In my previous blog post, David Grinspoon helped me make sense of how the change of climate and plant and animal loss compares in context to the other changes in our history. By using the ‘Earth as a Spaceship’ analogy, he helps explain how we can shift from the dangerous ‘inadvertent change’ to the ‘intentional change’ that our society is uniquely positioned to explore. In this article, I hope to share an exciting paradigm shift in the conservation movement that is sharing something as equally important: hope. Again, please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!
The leaf litter around my feet seemed alive. I was walking through the forest that I study as part of my doctoral research the other day and I came across a treasure trove of salamanders near a creek. Listening to the inner eight-year-old voice in my head, I dropped to my belly and scratched through the leaves and soil to find as many of them as I could. I sat there for a time measured in the overhead woodpecker hammering. It occurred to me that so much of the forest is valued in dollars from timber, in what is called ‘ecosystem services’ (the clean air and water), and the recreation that these places offer. But what about the salamanders?
Then a thought popped into my head: if we found a use for salamanders, would we exploit the resource and empty the forest of them or would we create salamander farms as we did with cows and dairies? Are these little amphibians really useless?
Excuse the creative license but looking at all those ‘useless’ salamanders, I wrote the following in my field notebook:
the forest is thick with salamanders
the leaves are barely returning
but autumn’s remnants
you can catch them in handfuls
where they drip from your fingers
you can fill pockets
and upturn shirt bottoms
to fill with salamanders
you can bring buckets
and you can sweep them into piles
you can stack them high
and wheelbarrow them out
you can be salamander rich
and fill your bathtubs
stock your drawers
but for the crunch of leaves and life of trees
keep your salamander stock full
gather them from their home
the forest is thick with salamanders
When it comes to amphibians, it might be a silly thought to think. But that’s what we’ve done and as long as we can figure out a way to use it, we can place a value on it, pay for it and then exploit the resource. There is a tipping point though where things like water, air, soil, an un-overburdened carbon cycle and the animals and plants disappear and can’t be ‘paid for’ anymore. Until that tipping point these things are often taken for granted and we don’t think about paying for them until they’re gone. But how do you pay for something that isn’t there anymore? You have to re-create the system, and that is far more expensive, if possible. These are the paradoxes of extraction and exploitation that create dustbowls, climate change and COVID-19 pandemics.
“We cut trees to keep trees.” This is an aphorism I recently heard and really enjoyed because of its paradox. There are several ways to look at it but the most relevant here is the “instrumental value versus intrinsic value” dichotomy. Based on some of the educational reform thought processes of John Dewey, understanding whether something has “value in itself” or “because it is useful to something else” is not an easy one to unpack. We also see this dichotomy underlying almost all of the writings of the conservation greats: Rachel Carson, Michael Soule, Sylvia Earle, Arne Naess, and, my personal favorite, E.O. Wilson. And this isn’t a problem unique to conservation but one that thinkers of social justice, the arts and many other fields are trying to reconcile.
I believe these thinkers’ writings are starting to sink in and a paradigm shift is occurring. For example, China currently has the largest reforestation project that has ever been imagined (the Grains to Green Project) and they recently allocated $57 billion (in U.S. dollars) to environmental protection. Similarly, the European Union has pledged to raise €20 billion a year to boost biodiversity.
The Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism project is also a great example of this paradigm shift. Their mission: “Earth Optimism celebrates a change in focus from the problem to solution, from a sense of loss to one of hope, in the dialogue about conservation and sustainability.” They recently completed their multiday Digital Summit with speakers from all over the world. Through this event and their mission-at-large, they are addressing practical and implementable solutions, like Feeding and Powering the Planet, Resetting Our Financial World, From Coral Reefs to Floating Cities, Connecting with Animals, Big Thinking on Land and Sea, and more. This is a trend I hope continues; because as we explored in the previous blog, humans on Earth need some collective hope.
It is through efforts like Earth Optimism that I think we can figure out how to address many of our current problems. It takes a conscious shift to not react to what is wrong but rather to envision what could be. Innovative and optimistic ideas are simply expressions of humanity that desires ways to value the world around us intrinsically but acknowledges that through reasons of capitalism, market-based concerns, or a scarcity mindset, we have chosen to see the natural world instrumentally.
Optimism can be a naïve reaction to change. Or, it can be a genuine acknowledgment of all the aspects of change and a conscious choosing of what to focus on, despite and because of the ability to get lost in the despair of the terrors of the change. It is knowing that optimism is possible, that there are very real and very special Intentional Changes that humans can make. It is a reality that says yes, the world is seeing unprecedented and scary changes to the environment, but it is an equally real experience to know that the past few decades are also the first in history that have seen new forests planted, species delisted, habitats cleaned and fixed, renewable energies created (completely new energy sources created!), and new ‘value’ technologies and philosophies being created. Honestly, it makes me proud of my generation that we’re at the forefront of this re-imagining and innovation.
It is through new thinking that we will find ways to value the salamanders as critical partners on this ride through space. If we are to look at what’s best for the functioning of the spaceship and utilizing the best of our Intentional Change mindset, an Earth Optimism is a damn fine place to start. The spaceship needs to run for all of us to fly safely through the solar system, and optimistically or not, we’re going to have to figure out how to protect ecosystems and biodiversity together.
As a preview for the next time: luckily, there’s a revolutionary Oxford economist showing us ‘how’ we can do this and in the next blog I’ll share some of her remarkable thoughts on getting all of us -salamanders and all- within the ‘safe operating zone’ of our spaceship.