Thanks Jane for your research and I might add that not only have we the colonizers not followed their teachings, we have not followed any teaching other than “me before we”. But I still carry a faint flicker of hope for humanity that one day we may actually realize that cooperation is better than competition.
The philosophy group I belong to (which has been meeting successfully by Zoom the past several weeks) is in the process of considering what topic we’ll explore when we reconvene in the fall. We seem to be choosing between the philosophy of probability, philosophy of law, and the overarching topic of what constitutes a good – or meaningful – life. I am keen on seeing the topic of what constitutes a meaningful life win the day; not surprisingly, this question has been of major interest to philosophers since at least the Greeks, and it’s still a work in progress.
There are so many questions that spring to mind. Is a good life the same thing as a happy life? How do we decide a life is meaningful? Maybe we could add in: how do we lead a good life while under quarantine?! I’ve started doing a tiny, tiny bit of…
To avoid the next pandemic, we need a reckoning with our place in nature.
By Kevin Berger April 22, 2020
The marquee on my closed neighborhood movie theater reads, “See you on the other side.” I like reading it every day as I pass by on my walk. It causes me to envision life after the coronavirus pandemic. Which is awfully hard to envision now. But it’s out there. When you have a disease and are in a hospital, alone and afraid, intravenous tubes and sensor wires snaking from your body into digital monitors, all you want is to be normal again. You want nothing more than to have a beer in a dusky bar and read a book in amber light. At least that’s all I wanted last year when I was in a hospital, not from a coronavirus. When, this February, I had that beer in a bar with my book, I was profoundly happy. The worst can pass.
With faith, you can ask how life will be on the other side. Will you be changed personally? Will we be changed collectively? The knowledge we’re gaining now is making us different people. Pain demands relief, demands we don’t repeat what produced it. Will the pain of this pandemic point a new way forward? It hasn’t before, as every war attests. This time may be no different. But the pandemic has slipped a piece of knowledge into the body public that may not be easy to repress. It’s an insight scientists and poets have voiced for centuries. We’re not apart from nature, we are nature. The environment is not outside us, it is us. We either act in concert with the environment that gives us life, or the environment takes life away.
Guess which species is the bully? No animal has had the capacity to modify its niche the way we have.
Nothing could better emphasize our union with nature than the lethal coronavirus. It’s crafted by a molecule that’s been omnipresent on Earth for 4 billion years. Ribonucleic acid may not be the first bridge from geochemical to biochemical life, as some scientists have stated. But it’s a catalyst of biological life. It wrote the book on replication. RNA’s signature molecules, nucleotides, code other molecules, proteins, the building blocks of organisms. When RNA’s more chemically stable kin, DNA, arrived on the scene, it outcompeted its ancestor. Primitive organisms assembled into cells and DNA set up shop in their nucleus. It employed its nucleotides to code proteins to compose every tissue in every multicellular species, including us. A shameless opportunist, RNA made itself indispensable in the cellular factory, shuttling information from DNA into the cell’s power plant, where proteins are synthesized.
RNA and DNA had other jobs. They could be stripped down to their nucleotides, swirled inside a sticky protein shell. That gave them the ability to infiltrate any and all species, hijack their reproductive machinery, and propagate in ways that make rabbits look celibate. These freeloading parasites have a name: virus. But viruses are not just destroyers. They wear another evolutionary hat: developers. Viruses “may have originated the DNA replication system of all three cellular domains (archaea, bacteria, eukarya),” writes Luis P. Villareal, founding director of the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Irvine.1 Their role in nature is so successful that DNA and RNA viruses make up the most abundant biological entities on our planet. More viruses on Earth than stars in the universe, scientists like to say.
Today more RNA than DNA viruses thrive in cells like ours, suggesting how ruthless they’ve remained. RNA viruses generally reproduce faster than DNA viruses, in part because they don’t haul around an extra gene to proofread their molecular merger with others’ DNA. So when the reckless RNA virus finds a new place to dwell, organisms become heartbreak hotels. Once inside a cell, the RNA virus slams the door on the chemical saviors dispatched by cells’ immunity sensors. It hijacks DNA’s replicative powers and fans out by the millions, upending cumulative cellular functions. Like the ability to breathe.
Humans. We love metaphors. They allow us to compare something as complex as viral infection to something as familiar as an Elvis Presley hit. But metaphors for natural processes are seldom accurate. The language is too porous, inviting our anthropomorphic minds to close the gaps. We imagine viruses have an agenda, are driven by an impetus to search and destroy. But nature doesn’t act with intention. It just acts. A virus lives in a cell like a planet revolves around a sun.
Biologists debate whether a virus should be classified as living because it’s a deadbeat on its own; it only comes to life in others. But that assumes an organism is alive apart from its environment. The biochemist and writer Nick Lane points out, “Viruses use their immediate environment to make copies of themselves. But then so do we: We eat other animals or plants, and we breathe in oxygen. Cut us off from our environment, say with a plastic bag over the head, and we die in a few minutes. One could say that we parasitize our environment—like viruses.”2
Our inseparable accord with the environment is why the coronavirus is now in us. Its genomic signature is almost a perfect match with a coronavirus that thrives in bats whose habitats range across the globe. Humans moved into the bats’ territory and the bats’ virus moved into humans. The exchange is just nature doing its thing. “And nature has been doing its thing for 3.75 billion years, when bacteria fought viruses just as we fight them now,” says Shahid Naeem, an upbeat professor of ecology at Columbia University, where he is director of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability. If we want to assign blame, it lies with our collectively poor understanding of ecology.
Organisms evolve with uniquely adaptive traits. Bats play many ecological roles. They are pollinators, seed-spreaders, and pest-controllers. They don’t die from the same coronavirus that kills humans because the bat’s anatomy fights the virus to a draw, neutralizing its lethal moves. What’s the deal with the human immune system? We don’t fly. “Bats are flying mammals, which is very unusual,” says Christine K. Johnson, an epidemiologist at the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, who studies virus spillover from animals to humans. “They get very high temperatures when they fly, and have evolved immunological features, which humans haven’t, to accommodate those temperatures.”
A viral invasion can overstimulate the chemical responses from a mammal’s immune system to the point where the response itself causes excessive inflammation in tissues. A small protein called a cytokine, which orchestrates cellular responses to foreign invaders, can get over-excited by an aggressive RNA virus, and erupt into a “storm” that destroys normal cellular function—a process physicians have documented in many current coronavirus fatalities. Bats have genetic mechanisms to inhibit that overreaction. Similarly, bat flight requires an increased rate of metabolism. Their wing-flapping action leads to high levels of oxygen-free radicals—a natural byproduct of metabolism—that can damage DNA. As a result, states a 2019 study in the journal Viruses, “bats probably evolved mechanisms to suppress activation of immune response due to damaged DNA generated via flight, thereby leading to reduced inflammation.”3
Bats don’t have better immune systems than humans; just different. Our immune systems evolved for many things, just not flying. Humans do well around the cave fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, source of the “white-nose syndrome” that has devastated bats worldwide. Trouble begins when we barge into wildlife habitats with no respect for differences. (Trouble for us and other animals. White-nose syndrome spread in part on cavers’ shoes and clothing, who tracked it from one site to the next.) We mine for gold, develop housing tracts, and plow forests into feedlots. We make other animals’ habitats our own.
Our moralistic brain sees retribution. Karma. A viral outbreak is the wrath that nature heaps on us for bulldozing animals out of their homes. Not so. “We didn’t violate any evolutionary or ecological laws because nature doesn’t care what we do,” Naeem says. Making over the world for ourselves is just humans being the animals we are. “Every species, if they had the upper hand, would transform the world into what it wants,” Naeem says. “Birds build nests, bees build hives, beavers build dams. It’s called niche construction. If domestic cats ruled the world, they would make the world in their image. It would be full of litter trays, lots of birds, lots of mice, and lots of fish.”
But nature isn’t an idyllic land of animal villages constructed by evolution. Species’ niche-building ways have always brought them into contact with each other. “Nature is ruled by processes like competition, predation, and mutualism,” Naeem says. “Some of them are positive, some are negative, some are neutral. That goes for our interactions with the microbial world, including viruses, which range from super beneficial to super harmful.”
Nature has been doing its thing for 3.75 billion years, when bacteria fought viruses as we fight them now.
Ultimately, nature works out a truce. “If the flower tries to short the hummingbird on sugar, the hummingbird is not going to provide it with pollination,” Naeem says. “If the hummingbird sucks up all the nectar and doesn’t do pollination well, it’s going to get pinged as well. Through this kind of back and forth, species hammer out an optimal way of getting along in nature. Evolution winds up finding some middle ground.” Naeem pauses. “If you try to beat up everybody, though, it’s not going to work.”
Guess which species is the bully? “There’s never been any species on this planet in its entire history that has had the capacity to modify its niche the way we have,” Naeem says. Our niche—cities, farms, factories—has made the planet into a zoological Manhattan. Living in close proximity with other species, and their viruses, means we are going to rub shoulders with them. Dense living isn’t for everyone. But a global economy is. And with it comes an intercontinental transportation system. A virus doesn’t have a nationality. It can travel as easily from Arkansas to China as the other way around. A pandemic is an inevitable outcome of our modified niche.
Consider a forest: One notices the trunks, of course, and the canopy. If a few roots project artfully above the soil and fallen leaves, one notices those too, but with little thought for a matrix that may spread as deep…READ MORE
Although nature doesn’t do retribution, our clashes with it have mutual consequences. The exact route of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from bat to humans remains unmapped. Did the virus pass directly into a person, who may have handled a bat, or through an intermediate animal? What is clear is the first step, which is that a bat shed the virus in some way. University of California, Davis epidemiologist Johnson explains bats shed viruses in their urine, feces, and saliva. They might urinate on fruit or eat a piece of it, and then discard it on the ground, where an animal may eat it. The Nipah virus outbreak in 1999 was spurred by a bat that left behind a piece of fruit that came in contact with a domestic pig and humans. The Ebola outbreaks in the early 2000s in Central Africa likely began when an ape, who became bushmeat for humans, came in contact with a fruit bat’s leftover. “The same thing happened with the Hendra virus in Australia in 1994,” says Johnson. “Horses got infected because fruit bats lived in trees near the horse farm. Domesticated species are often an intermediary between bats and humans, and they amplify the outbreak before it gets to humans.”
Transforming bat niches into our own sends bats scattering—right into our backyards. In a study released this month, Johnson and colleagues show the spillover risk of viruses is the highest among animal species, notably bats, that have expanded their range, due to urbanization and crop production, into human-run landscapes.4 “The ways we’ve altered the landscape have brought a lot of great things to people,” Johnson says. “But that has put wildlife at higher pressures to adapt, and some of them have adapted by moving in with us.”
Pressures on bats have another consequence. Studies indicate physiological and environmental stress can increase viral replication in them and cause them to shed more than they normally do. One study showed bats with white-nose syndrome had “60 times more coronavirus in their intestines” as uninfected bats.5 Despite evidence for an increase in viral replication and shedding in stressed bats, “a direct link to spillover has yet to be established,” concludes a 2019 report in Viruses.3 But it’s safe to say that bats being perpetually driven from their caves into our barns is not ideal for either species.
As my questions ran out for Columbia University’s Naeem, I asked him to put this horrible pandemic in a final ecological light for me.
“We think of ourselves as being resilient and robust, but it takes something like this to realize we’re still a biological entity that’s not capable of totally controlling the world around us,” he says. “Our social system has become so disconnected from nature that we no longer understand we still are a part of it. Breathable air, potable water, productive fields, a stable environment—these all come about because we’re part of this elaborate system, the biosphere. Now we’re suffering environmental consequences like climate change and the loss of food security and viral outbreaks because we’ve forgotten how to integrate our endeavors with nature.”
A 2014 study by a host wildlife ecologists, economists, and evolutionary biologists lays out a plan to stem the tide of emergent infectious diseases, most of which spawned in wildlife. Cases of emergent infectious diseases have practically quadrupled since 1940.6 World leaders could get smart. They could pool money for spillover research, which would identify the hundreds of thousands of potentially lethal viruses in animals. They could coordinate pandemic preparation with international health regulations. They could support animal conservation with barriers that developers can’t cross. The scientists give us 27 years to cut the rise of infectious diseases by 50 percent. After that, the study doesn’t say what the world will look like. I imagine it will look like a hospital right now in New York City.
Patients lie on gurneys in corridors, swaddled in sheets, their faces shrouded by respirators. They’re surrounded by doctors and nurses, desperately trying to revive them. In pain, inconsolable, and alone. I know they want nothing more than to see their family and friends on the other side, to be wheeled out of the hospital and feel normal again. Will they? Will others in the future? It will take tremendous political will to avoid the next pandemic. And it must begin with a reckoning with our relationship with nature. That tiny necklace of RNA tearing through patients’ lungs right now is the world we live in. And have always lived in. We can’t be cut off from the environment. When I see the suffering in hospitals, I can only ask, Do we get it now?
As we think about what our world – our individual countries and communities – might look like when this pandemic is finally fully in check, we find ourselves with options. We can work hard to get things back to being as close to the way they were as possible, or we can take this opportunity to think about whether there are some things we may want to do differently. It is a rare occasion when nations are given the chance to observe at close range both the strengths and weaknesses of their social and economic structures and consider how well their policies support the values of their citizens. This is such a time.
A few examples:
Each country will have an opportunity to re-evaluate their commitment to equality and to the principles of equal opportunity – access to housing, food, healthcare, and education – and see how they stack up…
Adam Smith had an elegant idea when addressing the notorious difficulty that humans face in trying to be smart, efficient and moral. In TheWealth of Nations (1776), he maintained that the baker bakes bread not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest. No doubt, public benefits can result when people pursue what comes easiest: self-interest.
And yet: the logic of private interest – the notion that we should just ‘let the market handle it’ – has serious limitations. Particularly in the United States, the lack of an effective health and social policy in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has brought the contradictions into high relief.
Around the world, the free market rewards competing, positioning and elbowing, so these have become the most desirable qualifications people can have. Empathy, solidarity or concern for the public good are relegated to the family, houses of worship or activism. Meanwhile, the market and private gain don’t account for social stability, health or happiness. As a result, from Cape Town to Washington, the market system has depleted and ravaged the public sphere – public health, public education, public access to a healthy environment – in favour of private gain.
COVID-19 reveals a further irrational component: the people who do essential work – taking care of the sick; picking up our garbage; bringing us food; guaranteeing that we have access to water, electricity and WiFi – are often the very people who earn the least, without benefits or secure contracts. On the other hand, those who often have few identifiably useful skills – the pontificators and chief elbowing officers – continue to be the winners. Think about it: what’s the harm if the executive suites of private equity, corporate law and marketing firms closed down during quarantine? Unless your stock portfolio directly profits from their activities, the answer is likely: none. But it is those people who make millions – sometimes as much in an hour as healthcare workers or delivery personnel make in an entire year.
Simply put, a market system driven by private interests never has protected and never will protect public health, essential kinds of freedom and communal wellbeing.
Many have pointed out the immorality of our system of greed and self-centred gain, its inefficiency, its cruelty, its shortsightedness and its danger to planet and people. But, above all, the logic of self-interest is superficial in that it fails to recognise the obvious: every private accomplishment is possible only on the basis of a thriving commons – a stable society and a healthy environment. How did I become a professor at an elite university? Some wit and hard work, one hopes. But mostly I credit my choice of good parents; being born at the right time and the right place; excellent public schools; fresh air, good food, fabulous friends; lots of people who continuously and reliably provide all the things that I can’t: healthcare, sanitation, electricity, free access to quality information. And, of course, as the scholar Robert H Frank at Cornell University so clearly demonstrated in his 2016 book on the myth of the meritocracy: pure and simple luck.
Commenting on how we track performance in modern economies – counting output not outcome, quantity not quality, prices not possibilities – the US senator Robert F Kennedy said in 1968 that we measure ‘everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’. His larger point: freedom, happiness, resilience – all are premised on a healthy public. They rely on our collective ability to benefit from things such as clean air, free speech, good public education. In short: we all rely on a healthy commons. And yet, the world’s most powerful metric, gross domestic product (GDP), counts none of it.
The term ‘commons’ came into widespread use, and is still studied by most college students today, thanks to an essay by a previously little-known American academic, Garrett Hardin, called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). His basic claim: common property such as public land or waterways will be spoiled if left to the use of individuals motivated by self-interest. One problem with his theory, as he later admitted himself: it was mostly wrong.
Our real problem, instead, might be called ‘the tragedy of the private’. From dust bowls in the 1930s to the escalating climate crisis today, from online misinformation to a failing public health infrastructure, it is the insatiable private that often despoils the common goods necessary for our collective survival and prosperity. Who, in this system based on the private, holds accountable the fossil fuel industry for pushing us to the brink of extinction? What happens to the land and mountaintops and oceans forever ravaged by violent extraction for private gain? What will we do when private wealth has finally destroyed our democracy?
The privately controlled corporate market has, in the precise words of the late economics writer Jonathan Rowe, ‘a fatal character flaw – namely, an incapacity to stop growing. No matter how much it grew yesterday it must continue to do so tomorrow, and then some; or else the machinery will collapse.’
To top off the items we rarely discuss: without massive public assistance, late-stage extractive capitalism, turbocharged by private interest and greed, would long be dead. The narrow kind of macroeconomic thinking currently dominating the halls of government and academia invokes a simpleminded teenager who variously berates and denounces his parents, only to come home, time and again, when he is out of ideas, money or support. Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Exxon – all would be bust without public bailouts and tax breaks and subsidies. Every time the private system works itself into a crisis, public funds bail it out – in the current crisis, to the tune of trillions of dollars. As others have noted, for more than a century, it’s a clever machine that privatises gains and socialises costs.
When private companies are back up and running, they don’t hold themselves accountable to the public who rescued them. As witnessed by activities since the 2008 bailouts at Wells Fargo, American Airlines and AIG, companies that have been rescued often go right back to milking the public.
By focusing on private market exchanges at the expense of the social good, policymakers and economists have taken an idea that is good under clearly defined and very limited circumstances and expanded it into a poisonous and blind ideology. Now is the time to assert the obvious: without a strong public, there can be no private. My health depends on public health. My freedom depends on social freedom. The economy is embedded in a healthy society with functional public services, not the other way around.
This moment of pain and collapse can serve as a wakeup call; a realisation that the public is our greatest good, not the private. Look outside the window to see: without a vibrant and stable public, life can quickly get poor, nasty, brutish and short.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Wildlife Wednesday and Earth Day all rolled into one. Happy Earth Day, everyone! Believe it or not, this marks the 50th year of celebrating Earth Day on April 22. I have to admit to not having been aware of Earth Day for all of that time, but, boy, was its founder prescient 50 years ago! Climate change and its impacts were barely a whisper on anyone’s lips 50 years ago. Since then the whisper of a few has become the roar of many, but that roar has been unable to overpower the thunder of profit margins, greed, denial, and short-term thinking. Until now.
And the change hasn’t come about because of the best intentions of Earth Day, Greta Thunberg, Al Gore, Elizabeth May, or any other climate change leader, it’s come about because of a novel coronavirus. If there is one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic that has…
This week’s Map Monday is an effort to show what languages are spoken around the world. I have learned a lot about the importance of language as central to culture and identity by virtue of where I live, which I will explain below. If your mother tongue is English, as mine is, and you live in a majority English-speaking region, as I do in North America, then you probably don’t think about it too much. You think of language as a way of communicating: communicating your needs, your wants, your questions. And that’s true, partly. If you go to a country or region where another language is spoken, being able to ask for directions in that language makes it easier and also makes the experience more enjoyable. Being able to carry out a conversation with a local in that local language makes the experience even more enjoyable. But language is…
You’re talking to yourself everyday even when you are reading to what I think, you’re having a conversation in your mind. Your perception is everything. Your universe started in your mother’s body, now it continues in your brain.
Remember this, you are not your thoughts, You are awareness of your thoughts. How you react to what you think determines your future. You can’t live a positive life having negative reaction to your thoughts.
What others think of you is their problem or blessing not yours. You need not be concerned about how people perceive you. It says more about them then you.
You are your best friend or your worst enemy. If you’re telling yourself you’re bad, you are ugly or you can’t do the specific work. Your mind will reinforce this within your body at a cellular level.
When you tell yourself you can’t you destroy your confidence. Just…
Shyla Raghav uses her ecology background to advocate for the environment.
By Mary Ellen Hannibal
When Shyla Raghav talks, it’s easy to listen. In fact, she’s mesmerizing, and news outlets like CNN frequently call upon her to explain and comment on threats to our environment. As Vice President for Climate Change for the nonprofit Conservation International (CI), Raghav works tirelessly to push the needle on our urgent need to act. Raghav has been a key negotiator in United Nations climate talks and helped to forge the Paris agreement signed by 195 countries. She leads CI climate change work in 30 countries around the globe, emphasizing a “new environmentalism,” based on maximizing nature’s fundamental role in creating and sustaining a healthy Earth.
You’ve helped shape the conversation about climate. Where are we now?
In the beginning the prevalent narrative was “is the science to be believed?” Other countries moved beyond the questioning of scientific fact earlier than we did. There’s been an active effort in this country perpetrated by a number of think tanks funded by fossil fuels and with vested interests that stand to be disadvantaged by decarbonization. They diverted attention from scientific fact and delayed necessary conversation on action.
What are the biggest challenges you face in communicating about climate change?
The hardest thing is to motivate action while recognizing there is uncertainty. It’s also hard to keep optimistic and hopeful with the dire and concerning science. If individuals can do one thing, it’s to talk about climate change more. This will help ensure it is a voting issue and that our leaders take it seriously. It will also help unleash creativity and ingenuity around solutions.
Climate change is also difficult to confront in terms of human cognitive behavior. We’re conditioned to act for our short-term benefit. Motivated by income and livelihood, it can seem counterintuitive to focus on the long term. Addressing climate change means making upfront investments for a benefit to be accrued in the future. It quite often means preventing a harm rather than creating value or growth. You can see the results of this mindset—today we are paying for damages from disasters rather than seeing that preventing them would mitigate those damages altogether.
But this is changing. Climate change impacts have become immediate, which is compelling us to become immediate also. We’re evolving to ask how science can help us use limited resources and to decarbonize. I see people more concerned with how we are going to create solutions.
Can you describe your work?
Conservation International works to preserve and protect nature for the well-being of humanity. For too long people saw the environment and our own future as two separate things. CI is built around a deep understanding that people need nature to survive and to thrive. We use sound science to work with local communities and governments to create incentives and policies to support nature.
For example, CI established the first debt-for-nature swap in the world. In exchange for forgiving their national debt, the country of Bolivia protected nearly 4 million acres of habitat. We’ve utilized innovative financial mechanisms and payments for ecosystem services. To stop encroachment into forests, local communities receive payments or benefits like schools, or training for farmers. We try to create long-term change while protecting the rights of people.
Beyond simply advocating for the intrinsic value of nature, we help articulate its economic value—quantifying the benefits of water filtration, storm prevention, and pollination. If policy makers could better understand nature’s monetary value they would likely protect it rather than capitulating to new mines or dams.
What is your day-to-day like?
I spend a lot of time in meetings, internally, and with external partners, whiteboarding and looking at challenges. Cross-pollinating ideas is so important. A key part of my job is to facilitate free thinking in open spaces with people who think differently. I travel and communicate with diverse audiences—I constantly like to push myself to see how climate change is affecting people on a local level and to look at more effective ways of deploying solutions.
The hardest thing is to motivate action while recognizing there is uncertainty.
Do you have advice about how to approach climate change with varied audiences? Do you have to simplify the science?
I don’t simplify per se, but I do recommend tailoring the message to address the main motivation or interests of your audience. Focusing on local impacts is also an important way to communicate climate change as a global problem, but one that also affects people in a very personal way.
One of the major drivers of climate change is deforestation of the Amazon. CI recently embarked on a massive project to restore trees, engaging indigenous people to help and to benefit. Can you tell us about it?
I’m really excited about the project, which is the largest tropical reforestation project ever undertaken in Brazil. We are utilizing a new planting technique called muvuca. Well, it’s new to people today, but muvuca mimics the way nature actually works and is based on a traditional seed dispersal technique. Seeds from more than 200 native species are spread over deforested land, and the seedlings compete for space. The hardiest thrive. It is much more effective than planting a single species sapling by sapling. Local communities are involved on every level. The project has kicked off and we’re fundraising for it so we can reach the full goal of planting 30 million trees. It gives me great hope.
Where did your passion for the environment originate?
When I was quite young I saw Ferngully, an animated film about the impacts of deforestation. The girl at the heart of Ferngully is totally upended by the destruction of her forest home. I couldn’t believe it—I couldn’t imagine a world that condoned and even expected rampant destruction of the environment from which we get so much life-giving support. I developed a passion to help protect nature.
How would you define your career path?
I’ve known from the beginning that I would pursue a career deeply connected with our environment. When I started college, I pursued science to understand how ecology functions. Ultimately, I wanted to help design policy and communications tactics to help build broader community support for the environment, but first I knew I had to know how nature works. Applied ecology was a science degree—I took all the core science classes but then had an intentional focus on applying that to global challenges. I got a master’s degree (from Yale) in environmental management, an interdisciplinary focus involving science and law, international relations, design, and architecture—looking at the world as a global system. I learned how to apply scientific knowledge to the classical decision-making that policy makers, corporate leaders, and investors grapple with daily.
For too long people saw the environment and our own future as two separate things.
Sometimes it seems there’s a divide between people dealing with problems in their own backyard and academic science talking from an ivory tower. Have you dealt with that?
I was pretty thoughtful about the evolution of my career. I ensured I had on-the-ground field experience early on. Right after grad school I managed climate change adaptation projects in the Caribbean. That gave me more confidence and credibility in the environmental community. Without it I would have been providing theoretical rather than practical knowledge that comes from having lived and worked in a developing country. It gave me the self-confidence to be in spaces dominated by older white men. I perfected a voice that had merit and deserved to be part of their conversations. It was really important in my own personal development.
I don’t work in a lab in a traditional scientific career, but I share my understanding of science in negotiations like those at the U.N. and in management projects on the ground. I help communicate, with respect and integrity, what the science is telling us about what is happening to our planet. And I give people information about what they can do.
Eighty percent of climate change refugees are women, and women are 14 times more likely to die in a climate-induced disaster. How does being a woman impact your work?
In the past five years we’ve seen many more women and minorities getting into environmental work. Younger women are instrumental in getting the next generation onboard as advocates for the environment. I’ve actually found a lot of support and encouragement in this direction.
Have you faced particular hurdles as a woman of color?
I was born in India, and lived in Australia before moving to Irvine, California when I was 6. While my accent was made fun of in India and Australia both, I felt there was no expectation of what it was to be a Californian. There was no mold for me to fit into. About half of Irvine was of Asian or Latin descent—being surrounded by diversity really helped me to feel like I belonged. It allowed me to see cultural diversity as an asset. I could shape my own identity and future, drawing on Indian culture and also on the independence accorded me in the United States. The combination helped me become a more effective practitioner of climate change and climate justice issues. Having an Indian background gave me a deeper understanding of the connection between human well-being (poverty) and the environment. It has been incredibly meaningful for me to be able to consider how development issues intersect with ecology and the environment.
One of the big impediments to saving nature is that we don’t have full enough knowledge of where species are on a landscape, and when. Is CI helping with this?
CI is documenting our natural biodiversity using motion-activated camera traps in natural areas. This project utilizes local knowledge hand-in-hand with technology. We rely on local knowledge for many dimensions of the camera traps, from placing them to identifying species. We co-create solutions with local people at scale, utilizing indigenous knowledge, for example, of drought-tolerant seeds and planting seasons. We have so much to learn as we try to make our food systems more resilient. We have a project in Peru with a community of indigenous women—we are helping to digitize their knowledge of different seeds and other elements of the forest. The work is also helping to bridge a divide between younger women, mothers, and grandmothers of the community.
In the face of global political challenges, we can still work with local people and reverse negative trends through inspiration, hope, and practical solutions.
MARY ELLEN HANNIBAL is the author of Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, the winner of Stanford’s Knight-Risser Prize in Western Environmental Literature, and a Stanford media fellow.
Lead image: Fona / Shutterstock
This article was produced with the support of the Lyda Hill Philanthropies IF/THEN initiative and the American Geosciences Institute.