It has occurred to me, through working at the The Nature Conservancy (TNC), that an environmental conservation organization is like an iceberg. The public sees only the tip.
Organizations like these send out compelling call-to-action messages to their donors and supporters: Save the Orangutans! The Polar Bears! The Whales!
The messages often succeed in moving the audience to “do something” for the environment, particularly these large and charismatic creatures we will likely never see in the wild, but want to keep around anyway, because…it’s ethical? I have my reasons.
Yet, what the public doesn’t see is that organizations, like the TNC, are gathering data, studying closely and attempting to understand how ecosystems function and how they provide all the necessary components for life. This is a big and imperfect task, and we are continually learning and reassessing.
This week, I sat in a meeting where we discussed the biodiversity of microbes. I’ve been following environmental conservation fairly close for the past decade, and this was the first time I’ve heard about this. This is the kind of topic an organization at the forefront of conservation considers and prioritizes because microbe biodiversity in soil is important for resilient trees and crops, which are vital for food production and other industries. Microbes and fungi may also be a way to degrade trash, converting it into clean biomass energy.
I learned that bats, like bees, are important in the cross-pollination of durian and other trees, which assure the strongest species meet and pass on their genes. Yet, bat numbers are being reduced as Indonesia expands and replaces their habitats with housing developments. Orangutans are important because they eat only the best fruits, which disperse the best seeds, which assure the continuation of strong and healthy trees, many that produce food for human consumption. But even more important for human beings, bats and orangutans are an indicator of a healthy forest habitat, which is important when this forest is a part of a vital watershed that serves millions of people and depends on the presence of trees, and other vegetation, for water to be stored, filtered and kept flowing. Also, healthy forests produce oxygen.
This is the message one doesn’t see: Save our Food Sources! Save the Watershed! Save the Oxygen! But is the message more compelling? It’s certainly broader, and directly affects more of us than the presence or absence of bats or orangutans. Again, the species are a delicate part—and thus, an important indicator of –a healthy, or unhealthy, ecosystem. (So what does that indicate about our environment when the current extinction rate is unprecedentedly high?)
Over the past year and a half that I’ve been studying the environmental conservation sector at a graduate level, it’s been somewhat surprising how many different approaches can be taken for the same goal of assuring the continuation of life of this planet. That’s the goal, right? It’s more and more unclear to me, while I sit in an office and sift through various organizations with an environmental focus.
Here’s a breakdown: Greenpeace is an activist organization that focuses on global environmental issues through nonviolent confrontational methods that raise awareness and gathers public attention. They do not work on the ground with individuals or their communities, but master creative communication tactics to reach a broad audience. TNC, WWF, and Conservation International (CI) work at multiple levels—global, regional, and country-/community-specific sites—and do engage communities, businesses and governments, while addressing several issues simultaneously that contribute to environmental degradation. Most often this revolves around the unsustainable natural resource management by governments, businesses and individuals, but can also include the management of wildlife and protected areas. TNC, WWF and CI are pro-human development, and thus, the majority of their programs focus on finding balance between healthy people—economically so, as well—and nature. Still, other organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) focuses first and foremost on animal species. This is more targeted, and funding goes directly into the study and conservation of certain species in a specific area. They also attempt to deal with the massive issue of illegal wildlife trafficking, which is something TNC Indonesia does not intervene with directly. For this reason, this coalition of environmental organizations, their respective views, and approaches are somewhat complementary—covering corners of environmental problems that no single organization could do on their own.
Still, it’s messy, and convoluted, and even more so when you add in the slew of specialized organizations representing niche interests of certain people or animals: the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), The Coral Triangle Center, KIARA (The People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice (or in the words of my CD “It’s like Greenpeace, but just for fish”), The Javan Gibbon Center, The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), The Association of Palm Tree Farmers…I could go on forever, but there’s more. Now that there is worldwide recognition of our major environmental problems, particularly climate change and the overuse and overexploitation of natural resources, “sustainability” is on everyone’s agenda, including the legion of United Nations divisions and other organizations that have traditionally focused on human development. Generally, I support this because the environment is the backbone of everything. After all, what is the value of a world without schistosomiasis or, bigger still, poverty, but no food, water or oxygen? Yet, while everyone is busy representing their environmental priorities and interests, no one has a unified agenda. Again, I ask, what is the goal?
The term ‘sustainability’ has been abused in the environmental and development fields, and it has lost its meaning. I’d like to remain a purist of the term and hold that sustainability means: the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance. Sustainability does not mean “perpetual” as it has come to mean in some corporate settings, nor does it mean “self-sufficient” as is the dream of most development programs. Conservation, or more aptly, the “sustainable use of natural resources,” is also not equal to “preservation” and it makes me wonder: Can there be hundreds of sustainable palm oil businesses in a Kalimantan rainforest providing raw material for billions of RSPO-certified products in the United States? After all, this does cause harm to the environment when mass production and consumption depends on carbon-releasing fossil fuels and creates tons of waste and trash.
I think TNC is admirable in its attempt to balance the need for sustainable use, while supporting the creation and management of protected areas—particularly, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)—where preservation can take place. Still, I don’t think that ‘sustainability’ as I’ve defined it, will be possible without creating hard limits on consumption and “growth.” I had to get inside an environmental organization to see that clearly.
In nature’s view it’s simple: if we don’t reach sustainability, then we simply won’t live—“we” including the bats, orangutans, trees and humans. Together. Because you can’t just “save” one preferred specie without also protecting many others. All are interdependent; but the longer we debate and delay actions, the less time there will be later. Everything has to be “green,” beginning with individuals, but mainly spreading through the whole economic system and political mentality. Every sector has to get on board –and it seems like they are—but the ‘sustainability’ concept is corroding, lost in translation, manipulated and buried in biased perspectives and powerful interests; those that are continually missing the forest for the trees.
Though this lack of unity, collaboration and cooperation are massive obstacles—and the whole big environmental picture looks grim—some consolation: at least microbe biodiversity will likely perdure.