionnaire – Jennine Cohen

JENNINE COHEN is a the Managing Director of the Americas for GeoEx. A trusted adventure, luxury and travel expert, Jennine also supports travel conservation efforts. She is a member of the Board of Directors for the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) and has been featured in Travel & Leisure, Afar, Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue, YahooTravel, Fortune, Forbes, ABC, CBS, Travel Weekly, TravelAge West, Recommend Magazine, SmartMeetings, Travel Alliance Media and beyond.  Besides sending people traveling around the world, Cohen advises, coaches and helps small businesses, women entrepreneurs, healers, and business leaders to uncover their everyday magic.

3 words to describe Nature?

Peace, Pachamama, Purity

3 things Nature taught you?

Like nature, I am a force;

Hitting the reset button in nature = clarity;

No regrets for going bigger

3 most treasured Nature spots?

The South Yuba River, Nevada City,

Wrangell Saint Elias National Park – Alaska,

Dead Horse State Park – Utah

When you look at the ocean, it makes you feel…?

I want to be out there, in the waves instead of sitting on the shore

When you see a forest, it makes you feel…?

Like everything is right in the world

When you see a volcano, it makes you feel…?

Mother Earth is amazing

When you see a sunrise or sunset, it makes you feel…?

Like the days are precious – and we should appreciate and have gratitude for each uniquely beautiful day.

When you hear thunder, it makes you feel…?

At home

When you hear the wind howling, it makes you feel…?

Intrigued

Are you an Ocean, Mountain, Forest, or Desert person?

Mountain – but love them all deeply

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is Nature to your well-being?

10

Share with us a childhood nature memory?

I didn’t have much exposure to the wilderness as a child, and my first real introduction was in college through UCLA’s Outdoor Leadership Program. My first backpacking trip with UCLA was through Sequoia National Forest – it was how I fell in love with the West.

I was surrounded on that trip by much more experienced peers who had spent their childhoods enjoying frequent family camping trips. I on the other hand, didn’t even know how to set up a tent – let alone use topo maps and a compass. Despite this, as we hiked through the mountains and under some of the largest trees on the planet, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, calm, sense of purpose. Though I was an absolute beginner, but my unbounded excitement for my new found passion over time led to my competence in and eventual addiction to the outdoors. My life was forever changed after that trip, and my career in the adventure travel industry born.

Coincidentally, that same trip happened to fall over 9/11. We had been in the wilderness and seemed to be the last ones on the planet to find out about the terrorist attacks to the World Trade Center – emerging from the woods a full week after the tragic event. Not being surrounded by news all week likely shielded us from the high levels of stress and anxiety that the rest of the country was suffering from.

It is a good reminder about the importance of disconnecting from the noise of today’s anxiety inciting media – in order to intuitively return to the abundance of calm and clarity.

Proust Nature Questionnaire – Ru Mahoney

RU MAHONEY is a freelance Science Impact Producer based in Seattle, WA. She works at the nexus of conservation, education, and storytelling to catalyze interdisciplinary approaches to increasing science literacy and engaging public audiences. Her research on science communication has been supported by the National Science Foundation, and she has been a contributor to Jackson Hole WILD, Science Media Awards and Summit in the HUB, Utah Public Radio, TEDxHunstville, and the National Children’s Forest program. Ru is currently a research and impact production consultant on two feature-length documentaries.

3 words to describe Nature?

Primal. Nostalgic. Restorative.

3 things Nature taught you?

That change is inevitable, that those who adapt thrive, and that if you make Nature your home you can be at home anywhere.

3 most treasured Nature spots?

Lake Superior is powerful. I spent a lot of summers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. If I could buy a lake cottage tomorrow, it would be somewhere along the coast of Superior.

The west coast of Scotland is stunning. My father’s family emigrated from there, so I’m a little biased. But there’s a reason the drive from Glencoe to the Isle of Skye is world-famous. I’ll keep going back as long as I’m living. It’s all my favorite colors and landscapes in a beautiful day’s drive. Even if it’s cold and rainy, which is often.

Pololu Valley on The Big Island in Hawai`i is worth getting up before dawn for. It’s wild north shore waves, stacked mountain cliffs, and moss covered trees all in one. Plus the trail down gives a perfect vantage for watching the sunrise so the sea cliffs slide through gradients of pink and gray light. It’s really special.

When you look at the ocean, it makes you feel…?

Dangerously prone to immediate wanderlust.

When you see a forest, it makes you feel…?

Present. This is my happy place and where I go if I need clarity and peace.

When you see a volcano, it makes you feel…?

Insignificant. I recently had the chance to be very close to gushing lava and my reaction was surprisingly visceral. I often feel a sense of belonging to nature. Like it knows me, and if I’m respectful I will be safeguarded. (That’s not really true of course, but that feeling makes me careful but brave.) With the lava I felt a strong sense of not belonging. It was an interesting first for me.

When you see a sunrise or sunset, it makes you feel…?

Really conscious of time passing, and a determination to make the most of it.

When you hear thunder, it makes you feel…?

Calm. Happy calm. That might sound counter-intuitive, but I grew up in Florida where thunder was frequent. I think it triggers a sense of nostalgia and well-being for me. It’s definitely the best soundtrack to sleep to.

When you hear the wind howling, it makes you feel…?

Introspective. Like change might be coming, either outside or inside myself.

Are you an Ocean, Mountain, Forest, or Desert person?

Mostly forest for sure, but forest near the ocean. The smell of salt in the air is one of those simple things that make me feel grounded and deeply satisfied. I recently moved to the Pacific Northwest and I can’t get enough of being near beautiful forests that smell like salt and earth. It’s definitely where I feel most like myself.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is Nature to your well-being?

10! It’s an enormous part of my identity and the catalyst for most of my self-knowledge.

Share with us a childhood nature memory?

My family spent quite a lot of time outdoors. My parents where both school teachers and we lived out of a van in the summers, usually heading north to the Boundary Waters, into Canada, sometimes taking trains further north when there weren’t any roads to take. I didn’t know the term “dirtbagger” then, but we were living that lifestyle to the max every summer of my life. It fundamentally shaped who I am.

One summer we were camping near Au Train, MI and there were northern lights. I was pretty young – maybe six or seven? – but I remember my parents waking me up and giving me a big blanket to wrap up in. Then my dad put me up on top of our van and I remember sitting up on the roof watching the aurora and thinking the world was full of magic.

Big Sur, the Mighty Buffalo & Holiday Wishes!

webfacebook2

WINTER NEWSLETTER

2013 is almost over and three months have already passed since the last newsletter. We are all about to enter the holidays to celebrate and spend time with the ones we cherished and care for. Before I give you my wishes, lets take a minute and go over the latest and what you can expect for 2014.

NEW WEBSITE

I am proud to announce that The Wild Image Project is starting 2014 in style with a brand new website! Created by photographer and good friend Flemming Bo Jensen and his partner Charlene Winfred of Coffee and Magic, the website does a wonderful job at capturing the essence of my work. The navigation is easy and intuitive and social media has been incorporated to support the narrative. Don’t be shy and click!

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 7.20.47 AM

MIGHTY BUFFALO

I recently had the amazing opportunity of spending three weeks at the Antelope Island State Park, located in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City. The park is known for the American Bison which was introduced to the island back in 1893. What started with 14 individuals is now, today, more than 500, one of the biggest free roaming buffalo populations in North America.

Untitled-1

This legendary animal was sacred to the Native Americans. For them, the bison was a symbol of life and abundance. In many myths, the bisons gave themselves up willingly as a food source for humans. In others their spirits brought sacred knowledge about medicine or peace pipes to humankind. In many cautionary tales, buffalo hunts were unsuccessful due to the hunters’ lack of respect to the buffalo. My goal was to capture the “Buffalo Spirit“. You can see the resulting photography here.

_MG_0124

DISRUPTION

Why do we live in a culture that doesn’t embrace disruption? Since everything that we love and appreciate is rooted in it. After a stormy day and an unforgettable encounter, I reflect on the topic, wondering if we are not stripping our lives from what is precisely making them exciting.

Read my latest story, “DISRUPTION, THE NATURE OF LIFE

mg_1335

STRIPPED

“…Sitting on that log, with my empty cup of tea, nothing feels out of place. I don’t feel out of place. The humility brought by the simplicity I find myself surrounded by is relaxing, refreshing and gives me hope. Real and honest is what nature is to me. It is a constant reminder of the true essence of what life is about. It is my source of inspiration, my elixir for meditation and my most profound teacher.” 

STRIPPED is a story about letting go and being in the moment as we juggle with our modern lifestyle, expectations and work duties.

bigsur_02

ROZ SAVAGE INTERVIEW

Roz is to ocean exploration what Kelly Slater is to surf. Not only has she paddled across every single ocean on the planet, but she decided to “start” her explorer career at an age when usually everyone else chooses to forgo their dreams and accept their given fate. Over the years, Roz Savage and I have become good friends and every time our complicated lives manage to cross each other, we always cherish long philosophical conversations. Emailing me from London, she invited me for another conversation and asked if I wanted to be on her next “Adventure Podcast”. After some logistics and scheduling, we found ourselves a couple of days later connected over Skype. Here is the interview. Be ready for some philosophical talk about exploration, conservation and photography.

hawaii_70

MARIN MAGAZINE

TOTEMS is a photo feature that was published in the Marin Magazine issue of October.  I was asked to write about my creative process and what was I pursuing while photographing nature. Read more here.

“… this collection is my attempt to present these animals with respect and honor. My goal is not to beautify or humanize them but rather to recognize their respective success of survival in relation to a humbling way of looking at the world that I fear is on the verge of disappearing.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 10.59.53 AM

OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER MAGAZINE

“Behind the shot” is a column in the magazine Outdoor Photographer that goes behind the scene of some spectacular photograph, explaining how the image came to be. One of my bison photographs was recently featured. Read more here.

“…until he walked just about 20 feet from where I was sitting. He stopped by a bush right behind where he proceeded to scratch his furry head. I sat there mesmerized by its presence and the depth of his look, trying to understand what was the threat that so many saw in this creature. After taking my photos, I thanked him for his time and cooperation and slowly departed…”

_MG_0251

LIFE’S STORIES FROM MEMORY

Sandisk recently asked to be be part of their ‘s campaign “Life Stories from Memory“. Their products are really important for my work. I travel light, by myself, and am gone for long periods of time – so everything I have in my bag must be extremely reliable – if not bulletproof! The days have drastically changed since film and it is still hard to remember a time when your biggest investment and hassle was to carry, protect and process long rolls of fragile films. Nowadays, with my SanDisk Extreme Pro I can spend all my energy on pushing my photography to new places. My fingers will be frozen, my feet will be burning, the sun will scorch or the wind will roar, yet I know I don’t have to worry one second about where my work is being stored.More stories are coming up soon, but for now, the first one is about my last trip in Utah – SEEING EYE TO EYE WITH A BUFFALO. Next will be LAVA and TOTEMS

hawaii_53

“… My goal was to create an abstract and artistic representation of the lava’s intensity. Compared to the free flow of lava, active and fast, these clefts are the result of a constant but slow force. One fracture at a time, earth is moved forward to form new landscapes, erasing old ones behind. Invisible at day, their presence and intensity is only revealed at night, cracking the dark world open, light a lightning splitting the sky in pieces.” Story coming soon

s

“…When I photograph animals, I don’t hide from them, I want them to see me. I want them to “give me the shot”, instead of me “taking the shot”. I want their eyes to look into mine. I want them to tell me who they are. I want that non-verbal ancestral communication, that place where no words are needed and only the sense of commonality is felt. It is not an attempt beautify or humanize the animals but rather to recognize their respective success of survival in relation to our own mortality.”  Story coming soon

2014

Next year is looking to be incredible! There are many expeditions on the table – HAWAII, KODIAK ISLAND, GRAND TETONS, YELLOWSTONE and the CHANNEL ISLANDS. Everything will be confirmed in January – stay tuned.
Also in the works are a photography SHOW in San Francisco, a coffee table BOOK with a poetry writer, a photo PROJECT on the Farralon Islands and a photo portrait SERIES at an animal refuge in Florida.

So exciting!!

bigsur_05

HOLIDAY WISHES

“In this century we have made remarkable material progress, but basically we are the same as we were thousands of years ago. Our spiritual needs are still very great.”  Dalai Lama

Let us all remember that despite the attraction of technology and the temptation of simplifying the depth of our relationships to those of robots, we must never forget the magic of nature and the beings that we are. We are more than algorithms and statistics. Lets not loose faith in our capacity for spiritual greatness and move on into the future with the desire of finding inner peace and content. I will see you again in 2014!

HAVE A WONDERFUL HOLIDAY, A MERRY CHRISTMAS & A WONDERFUL HAPPY NEW YEAR! 

christmas-20142

Wrong Idea of Nature

“It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.” Theodore Roosevelt

I often wonder how Roosevelt would be perceived today. A republican, a liberal, a politician, a cowboy, a rebel, a naturalist, an explorer, a scientist, an avid reader, a soldier, and a lover of nature. He was also a great hunter who went hunting in Africa but in the process helped the Smithsonian museum creating an exhibit that would fascinate and continues to do so to millions of children and adults alike.

He was someone who believed in using natural resources, but opposed being wasteful. What would the United States of America look like today if he hadn’t created 5 national parks, 18 national monuments and 150 National Forests, protecting more than 230 million acres (930,000 km2) of American soil in various parks and other federal projects.

Would Roosevelt be thrown to the pit by the conservationists? Would he be called an “animal hater” by the nature activists? Unfortunately I believe so, and to the lost of our culture.

Like politics and many other issues in our society, nature and the environment have become extremely polarised topics. Common sense has become a rare commodity, replaced by harsh judgements to anyone who tries seeking the middle ground. You are either one or the other and dare if you wish to bring some perspective to the table.

In my talks about our relationship with nature, I spend a lot of time showing how not only have we become disconnected with our environment but also how our perception of nature has become extremely erroneous.

Living in cities, away from the wilderness we are detached from the realities of living in nature. We shop for food at the grocery store, getting our electricity without much effort and have our garbage picked up every week. Our lawn is mown weekly and kept green with pesticide. The modern definition of nature is now a “sanitised and censored” one.

We personify it as this cute and cuddly entity that just needs to be taken care of, fragile and delicate, in dire need of our protection, us its Saviour! Nature has become this poster we put on the wall and admire, this beautified television show where a predator capturing its prey is edited so that blood and death don’t appear to the viewer. It is a world where animated ant, fish, dog, and bear talk and move like humans. A world where hunters who decide to connect with their food are branded prehistoric barbarian and animal loving extremists the voice for an unfortunate and unrepresented kingdom. It is a nostalgic ideology of a pristine and utopian world, a debate where anyone who doesn’t cheer for the cat and eats meat is deemed cruel and against the planet.

But nature is far from any of this. Nature is raw, rough, a struggle, a fight, cruel, deadly, strong, destructive, intimidating and yes also amazing, beautiful, relaxing, humbly, and inspirational. Above it all though, it is resilient and a source of priceless teachings. It teaches you about perspective and reminds you that life is not about Us, that there is something bigger than Us, mere little humans. It teaches you about the costs of life, about sacrifices and what it takes to survive. Try to understand what it means for a species to spend most of its life and energy giving birth to hundreds of thousands, even millions, just to have a handful of survivors. While all the dead ones are essential to support a complex food chain that makes this great biodiversity inhabiting the planet possible. There is nothing sad about this because this is life.

It is easy to chastise the indigenous for hunting when sitting behind a desk pampered by today’s convenient world. It is easy to claim your love for deer, coyotes, elephants, monkeys, badgers, and so many more when you don’t have to physically deal the consequences of their presence. It is easy to click any cause on Facebook and claim to the world what you believe in. I dare you to go live with monkeys in your backyard and see how you deal with them. I dare you to go and deal with elephants destroying your crops year after year. I dare you to go live where deer will eat everything you plant on your property.

Did you know that elephants cause millions of damage and are involved in destruction of woodland and contamination of water?

Did you know that Snow monkeys in Japan raid farms eating soybeans, watermelons, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, potatoes and mushrooms, destroying about 5,000 hectares of farmland each year?

And if by any chance the price of your “organic” food increases, lets say because of “nature” – weather related or some invasion, you are the first one to cry unfairness.

Did you know that our society’s beloved domesticated cat has been responsible for hundreds of million of dead mammals, birds and others? Combined with rats, they have almost wiped out entire island’s ecosystems – so much for  our infatuation with the small feline.

So when the CBS Sunday Morning show aired the segment, the “Pro & Cons of Growing Animal Population”, featuring Jim Sterba’s new book “Nature Wars”, harsh comments quickly followed – “… this is anti-nature bullshit propaganda…”.

Because we see nature as this static world. Because we see ourselves separated from it, better than it. Because we believe we are above it. Because we want to pick and choose only the “good” things from nature. But ask any Inuit or Eskimo and they will tell you that the “Whites” live in an egotistical bubble detached from any realities and absolutely disconnected with real nature. And I agree with them.

Nature connectedness doesn’t mean wanting to protect nature – in fact “protecting nature” is a modern concept. It means understanding that you are a part of it and that you are dependent on it for your food, health and survival. It means that you understand that if you don’t respect it and accept the finitely of it, it is not nature that will loose but you.

Being connected to nature is not eating organic food, supporting animal welfare organisations, consuming green or being vegan or vegetarian. It is not about being emotionally attached to it either. Being connected to nature is to understand our interconnectivity with our environment. It is about accepting its teachings, to understand about losses, death, that nothing is perfect – that life is about perspective, that everything is relative. Being connected to nature is basically one simple word, humility. But like everything else right now, we see the world and the planet through the anthropocene lens and believe that life will end if we don’t fix our mess.

I will go as far as to say that except for old indigenous cultures I don’t believe that neither Buddhism nor Hinduism, or again Paganism are philosophies or religions that are connected to nature, because they all put humans as the central being and above everything else. The day that we will stop seeing ourselves as this god creature, we will then be for the first time on the right path.

Our bond with nature has become conceptual not physical and here lies the problematic. Away from its realities, we  are unable to balance our judgements. We are ruled by our emotions and incapable of seeing the bigger picture.

“I heartily enjoy this life, with its perfect freedom, for I am very fond of hunting, and there are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling limitless prairies, with rifle in hand, or winding my way among the barren, fantastic and grimly picturesque deserts of the so-called Bad Land… its toughness and hardy endurance fitted it to contend with purely natural forces… to resist cold and wintery blasts or the heat of the thirsty summer, to wander away to new pastures, to plunge over the broken ground, and to plow its way through snow drifts or quagmires… There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.” Theodore Roosevelt

Recommended articles
Killing Animals to Save Animals: A Conundrum
A New Breed of Hunter Shoots, Eats and Tells
The mechanical guts of the universe
Nature Connected Psychology: Creating Moments That Let Earth Teach
Germany to Ban Sex with Animals
David Bellwood: Lessons from coral reefs from PopTech on Vimeo.

The Climate Change Issue

Watching Frontline’s latest segment, “Climate of Doubt” I was once again reminded of the failure from the science and conservation communities in reaching out to the public.

Back in my early days, I used to be an agent for photographers and painters. From the talents I represented, it was clear to me that there were two categories of artists. The ones who believed that work would come to them and the ones who knew they had to go and get the jobs themselves. This reality also led me to understand one thing. The world is filled with talent and someone who might have less of it, but possesses great skills at promoting himself will fare better than the prodigy who is incapable of reaching beyond his studio. It is not always the ones with the greatest talent who become famous, but the ones who know how to promote their work. The moral of the story I concluded was that it didn’t matter what you had, it didn’t matter if you were the best, it didn’t matter if you held the truth, it didn’t matter what you meant to say. What mattered was how the world perceived you and how people understood you. It is not what you say, but what people hear. It is not what you do, but how people feel about it. And this is something the scientists and environmentalists – and by the same token, the democrats or liberals, have still failed to understand.

Communication, according to the dictionary, is “the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium”. It is achieved when the receiving party processes the information with the same intent the emitter had when sending it. This means that if I say “Hello” to a friend, he or she will understand the polite gesture and therefore reciprocate with another “Hello”. This brief communication was a success since both agreed on the meaning of the word. If I say the same “Hello” to a total stranger walking down the street, my seemingly innocent gesture might be misinterpreted and suddenly the tone, what I wear, the location, the time of the day, my age, all will have an affect on how my simple salutation is going to be interpreted.

Communication is one of the most complex and difficult tasks in the world. Why? Because it is filled with innuendoes, interpretations, opinions and emotions. Add body language, culture, and religion to this, and you quickly find yourself with complete “miscommunication”. The US conservatives (Republicans or climate change deniers) realised a long time ago how to communicate efficiently. They have understood that the public doesn’t care about scientific facts. What people care about are jobs, the economy and security, in others words, their own priorities and personal values. Science is not this unbreakable knowledge. Some facts might be obvious but their interpretation varies extremely. But the scientists believe that simply giving people the facts will be enough not only to understand, but also to change the behaviour of an individual. In “Climate of Doubt” John Kerry (minute 33 in video) blames the loss of momentum in public perception about climate change because of a lack of money and lies:

“… as the campaign of fear built up people began to retreat they spent huge sums of money in a campaign of major dis-information that had a impact, a profound impact, and it has now made many people in public life very gun-shy because they are afraid of having those amount of money spent against them…” 

His view is not only wrong but also reinforces the evidence of total lack of understanding of the dynamics of communication.

For most people, climate change is an overwhelming and extremely confusing topic. In a post I wrote earlier this year, “Climate Change: A Pointless Debate, I argue that:

“Instead of attacking the source of the problem, our lifestyle, our values, our system and its obvious, concrete, and irrefutable consequences – pollution, ocean acidification, disappearance of fish stocks, total destruction of the environment – so obvious in fact that no one can argue about them, we have had to focus our attention and debate on something so conceptual and evolutionarily insignificant as the rise in temperatures on a global scale….it is also moving the most pressing issues away.”

The issue has a lot to do about perception. Climate change will be good for some, a great opportunity for others, bad for many and tragic for numerous. It all depends on which side you stand.

Polarising the debate has also been part of the problem. For many, there are only two parties – the ones accepting climate change and the ones who don’t. But in reality, there is a broad range of opinions in between. Through media and other campaigns, the debacle now insinuates that if you don’t support climate change, you are against nature and don’t care about the future of our children. If you do agree with climate change then you don’t care about jobs and the economy. Both statements are preposterous and extreme.

The strategy of the environmentalists and the Al Gore team has been to use the “Cane of Guilt” – meaning to bash people over their heads on how bad they have been and give them an ultimatum on how fast they need to change. Anyone with a little bit of education will tell you that fear is not a good way to inspire people. After a while, people are simply tired of the negative narrative. This year’s article in the Washington Post “Young Americans less interested in the environment than previous generations” is no surprise:

“…Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has noticed an increase in skepticism — or confusion — about climate change among his students as the national debate has heightened. That leads to fatigue, he said.

“It’s not so much that they don’t think it’s important. They’re just worn out,” Potosnak said. “It’s like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it.”

A lot of young people also simply don’t spend that much time exploring nature, said Beth Christensen, a professor who heads the environmental studies department at Adelphi University on Long Island in New York…”

Going back to communication. It is not the two words “climate change” that people have now come to avoid. It is what they mean to them and what they insinuate. It is because of how they have been presented to the public, that the world is simply fed up of the topic. It is not a question of money, but a failure of understanding the core of the problem. The “pro climate change camp” keeps telling the world that the issue is about saving the world. This egotistical view is greatly limited. Over time, planet earth has been subject to worse catastrophes than climate change and is likely to see worse in the future. Changes in temperatures have come and gone over billions of years. Of course we are participating in, and accelerating the current trend. Of course there will be dramatic consequences, but they are small compared to the garbage choking our waters, the acid killing the oceans, the relentless plundering of the planet’s resources, and a total lack of respect of the consequences of what we do and create. As with disease, the western culture has always been more concerned about the symptoms than the causes. Obesity is not just a question of exercising and eating more vegetables, it is about our total relationship with food and about consumerism. Our problem is our absolute pretentious and arrogant approach to the world around us which is simply unsustainable.

It is important to watch “Climate of Doubt” to understand why the momentum on climate change failed. Fred Singer, Myron Ebell, Rep. James Sensenbrenner and Lord Monckton are not stupid, nor bad people. I don’t agree with neither of them, nor should you. But they have been successful at communicating their message, whether it is the truth or not. I have said it before, science is NOT and should NOT be the horse we ride on. Conservationists and scientists need desperately to understand that.

Philanthropy & Sponsorship

John D. Rockefeller was a controversial man who swam in scandals. Despite the fact that he was cruel in business and bullied his way to become the richest person in history, he also got to be remembered as one of the most important philanthropists the world has seen. Andrew Carnegie, another man who certainly had his share of controversies while amassing his fortune, gave all his money away – close to 5 billion in today’s value. Wal-Mart, which makes money on spreading global grand scale consumerism all around the world, gave close to 350 million dollars in 2011 alone. Ray Kroc who started the fast food company McDonald supported research and treatment of alcoholism, diabetes, and other diseases. His third wife, Joan donated 225 million to National Public Radio. In 2011 J.P.Morgan gave 203 million, 10% more than in the previous year while Exxon gave 233 million, an increase of 17%. Margaret A. Cargill, from the Cargill family, known for their numerous scandals over environmental issues, contamination, and human rights abuses, gave away more than $200 million to the American Red Cross, the Nature Conservancy, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and others while she was alive. After her death, all of her assets were liquidated and transformed into a 6 billion charitable trust and foundation. Khalid bin Sultan, the deputy minister of Defense and a member of the House of Saud of Saudi Arabia, who was involved in the Yemen bombing of 2009, is also using his personal yacht and fortune for coral reef research through his Living Oceans Foundation. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who has had his share of public scandals, was a critical founding member of WWF. More recently, John Paulson, a New Yorker infamous for his investments and losses, gave the Central Park Conservancy 100 million.

Nobody gets to build a fortune by being a gentle person. You don’t amass billions by being friendly and by playing by the rules. No one does. Philanthropy and sponsorship are products of the capitalist system. In social democratic countries like the one I grew up in, Canada, or in Europe, people pay a lot of taxes and it is the government that funds. There is a reason why the United States of America is a hotbed for innovation, technology, arts, and education. Elsewhere in the world, organizations and foundations struggle, entrepreneurship is tedious and extremely complicated, why? A lot has to do with the tax code, deductible donations and the psychology behind making money. Look at this list of the most notable philanthropists in the world and you will see that most are from the USA. No other country in the world gives as much as America. Yet no other country in the world consumes as much and has had as many involvements with wars than America.

Bob Marley once said, “Who are you to judge the life I live? I know I’m not perfect – and I don’t live to be – but before you start pointing fingers make sure your hands are clean!” Everybody has had their share of mistakes and has tasted the fruit of greed. No one can judge on the past, and certainly not when a person tries to leave a legacy that will benefit the lives of millions. Yes, maybe the desire for salvation might come through guilt, but so what! How many do you know who will walk that path of redemption? It takes a lot of courage to give money. Whether it is through fiscal loopholes, or to avoid taxes, donations are donations and they are the reason why so much good work is done at the other end.

Even we – explorers, conservationists, and environmentalists – have to deal with this reality. Our funds come from the same companies we often reprimand. Yet, it is the dance we all have to do, so that we can bring a balance. The companies know that and so do we.

I lift my hat to Paulson for donating such a large sum to Central Park. That money could have easily been kept in a secret account in a tax haven or invested in real estate. Instead, it will be put to the good of society.

“Man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment, which alone can sustain all that, is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.” Andrew Carnegie

 

Knowledge, our Achilles’ heel

WIP_011609_Thinking

“In your thirst for knowledge, be sure not to drown in all the information”. Anthony J. D’Angelo, founder of Collegiate Empowerment

It is hard today to hear a conversation that doesn’t involve the belief that our technology will be the key to solve our problems. We truly trust that our salvation lies in our ability to invent and create. We think that the issues we see do not reflect a problem that lies at the core of our values, but rather simply needs an adjustment in its application. At pretty much any conservation summit (The World Ocean in Singapore, BLUE in Monterey, etc) the message is always the same – the problem is only a question of bad management. If we could only find out the missing pieces of the puzzle, if we could only know more about the planet, nature, and its resources, then, only then, would we be able to act accordingly and “save” what is left. Our understanding is that the destruction of the planet and the abuses we have been responsible for, have occurred only because we lacked the know-how. So now we look at the present and the future and conclude that we must know more if we want to change. This, to my opinion is the root of the problem.

We consider ourselves to be the most intelligent species ever to populate the planet. We look at the past and compare ourselves to what was before. The fact is that all previous cultures once thought of themselves as omnipotent, powerful and of being capable of ruling the world. Each empire thought of itself as better than the one before. And each fell to its demise. We continue to understand our role as “stewards” of this planet. We think it is our duty to protect it. We continually see ourselves at the top of the pyramid looking down over our dominion. We don’t believe we are part of nature, but rather that we stand above it, separated from it, since we are better than it. We think of nature as this disconnected thing that exists outside of ourselves.

Our obsession for knowledge has turned us arrogant and immature. We are addicted to our brain and its capacities. We get high on what we can do. Our society lives in a constant sugar rush, drinking the technology & knowledge “Kool Aid” without any filter. We have kicked wisdom out of our lives, deeming it boring and against progress. But it is not because the chocolate cake is on the table that we have to eat it. We don’t think about the long-term consequences. We don’t think about the social impact of our discoveries. We only focus on the short-term gains. We only look for quick personal individual gratification. Frankenstein’s tale was precisely about that. When Mary Shelley wrote the horror story of the scientist and a monster, she did more than creating a new genre. Her novel was a premonition to what is in store for our world.

From within our cities, sitting behind computers or staring down at our “smart” phones, we claim our superiority and gaze at the world around us in a conceited way. Detached from any realities, we think of aging as a disease, that good parenting means monitoring our children every single second, that consuming green will fix our consumerism, that the idea of implanting a device in our brain to fix an imbalance is pure genius, that people who gamble our savings have a right to do so, that Facebook is real, that the web brings us closer, that food is only a recipe of carbs, proteins, sugars, and fats, and that nature is only a resource that demands to be quantified and managed. What Richard Louv wrote in his book “The Last Child in the Woods” can’t be measured so it is hardly considered. So we go the opposite way and go crazy with our quantification. We have to put a value on Planet Earth (5,000 trillion dollars according to astrophysicist Greg Laughlin) and on the oceans (check the Ocean Health Index for an orgy of numbers) to understand their importance. If it doesn’t have a number, we can’t understand it, or more, we don’ know how to value it. Knowledge is indeed important but it should not be the horse we ride on.

We have lost the ability to see the big picture. Because we are so good a looking at everything on an anatomical level we have become blind at grasping the bigger perspective. William R Catton does an amazing job at explaining why in his books Overshoot and Bottleneck. I strongly recommend you read the two.

Knowledge is not the reason why people change. If it was so, no one would smoke cigarettes, everybody would pay their credit cards on time, no one would break the law, everybody would follow the rules, there would be no economic crash and every politician would always make decisions for the good of society. The reality is that our life structure is based on values. And values differ. If we want to change, we will have to understand how people come to truly value things, and unfortunately, it is not through knowledge. No one that cherishes nature do so because of numbers, they all got to care and love nature by spending time in it. And here is the core of the argument.

For people to change, for children to develop the love and care for nature, we will have to literally reconnect our society with life and the planet. First, there needs to be direct correlation between our lifestyle and the state of the environment. We can talk about garbage littering our beaches and polluting our oceans as much as we want to and for many years, the fact remains that each and one of us is totally disconnected with the amount of garbage he or she produces and its impact. Everyone takes their garbage to the curb and says goodbye – out of sight, out of mind. There are absolutely no incentives whatsoever for people to produce less garbage and to understand the consequences of their consuming habits. Something they can’t physically feel is simply impossible to understand and care about. How can we make society care about the state of fishing stocks when subsidies create an illusion that masquerades the tragedy? How can they grasp the seriousness of the situation when the price of fish at the market has barely risen over the years. Even if they hear about the problems, the reality doesn’t touch them. Our world lives in a bubble detached from any consequences. We are sheltered from the impact our lifestyle creates. For our society to change, we will foremost have to accept the blame and consequences of our actions. We will have to be open to the idea that the fundamentals of our society are no longer valid with the current state of the planet. Until that day comes, all we will be doing is keep drowning in our own arrogance.

Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book “The Discoverers” said: ”The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” I think, today, it would be more accurate to say that “The greatest obstacle to living sustainably and in harmony with our environment is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge”.

Deflecting – Preservation and Exploitation

“As long as there are commercial opportunities in the Arctic, local communities, governments, and companies will take advantage of them.” Andreas Østhagen, Research Associate – Norway/EU Arctic Policy

In the conservation world, there are two main ideologies on how to achieve your goal. The first one consist of applying a direct counter force towards an element you wish to stop. The other approach is greatly different. Accepting that the element has too much momentum and its force is too great, it chooses to rather deflect or guide the force towards a different end point. In other words, either you protest against corporations, or you work with them. Although this bureau accepts that there might be some benefits in trying to change the system by protesting, it believes that the forces at play within our society, within our industrialized world are way to big to simply counter attack. Rather, it considers cooperation to be the way to achieve long lasting conservation. The goal is to create win-win situations and, as Østhagen concluded in his article for the Arctic Institute, to establish a balance between preservation and exploitation. One unorthodox way to explain this “cooperation” or “deflecting” concept, is to look at martial art aikido. Aikido is often translated as “the way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the way of harmonious spirit.” It is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. This requires very little physical strength.

Some argue that this method is a sell out. But we think otherwise and campaign for it.

One of the most famous conservationists who believed in this strategy was José Márcio Ayres. He believed that nature would stand no chance of survival unless community-based models of natural resource management were applied. In fact he created the Economic Alternatives Program with an aim to change the way in which natural resources are being exploited, to make them generate long-term socioeconomic and environmental benefits.

Per instance, the clearing of forest for lumber, once carried out illegally and on a large scale by forestry companies from outside Mamirauá, is now handled by 20 communities living in the reserve who take into account the sustainability of the tree species — a first for the várzea. This kind of sustainable development has made it possible to increase the income from forest management by 100 to 150 per cent — a huge benefit for the community, as it is the only major work that can be done during the high-water season.

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance is also recommending solutions based on this belief. Its proposal does want a ban on fishing in the wider Ross Sea region, nor a limit on toothfish catches. But rather it proposes excluding fishing from the most ecologically important areas.

This is the strategy we want to see for the Arctic. Here are two solutions we believe could yield tremendous conservation benefits, using the momentum of exploitation to the conservation advantage.

  1. Give Give
    For every exploitation zone given, an area of the same size is declared off limit and protected. The more exploitation, the more protection. Conservationists and biologists would determine what areas are best to protect in relation to the exploitation zones.
  2. Insurance Fund
    Unfortunately, accidents do happen. Even when we don’t want to. That is why we buy insurance. Nobody buys a car knowing that he/she will get into an accident. But we all get an insurance in case one day… According to Wikipedia, insurance is: “a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for payment.” In 1989, there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 2010, there was the BP oil spill. Every year, in Russia, 5 million tons of oil is spilled into the environment (6x what the BP spill was). It is only fair to say, that one day, there will be another major disaster. The question is not How, but When. We propose then that all oil/gas/mining companies involved in the exploitation of the Arctic region finance an insurance fund that will go for an eventual environmental tragedy. Part of that fund would be used to manage the protected areas mentioned in point 1 above. The more resources are extracted, the more the fund grows. This concept is also used between Tourism and Conservation. The more tourists you have the more you have to finance the conservation.

Those solutions are not problems free. They do though acknowledge the complexity of our society and work with the parties involved into a constructive relationship rather than a pissing contest, (Shell wins injunction against Greenpeace Arctic drilling protestors) where short term benefits might indeed be achieved, at the price of much needed long term benefits.

The Need for a New Story

Last week in London, I had the privilege of meeting the theologian Martin Palmer. It was one of those encounters when after two hours, we obliged ourselves to continue another time, most likely over dinner, because this discussion could go on for many hours more.

Both of us strongly believe that there is something crucial missing in the conservation movement, that science and technology have taken the center stage, and that what is needed has been demoted to being insignificant. In a previous post, Conservation 2.0, I wrote how we must stop focusing on statistics and need to bring back a certain sense of mysticism and base our desire to change on values, and not just scientific reports. Yes science is good, as a tool, but not as the root of our actions.

Alongside this issue, I was glad to read two recent articles in the the New York Book Review, Age of Ignorance, by Charles Simic and Do We Need Stories, by Tim Parks.

Simic and Parks point out how our society (in this particular case, the U.S.A.) has glamorized ignorance, and embraced a shallow form of storytelling: “there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business”. Our society is filled with junk information. We live in an era of condensed opinionated “blips” of information, in which opinions are valued more than in-depth knowledge. Whomever shouts loudest is the one who will be seen as the expert. Facebook and Twitter are perfect tools for this type of narrative. News is reported in 140 characters or less, based on ever shorter attention spans. It is certainly not a lack of stories that is at the root of the problem, but a lack in the quality.

“Like” buttons will get you “involved” and grant you the title of being a “supporter” of pretty much anything. A cute image of a cuddly seal pup or any other baby animal will do wonders to attracted your attention. No need to know about the underlying studies, no desire to even question the statements made: a look into those big round eyes, suffices to form an opinion! We are gullible to anything that makes us go: “Ooooooh, how cute!” or “Arrrrgh, how gross!” Just look at what is popular on YouTube these days. “In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him.” says Simic

In his article Parks makes an observation that touches some of the issues regarding our perception of Nature.

“There are words that describe objects we make: to know the word “chair” is to understand about moving from standing to sitting and appreciate the match of the human body with certain shapes and materials. But there are also words that come complete with entire narratives, or rather that can’t come without them. The only way we can understand words like God, angel, devil, ghost, is through stories, since these entities do not allow themselves to be known in other ways, or not to the likes of me. Here not only is the word invented—all words are—but the referent is invented too, and a story to suit.”

Through our views based on science and technology, we have come to believe that nature is no different than a chair. We have stripped it of its sacredness and reduced it to a series of logical facts, from which we ultimately deduced – and finally claimed – our superiority. We have taken possession of the natural world by baptizing it with our taxonomy and putting it under our dominion. The next step was to personify nature, giving it a “Self”. Thus we have come to not only perceive ourselves superior to nature, but now we are making nature like us. This is really the world upside down.

Sadly much of the conservation and environmental community has been following this trend incessantly, dumbing down the storyline. No one wants to talk about values and mysticism, rather, they prefer to use climate-change scares or the plight of poor struggling creatures. The Anthropocene age has not only transformed the planet but also the stories with which we define our relationship with it. It would have been too good to be true if all our knowledge would have made us more humble, rather than haughty and if it had actually brought back the need for something sacred, instead of turning us into “Tweeting Gods”.

The Destructive Nature of Subsidies and Tax Breaks

Subsidies are prima facie evidence that consumers would not buy the product at its market price. They distort markets, compromising economic growth, breed corruption and undermine social welfare by foisting inferior or over-priced goods onto the market” Kenneth P. Green

Cities and markets have historically been created under pragmatic realities. Towns, villages, or any other settlement existed in logical places: by a river, by the sea or close to a trading road. Farming was possible where the soil was rich. Fishing was productive and worth it only if the gains outweigh the costs. The logic was quite simple and fair – either you can or you can’t.   If you could on some times, and not on others, than most likely you would adopt a nomadic lifestyle, looking for certain benefits in certain places on certain times. In this system, the value on goods was equal to the realities of producing it or getting it. It was, at the core of it, the real definition of a free market economy, where supply and demand drive the development and expansion of societies. If a resource was to be mismanaged, abused, and consequently lost, then logically the market and the people would react accordingly. Lessons would be learned and laws would be put in place trying to avoid the same mistakes to be repeated. Then the modern world invented subsidies and tax breaks.

Different from credit – an extension to fulfill an obligation, subsidies and tax breaks are inflationary tools that create a false reality. They support unrealistically what should not exist. Interestingly enough, the etymology of subsidy comes from sub “under, behind” and sedere “to sit”. One could easily concluded that the word was invented to illustrate something that remains still and unproductive. The headline: “EU Subsidies – Millions for Doing Nothing” does more than simply playing on the words. It highlights one of the most dangerous economical inventions our societies have now so well become depended on.

On the conservation and management of natural resources, subsidies and tax breaks are the most destructive force  ever existed. They take away any sense of responsibility and desire to manage with a long term approach. They entice people to be rewarded for being inefficient and corrupted. Giant corporations, with legal and financial power to lobby politicians, themselves in charge of allocating subsidies and giving tax breaks, usually end up siphoning most of the money while the small producers end up being short handed (click here for more information). Our history is filled with examples of how these practices only prolong the inevitable and unfortunately stagnant innovation.

How long would the whaling era have gone on without the subsidies?

Would whaling still go on today in Japan and Iceland? (see more info here)

Would our economy be so oil dependent if we paid the real price for oil?

What would happen if the oil companies did not benefit from any tax breaks?

Would our consumerism be so high if not subsidized?

Would corn and soy be everywhere if their subsidies were taken away?

What would happen if the richest countries did not spend $106 billion per year subsidizing their own farmers?

Would the ocean’s fish stocks be depleted if no subsidies existed? (see more info here)

Does it make sense to fill groceries stores in polar regions with ice cream manufactured thousands of kilometers away? (see video here) The insane thing is not the price they pay but the fact that we have created and supported an economy that is illogic, nonsensical and ludicrous.

Does it make sense for countries to still subsidize families for having children? Isn’t 7 billion enough?

Would our lives really be miserable without these fiscal illusions?

Would the Arctic and polar regions development made sense if governments didn’t help?

Is it viable to sustain a lifestyle that without these supports, would crumble into pieces?

Some say that if the subsidies are taken away, it will hurt major industries and people will loose their jobs. Maybe it is, but everybody will adapt and manage. It is better to deal with reality than fiction. Right now, fiction is king. Financially the world is broken down. The planet’s resources are seeing the end of the line. Our population is unstoppable, and still we look at ways to continue its trajectory.

It is as if a person had spent his salary even before receiving it, eaten away his yearly supply within the first month, and borrowing more than he could even repay in his lifetime, and tell him not to worry, just continue doing what you are doing, the government will back you up, no strings attached.

If we want to grow “sustainably”, the first and most important step will be to stop all subsidies and tax breaks. Obviously it is wishful thinking that will most likely never happen but we must at least look into it. The exercise is crucial to understand the conundrum at play. Energy subsidies, social subsidies, science subsidies, consumer subsidies, environmental subsidies, farming subsidies, and fishing subsidies are nothing more than old and inefficient ways to keep a status quo on declining and obsolete practices. They lure the population and governments into a fantasy world and false beliefs, making people cling on what has already past. Most importantly, they take away any sense of responsibility and accountability.

“Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king. And chicken soon joined them on the throne. It was during this period that the cycle of dietary and planetary destruction began, the thing we’re only realizing just now.”  Mark Bittman

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

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.